One of the first things anyone attending a creative writing course is told is ‘One must be prepared to kill one’s darlings’. A fancy term for edit, polish, edit, polish, scrap, edit, polish, edit.
There comes a time, however, when one has permission to not only love one’s darlings, but to be proud of them.
In my third BA year, the Writing Year, I wrote a song cycle of poems. Based on 11 real women and one from Greek mythology, it’s still a song cycle in search of a composer.
Some of the poems have been submitted individually for publication, and in competitions. Two made the longlist for the Wordsonthewaves (WOW) competition. One made it to the shortlist.
Upstream, The Bliss of Heaven was one of those poems that arrived almost fully formed. It hung around the edges of my work while I fretted over the difficult pieces as time ticked away and my twelve-week deadline approached. Then I picked it up, gave it a polish, and double-checked that my beginner’s Latin was correct (thank you, Francesca!).
That was that: a little poem about Margaret Roper and her father Thomas More; slotted chronologically into a folder, along with its 11 sisters and biographical notes.
Last night, my ‘darling’ won this year’s WOW Poetry Award. It is published in the WOW! 2014 Anthology.
It’s been a month of storms since I last posted on readwritehere. Mea culpa for my absence.
I live in limestone country – a great conductor of lightning. Twice I’ve been at work on the PC and the power has shut off. Fortunately, I didn’t lose anything important. Other nights, I’ve been awakened by the wind battering hail against the bedroom window. Then I’ve heard a slight bip! as the phone cut out. I’ve still been awake when a rude beeeeeep! signalled that the phone was ‘back’.
The land is saturated. Two routes are cut off from Ballyvaughan into Ennis and Gort. As I drove home last night via Corofin, after visiting my parents in Ennis, it looked like the water was about to come out on that road too. If that happens over the next few days the only way to Ennis will be via Ennistymon, or to go north to the N18 and then travel south again.
But I don’t have land, waiting to dry out before it can be planted or ready for the heavy tread of cattle. I don’t have feed sitting beside cattle sheds in danger of flood damage. I don’t have to get children to school through fields because the roads are closed or just plain destroyed.
Yes the sea came in, curious, to the front door last week. And left seaweed in the front garden for the second time in a month. Still, Bessa the Cat and I have dry paws…unlike some of my neighbours up the road, who were invaded by seawater as it breached the pier and sea wall.
The Flaggy Shore in New Quay had a road. It is now a road of sea boulders, each one beautifully rounded, in varying shades of grey. It looks like a Famine Road that refused to die or seep back into history; disavowing all offer of comforting moss and softening grass. It’s just one of many roads up and down the West coast that has been sea-altered. Blown about.
When Seamus Heaney died, one of the poems that was quoted, and indeed played on radio – often readings by Heaney himself – was Postscript. It refers to the Flaggy Shore. These are the final lines:
‘You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open ‘
Sometimes, it is not the wind that catches us. Rather, it is listening to that forceful thing as it comes tearing over the mountain, with its own mountain-scraping voice…howling down the curves and through the ash trees – pronged into the sky – and BANG! up against a window. It’s our imaginings and fears that catch us. Strange things pass indeed, and we blow ourselves open.
Or a phone call comes, unexpected: catching us off guard, and our hearts with it. And we are blown open.
There’s many a make of storm. As our hearts well know.
At the back of a storm is a kind of light. Trying to be itself.
And that will do.
I spent a while thinking about this post; what tack I might take for Christmas 2013. Perhaps the low pressure and tight isobars affected me: my thoughts blew all over the place, before shaping into a little funnel centred around home.
I was talking to my mother about a week ago – saying how this year I seemed to be noticing and indulging in the winter darkness; pinpointing the hour when morning light would creep around the edges of the bedroom blind; welcoming the diminishing light as early as 3.30pm. The stove is a constant friend. My wise mother reminded me that last year I was in a frenzy of exams and preparing for Christmas. This year I had time to experience the changing season.
We were spoiled with our summer, and one consequence was the leaves’ refusal to leave – Irish trees were cheery creatures well into December, all russets, reds, golds. But we have paid for our good weather lately. Atlantic storms have been rolling up at our doors here on the west coast, then flinging themselves across the country – presumably so no one feels left out.
So – the title of this post is derived from reading my Danaher (again) and also from that connection with the light, or lack of it. ‘Bringing in the Christmas’ is ostensibly about how we prepare for the mid-winter feast day, but it also holds echoes of the pagan festival. How we prepare is as important as how we celebrate – and adds to that celebration. There were the old customs of cleaning and making new the home, of gathering in the treats and meats for Christmas, of lighting the candles in the window for the passing Holy Family on Christmas Eve night. In rural Ireland in the middle of the last century- when cars were not universally owned – a trip into the nearest town was a major part of Christmas. It was a social event but also a time to sell produce and to buy. Christmas is still a wonderful time to be in the market towns of County Clare.
There are many ways of bringing home our Christmas – be it from the market, or from the supermarkets on the edges of our towns and cities. This year it’s the home part of that phrase that’s getting to me. We agreed in my family this year that presents, if any, will be small. And so, I’ve been making lemon curd, gingerbread, and the usual cranberry sauce to hand out to family and friends. I will contribute to the Christmas feast with my special creamed leeks and the smoked ham that is sitting in its glaze in the oven. Although my family will be sharing meals in different parts of the country, and the world, they will be the focus of my thoughts.
Last week an old gentleman from the village died. I don’t pray – but that morning I looked up at the stormy sky and asked (something) to maybe, just maybe, stop the rain while everyone was in the graveyard. The wind screamed around the church while the priest conducted the funeral service; at once respectful yet filled with a sense of the local. The personal items offered up during the Offertory reflected Bernie’s long and rich life. A neighbour spoke with warmth and emotion about the way in which he had been welcomed into the area by Bernie and his wife Doreen. And he sang, as he had been requested to, one of Bernie’s favourite songs. People who had cared for Bernie were named and thanked individually, as were the local men who dug the grave. The rain stopped as the funeral reached the graveyard.
What has this to do with Christmas, or bringing it home?
I’m not religious. I don’t do Mass. I used to go to midnight Mass because I love singing and I missed the carols and hymns. Years ago - in Ballyvaughan church actually – I found myself saying: ‘I can’t do this anymore; I just can’t believe any of it.’ And so I abandoned the carols.
At Bernie’s funeral, I realised that had been a mistake. Not that I had a road to Damascus moment ( and I have been on the real road to Damascus). Rather, I realised that it didn’t matter what I believed about religion – it mattered that I believed in the people who were there, the community that makes up the place I now call home.
My postman will drop in a package to my aunt if I’m not at home. Jackie will drop in scones, just because that’s what she does. Doreen was one of the first people to speak to me in Ballyvaughan. Siobhán in the post office took a call from someone who couldn’t reach me and needed to let me know I’d won a poetry competition. People stop to talk, to encourage, to question. Yesterday, Steve from Kinvara came to unblock a back gutter that fancied itself a waterfall; probably the last job he wanted to do coming up to Christmas. (Especially in storm force winds.) He wouldn’t take a penny for his trouble.
The Christmas market went ahead last weekend despite the storms. On Sunday, I arranged to meet a friend Claire and we stood in the village hall, drinking coffee and eating Shirley’s mince pies; watching and taking part in all the meet&greets, while the choir sang carols. Doreen had turned up on Saturday. Of course she had. Doreen is always at the Christmas Market.
Against the backdrop of floods, high tides and storms has been the toing and froing of shopping, baking, meetings with friends and family. Best of all have been those ‘look who I bumped into’ moments that we especially treasure at Christmas.
Before I headed into Ennis at the weekend, I rang my mother to see if my parents wanted me to do any shopping in the supermarket on my way in. As usual, the talk was of the weather. but Saturday being the 21st my mum wondered if they’d had any luck up at Newgrange. I was able to tell her that the sun had made a short appearance – that the light had appeared and picked its supernatural way down the passageway, into the prehistoric chamber. My mother is one of the ‘happy few’ who have been in Newgrange at the winter solstice. It has never let go its hold on her. Her delight in a short Saturday sunbeam is part of bringing it home at Christmas for me.
In The Year in Ireland, Danaher says that he can remember as a young man in Co Limerick, the descendants of the Palatines firing from shotguns at noon on Christmas Eve. I am descended from those Palatines also, and while I don’t have a shotgun to let off today, I allowed myself be a silent member of the Grussenschuss! I went to the village stores at 2pm to hear the usual Christmas Eve carols. Jim dresses as Santa. The staff make mulled wine and hand around cocktail sausages and other treats. Children and adults collect for local charities. This time, I took a music sheet and joined in the singing.
Welcome home, Christmas.
I rang a friend today to enquire about his dog. The dog has a bad cough, and she’s an old dog. Having been reassured that the dog would last a while longer, I signed off my call with words to the effect of: ‘it’s important that she’s in good voice for Christmas Eve.’
There was a silence on the other end of the line.
‘For Christmas Eve’, I repeated. ‘You know, when all the animals can speak. Did you never hear that before?’
There was a good chance he thought I was mad. On the other hand, the fact that he’s from Texas might mean he hadn’t heard of this old story. I thought it a world-wide tradition. I explained myself, and the questionable state of my sanity was cleared up – at least until the next time I bombard him with weird Irish-isms.
But, it started me thinking. (A dangerous thing, indeed). Where did this belief come from? Well thanks, Google, for nothing. The story appears in various versions around Europe, and in the Americas too.
Time to consult Mr Danaher. Regular visitors to the blog will be familiar with nuggets gleaned from his book, The Year in Ireland:
” At midnight on Christmas Eve, according to a belief held in most parts of Ireland, the cows and donkeys kneel in adoration of the Christ Child, and at that moment, too, they have the gift of human speech. Nobody, however, should spy upon their devotions, much less speak to them at that sacred moment.”
Danaher goes on to say that stables might be decorated with seasonal foliage, and that children sometimes tied sprigs of holly to cows’ horns.
As children, my brothers, sister and I loved the idea of our animals speaking. Once, our menagerie comprised of three cats, a rabbit, and a dog. On Christmas Eve I lay awake; imagining what they might say to each other.
Even now, I stand in front of animals on Christmas Eve and instruct them to say nice things to each other. Yes. Probably a true sign of madness, but – as my mother says about Hello magazine - harmless. Then again, although I’m no Dr Dolittle, animals listen to me in a very serious manner. It makes me think it’s all ‘going in’!
Come Christmas Eve, I won’t eavesdrop on CAT – or any of the felines and canines of my aquaintance. And neither should you, because
A. You might hear something unpleasant about yourself.
B. You might get your illusions spoiled.
And who in their right mind wants spoiled illusions for Christmas?
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.