“We should acknowledge crap when we meet it, and this poem is as crappy a cultural statement as you will get.”
Ireland, culture, Europe and the world: Alan Titley responds to Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘In Memory of Brother Michael’
GLOBAL AND EUROPEAN STAGE
As this is the Micheál Ó Cléirigh summer school, I thought I should begin with a reference to him. My reference is one with which many of you are already familiar. It is Patrick Kavanagh’s really bad poem, ‘In Memory of Brother Michael.’ I should say that I am a fervent admirer of PK’s poetry, but we should acknowledge crap when we meet it, and this poem is as crappy a cultural statement as you will get. In case you don’t know it, it goes like this:
‘In Memory of Brother Michael’
‘It would never be morning always evening,
Golden sunset, golden age
When Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson were writing
The future of England, page by page
A nettle-wild grave was Ireland’s stage.
It would never be Spring, always Autumn
After a harvest, always lost
When Drake was winning seas for England
We sailed in puddles of the past
Chasing the ghost of Brendan’s mast…
(and the conclusion…)
‘Culture is always something that was,
Something pedants can measure
Skull of bard, thigh of chief
Depth of dried-up river.
Shall we be thus forever?
Shall we be thus forever?’
There are enough cultural howlers here in just a few lines to keep the most blasé reader excited for a long time; to intimate that Irish culture of the early seventeenth century was ‘a nettle wild grave’ betrays an ignorance worthy of the tabloid press; and to in any way glorify the dastardly deeds of that voracious pirate Francis Drake as being worthy of celebration raises serious doubts about not only his knowledge of history, but which side he was on in the great debates between the have somethings and the have nothings; or more appositely, between those who have something, and those who are about to take it off them. On the other hand I thought the easiest way to answer it was by another more contradictory poem, in this case, meaning more accurate: I have called it:
‘Also Brother Michael’
It was always the world, not the parish
The sun rising on the ever new –
When Grendel hacked the halls of heathens
Ireland wrote in brightsome letters gold
The Book of Kells, wrought the Ardagh Chalice,
Embraced Europe’s knowledge in leaves untold.
It was summer too, and sometimes winter
When the blackbird whistled across Loch Lao
But when Drake was butchering meat for England
We dreamed of capturing the best
Of what was done, but not yet said.
The seeds we sowed were seeds of wonder
Life upspringing from the clay
The yellow bittern mocking his ice-lock
Ó Doirnín joking his life away
It was then, and will be the poets’ way.
Culture is always something that blazes
From within the soul beyond theory’s grasp,
Through the skull of genius, with sighs inspiring
Plumbing depths beyond all masks.
It will be thus forever,
It will always be thus forever!
I give you this, because it is a poem about Ireland, culture, Europe and the world, which I have been asked to talk about.
The point is that I have been given two of the most slippery and slidy words in English, or maybe in any language. One of these is ‘culture’, and the other is ‘Europe.’
There was a time when you were not allowed to proceed in any discussion without defining your terms. Some ‘pedant’ would jump in with the question – ‘It all depends what you mean by….’ And add in ‘education’, or ‘human nature’, or ‘democracy’, or ‘history’, or what is being discussed. The point about this is that you get involved in an infinite regress, because if you say that the definition of education is ‘the harmonious intermingling of all the traits and faculties of the human person’ (which is one that was given to me when I was being ‘trained’ as a teacher, and the only reason why I remember it), then some smart aleck, or even smart ass will immediately ask, ‘Well what do you mean by ‘person’, or ‘harmonious’; or if you were really pernickety, ‘what do you mean by “the”’. Thereby leads madness. Which is why I prefer the person who said, ‘I can’t define an elephant, but I know one when I see one.’
It is easier, of course, to start with Europe, as it seems more clearly defined. At least geographically. But Europe geographically only became solidified in the 19th century. People in West Kerry often boast that they live in the most westerly point in Europe; but if they bothered to look at a map supposing they had one, they would see that part of Portugal sticks out more into the Atlantic than their barren rocks do; even more obviously, Iceland is, of course, the most westerly part of the continent.
Culturally it is even more complicated. George Steiner once asked where does Europe end, meaning to the east. He answered in the cafés and salons of St Petersburg; meaning that east of there lay darkness, and the empty steppes and folklore and wolves and Mongolian hordes. At different times the Poles or the Lithuanians thought they were on the dark edge of Europe, which is indeed the title of a book of poems by an Irish writer. No doubt, if the fabled Atlantis rose up out of the sea somewhere beyond Kerry – apart from pissing them off and screwing up the attraction of the Wild Atlantic Way – it would mean we weren’t on the periphery any more.
It would be great if it was so easy. Because even today we have a vague notion that Europe is attached to the glory that was Greece and Rome, with a chunk of the Renaissance thrown in, a goodly dose of Catholic Christianity tempered by the Germanic reformation added to the mix, and in latter years a bit of the enlightenment just in case it was going to be neglected. It seems as good a cliché as any other.
But what is missing is all that stuff around the edges. Like us. Like the Russians. Like the Scandinavians up to a point. Good old El Andalus in Southern Spain is not likely to get a look in, even though it was those pesky Arab philosophers who preserved a great horde of Greek manuscripts which fuelled the Renaissance, not to mention the eastern extremity of Christendom in Constantinople (now Istanbul) which did likewise.
So, yes, Europe is a bit complicated, and we are not going to unravel it here. ‘Culture’ is even worse. It has something to do with growing stuff. Someone once said that because of the influence of farming you might think that the only culture in Ireland was agriculture. But we can instance two general accounts of culture, a broad one, and a narrow one. The broad description of culture encompasses everything we do and say and are: thus, our culture is our clothes, and our tv programmes, and what we eat, and our toothpaste and shoelaces, the way we walk, how we are late, our vanities, our stupidities, Mrs Doyle’s ‘will have a cup of tea,’ ‘and go on, go on, go on,’ when we laugh and cry. A more narrow description is what we value as distinctive in language, literature, music, art, religion, beliefs, sometimes called ‘high culture’, although sometimes the high can be very low indeed.
I am not going to try to distinguish between them, because one is very much part of the other, or the opposite, or the other way around.
Nor do I wish to probe too much into history, as with the word ‘grammar’, I have discovered that when you utter it a fog of unknowing will generally descend. And much has been said already.
But it is worthwhile re-emphasising that we do have some decent European credentials.
We may not think we have much to be proud of, but we do have the longest unbroken vernacular literary tradition in Western Europe; and the longest of all apart from Greek. Before the Slavs spoke, we wrote; before Beowolf grunted we spoke in gilded tones; before the Vikings carved their runes, we composed in long hand.
I mention this, because while we have a great deal more confidence in ourselves than we ever had before – a confidence which I think has grown out of our independence and our own statehood – we often suffer from a kind of cultural cringe. It is a theme to which I will return.
So let us just slide into Europe for now, as it is in the title, and merely acknowledge that the Island of Saints and Scholars is not entirely a myth. Our golden age was hasty, cutey and short, but there was some substance to it. It is certainly true that most of the saints were not scholars, and even more certain that none of the scholars were saints. But it is also true that we kept the candle or the wick of learning flickering throughout what is now France and Germany and Italy while the barbarian hordes were burning books and inventing Instagram.
There were Irish colleges splattered, or even plastered, throughout what is now the Euro zone. They were in Bobbio and in Saint Gall and in Vienna and in Murbach and more or less wherever you are having yourself.
These Irish colleges might not have been the University of Limerick for culture but they did represent a kind of Irish resistance to the dominant, what they call now, ‘discourse’ of the time.
One of the most exceptional features of early modern Irish culture is that we did not cave into the fashionable state-sponsored Protestantism when it came around. In this we were quite different. We are the only country in north-western Europe that did not swallow the Lutheran stuff, be it true on untrue.
The truth is, that we did our own thing, and followed the well-trodden paths. The contemporary question is trying to find out how much we do our own thing, and how much any other thingies matter? One of the most difficult questions is to interrogate the present, as it moves so fast; but the past is in constant flux also.
It just might be that we don’t d0 much of our own stuff at all. It just might be that all we do is an echo of everybody else. Or it may not be.
One Professor of Irish at Maynooth, Fr. Donncha Ó Floinn, who reigned for 22 years once said that we, the Irish, had contributed neither a jot not a tittle, nor even a smidgen, to Catholic theology. He would have been seen, from today’s lofty and superior moral standing, as a stuck-in-the-mud conservative unquestioning theological hack.
The stuff we learned in those great clerical colleges in the early 17th century might have produced great Irish prose – which it did – but very little of it was original. My own indebtedness to Scáthán Shaicrimint na hAithrí, or to Desidarius or Lóchrann na gCreidmheach, those great chunks of artistic theological prose, is the discovery of sins I would never have thought of committing, although they certainly have given me ideas.
We were part of a different European tradition, a southern Catholic Mediterranean one closer to Spain and Italy and the remnants of royalist France, entirely different from the northern European Lutheran so-called enlightenment one which still rules the media roost.
We have been ever since hoisted on our own petard of being kinda Catholic and kinda Anglo-Saxon, two types of oily chalk and watery cheese that don’t easily mix.
We like to think that today is different, that the civil wars of yester year have been truly buried. But it is never so. Civil wars last for hundreds of years, and more. It is not always the proximate reason that divides people, but the reasons why that division was there in the first place. Thus, one of the permanent divisions in Irish politics is not what happened in 1922-3, but what happened in 1641 and before and beyond.
Oh yes, we are Europeans, but we are on the outer rim of what is going on. Mary Harney’s famous ‘Boston or Berlin’ contrast, presumed the answer was Boston. We sure ain’t learning German in order to prove her wrong. And this is where we might say Irish culture and society is, between the Silly of Boston and the Carrot of Berlin. But we might also scream, what about ourselves?
Many lazy historians and even lazier journalists have translated the dominant political party during the war of independence, Sinn Féin, as ‘Ourselves Alone’. Of course, it means no such thing. It simply means ‘us’, ‘we guys,’ or some such. But, of course, this is not very accurate either, as there is no such thing as ‘just us’, or ‘we guys’ or ‘our gang’. It is not so much that you have to surrender to the sentiment’s in Bob Dylan’s great song ‘You gotta serve somebody’ ‘cos you don’t, as that there is always somebody nibbling at your rear. In our case they are queuing up to tell us what to do, or who to serve. There is little doubt about it as a small country, we are going to ‘serve somebody’, or at least, cuddle up.
I often think that the Euro coin, as it is in your pockets, is not a bad symbol of where we are at. On one side we have the Euro stars and swipes, and on the other some symbolic representation of our countries.
We look in; and we look out. Is there anything else that is done in psychology?
The big question is what do we see when we look in; and what do we see when we look out?
The easiest question is the second one. What do we see when we look out? We should see a hell of a lot. For there is a simple aphorism which I have just invented: the smaller the country, the broader the mind/ the bigger the country the smaller the mind. In one sense this might not be too surprising: we can talk about English Premier Division soccer to any interested English person (and there are millions); but you would travel miles and miles before you would find an ordinary English man to tell you that Cork City have performed the most extraordinary feat of having beaten every single team in the League of Ireland since the start of the season. Finn Harps please note. And you might well ask, well, why should they?
Good question. But one answer is, we always know about them, but they never know about us.
I raise this, because we are often accused of being insular and narrow-minded and inward-looking and introverted. There was an editorial in last Sunday’s Sunday Times which referenced one of those endless surveys. In this case, a survey of people who feared returning to Ireland because we were, oh yes, ‘narrow-minded and insular’ and add the rest.
I am one of those who is eternally skeptical about surveys because sometimes they throw up the obvious: ‘Rich people have more money’, or ‘There are more children in large families,’ or children who read books are going to be more literate than those who don’t! The obvious is often true and trite, but the survey may also be wrong and shite.
Yet another survey – God forgive me – showed us to be the most globalised country in the world. Meaning most open to the outside, most amenable to new ideas. This just a few years ago.
But we don’t need an expensive survey. We just need to open up our newspaper and open our open minds and even, like, just think. So let us just take last night’s TV fare. Just RTÉ, for a start. I decided to do some real research. Not on Google this time, but on the TV pages of the Irish Times and the Sunday Times which just happened to be hanging around on the floor. RTE 1 TV broadcasts 24 hours a day. 24/7 as the cliché has it. Excluding the news, yesterday they had 4 and a half hours of home produced programmes, one of them being the ‘Late Late Show’, one of their longest shows of the week. On Thursday they had two home-produced programmes, but I forgot to add the Angelus to that. Yesterday, RTÉ 2 had ten minutes of home programmes out of 24 hours, and no Angelus at all. That programme was a childrens’ one, ‘Inis Spraoi’ going out at mid-morning when kids are at school. TV 3’s only Irish produced programme was ‘Tonight with Vincent Browne’ and that was a repeat from the night before. Even TG 4, the best of them, will only have about one fifth or less of their programmes made domestically.
Then think about the available programmes on most stations for most people with satellite or cable TV. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours out there every day being beamed at us. I reckon that when you lay the Irish material available end to end it is about 000.05 per cent of all that we can access. Even if you wanted to be narrow-minded and insular in Ireland, you couldn’t be! It would be impossible. So unless you are totally resistant to facts and have an evidence-resistant brain, the one thing we are not, is insular. One the other hand, rather depressingly, I have discovered that one ounce of cliché is worth more than an Everest of evidence.
Ah but we are Europeans, aren’t we? I remember in the 1970s when we joined what was then the Common Market going to various academic talks and conferences and lectures about Irish literature. And a common mantra grew. Groupthink erupted before the phrase was coined. Brian Merriman was a European writer; Yeats was a European writer; Aogán Ó Rathaille was a European writer; Kerry was a European football team because they went on holidays to Torremilinos, even if they didn’t know where it was, because they flew.
So, I decided to continue my research, again without the aid of Google. Just yesterday’s programmes on TV. I checked out more than 20 TV stations, all available here to most people. More than 500 hours all told. I wanted to see how much European stuff was available to feed our European minds. I first glanced through them, thinking they would pop into view. When they didn’t I took out my ruler and went methodically down, line by line. No joy. Then my fine tooth comb. No luck. Then my Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass. And yes, Eureka! There, on ‘More 4’ was a one-hour drama entitled ‘Spin’ – probably a series – in French with subtitles.
This was it. One hour out of 500 in another European language, made in another European country. As it happens the one that is closest to us apart from Britain.
I think that Europe is a kind of talisman that we shake or invoke when we want to show that we are not entirely swallowed up in the Anglosphere.
It is not that we don’t go there, that is, to what we call ‘Europe’ even though we are part of it. There are about a half a million of us living on mainland Europe now. There are second-generation Irish in most of these countries, although not in the Vatican. We make nearly four million trips abroad to this Europe, excluding Britain, every year. There are Irish pubs springing up and falling down all over the place. I believe there is one inside the Arctic Circle. I have seen them myself in passing: The Ould Triangle, The Phil and Flutered, The Knacker’s Yard, Betty Nolan, The Eamon Casey, Attila the Nun, The Wetted Whistle, The Quare Hawk, The Gobshite, The Brown Envelope, The Tap of the Morning, The Blarney Stone, the Other Blarney Stone…There is no end to them.
There are GAA clubs all over Europe now, and competitions to boot. I know, because I have a Helsinki Harps jersey…There is an Estonian Ladies Gaelic Football team made up entirely of Estonians, so our games are not confined to our exiles. I would shudder to think what would happen if Spaniards or Italians took up Gaelic football seriously. Imagine the Salamanca Slashers winning the All-Ireland.
Irish music is popular all over Europe. And I’m not thinking of Twink being big in Turkey, or Johnny Logan in Germany. I knew of students, traditional musicians, who would happily trot off to Munich or Berlin, or anywhere to spend the summer busking on the street with fiddle and pipe. They said it beat the J1 visa to the US.
So, yes, we have successfully exported much of our Irish culture to Europe. There is a kind of irony of reward in this, as some of the greatest prose of the 17th century in Irish was written in Europe, or inspired there. It was from this style that much of the secular prose, which would have become novels if society had developed, has derived.
I will give one example. Some of you will certainly know of the song ‘Carrickfergus’, which is usually murdered even more than Willy McBride at two o’ clock in the morning. When you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense. What’s this stuff about swimming over the deepest ocean, and marble stones as black as ink, and being in Ballygran (a small village in County Limerick, but why anybody would want to be there is a mystery)… I believe it derives from an earlier true tale about an Irishman who wrote his life story as a kind of a novel in the 18th century. His story is generally known as Eachtra Mhic Caiside, which might be translated as ‘The Adventures of Cassidy’. He was Tomás Mac Caiside, and his story goes something like this:
Cassidy’s story is a fantastic one. He was an Augustinian monk from Roscommon around the middle of the 18th century who fell in love with a woman, as monks often do, ran away, married her, didn’t work out, left Ireland, joined the French army, deserted, went over to the Prussians, deserted again, dossed through central Europe, threw a rabbi over a bridge in Prague, reached England, took up with another woman, left her after a week, joined the British army, gave them a week also, hightailed it again, came back to Ireland, rejoined the monastery, was thrown out, and spent the rest of his days wandering the country singing songs and telling stories. The reason we know this is that he wrote his autobiography with some embellishments which is one of the closest things we have in Irish to a novel in the 18th century. Unfortunately, the teller of his tale, the scribbler of his story, seems to have severely bowdlerised it, so we must fill in the gaps ourselves. They would probably be even more amazing. There are other songs about him, one of which is still commonly sung in Irish-speaking Connemara.
I instance this, because we often think about the Irish monks and scribes, those who founded and staffed our Irish colleges throughout Europe. We often forget the ordinary people. If there are half a million Irish in Europe now, 30,000 alone in Spain, most of these are fairly ordinary people. There are tax exiles, whom we could name, but will not do so for fear of libel. And there are some gangsters, whom we won’t name either, because we still have some cop on. But in Ireland of the 17th century there were thousands of ordinary Irish: 10,000 went to Spain between 1600 and 1610. There may have been as many as 50,000 Irish arrived in France up to the 1680s. Many were beggars and vagrants and down and outs, and oh my God, immigrants and refugees. 1,000 poor Irish were dumped out of Paris in May 1606. One high-ranking French lawyer rejoiced at their ejection, saying they were the scum of the earth. Spongers. Now where did we hear that before? They got expelled from other towns as well, St Malo, Angers…So, we always had a relationship with Europe, sometimes positive, sometimes quite troubling.
But how much do we really know about this Europe place? Give out a map with the borders of countries drawn and fill in the names of the countries. On second thoughts, don’t. I used to give a map of the counties of Ireland to students both in Dublin and in Cork. In UCC they usually got Munster, but beyond that there were demons. In DCU they got most of the counties around the coast, except for odd ones like County Belfast, but the midlands were usually a blank. There is an old, probably false etymology of the word Canada. It is said that when the Spanish sailors mapped the coast of North America, they scribbled in the words Aqui Nada (here there is nothing), hence Canada. The midland counties, were just that, aqui nada. I think most people would have the same experience about a map of the Balkans.
From time to time we hear the cry go up, we should abandon Irish in schools and take up European or other languages. Funny how fashions change. For a while it was German; until we discovered that no matter how well we learned German, their command of English was going to be better than ours. Japanese was a runner for a while, but I don’t think we’d ever buy into their work ethic. Chinese gets recommended from time to time, but it’s not that useful in the local Chinese restaurant when you are ordering Chicken Chow Mein, or just number 22. Then there is Polish, which we are told has more speakers than Irish, which it probably does. I know six Irish people who know Polish. Each of them worked in Poland. One of them, an expert linguist, spent 17 years there and said he wasn’t an expert yet. I don’t see a big take up on Polish.
The truth is that we do pitifully few languages in our schools. French, as we know, is not so much the most popular, as the only one often available. Some years ago I noticed that more students took Latin than Italian, that is to say, they took more Old or Ancient Italian, than modern (but that has changed now). Only one person took Japanese the first year it was offered, improved hugely. Strange to say, Portuguese, one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world does not appear on the curriculum. There is also a list of other European languages which can be taken as non-curricular subjects, which includes most EU languages, such as Bulgarian or Czech or Latvian – although you must be a native speaker of one of these in order to do the exam. This is not likely to lead to a rush of Irish people learning Slovakian or Dutch or Lithuanian.
As with my earlier comment, the bigger the country the smaller the mind; also, the more widespread the language, the less of others will you know. The reason we don’t learn other languages that well, is not because of Irish, but because of English. English is the lingua franca of the world right now, as French used to be of Europe for a while, and Latin for a thousand years, and as Greek was in the eastern Mediterranean, and as Swahili is in parts of east Africa. It will be thus during our life time, and beyond. But we should enter, as they say, a caveat. Kavanagh’s poem asked, will it be thus forever? The answer is, of course, not.
A great Oxford historical linguist Nicholas Ostler called English ‘the last lingua franca’ in a book of that title. While I am the first person to recognise that trying to foretell the future is useless whether looking into crystal balls, reading tea leaves or the entrails of boiled goats, although these are usually more accurate than employing an economist, Ostler has written copiously on the spread and decline of languages, particularly imperial ones. A ‘lingua franca’ is only a convenience, and is only as good as its last deal. His argument hinges partly on the huge advances in technical linguistic transfer which will allow people automatic translation for all electronic purposes. And also partly on the fact that other power relations will come and go – as he puts it with only one of many examples ‘as the Chinese become richer and more influential, their desire to participate in the world on Anglo-American terms will diminish’. Similar things could be said about speakers of Arabic, or indeed of Hindi.
I throw this out, because, instead of thinking that we are the end of some kind of historical process, we should think that we are at the beginning. I have no idea what the future will hold, except that it will not be whatever we can ever imagine now. Even all science fiction is wrong – although I can’t prove it. And if I am right, I won’t be in a position to say, ‘I told you so.’
But one thing I do know, or think I know. The survival and health of a society believes to a great extent on a belief in itself. Not in a stupid asinine vacuous special pleading way. But simply an assessment of what we have done, and have failed to do. And this can only come from some kind of knowledge – a knowledge of our past, our present, and importantly of the winds that blow our way.
So sorry Paddy Kavanagh, when Drake was winning seas for England, no, we were not sailing in puddles of the past, we were floating on the air of the present. Fearghal Óg Mac an Bhaird was penning poems for Ireland; Aodh Mac Aingil was studying literature and theology in the Isle of Mann while looking across at his native Co. Down on that one day in the year when it can be seen; Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire while waiting in Kinsale with Don Juan del Aquila during the English bombardment of the town from the outside was probably thinking about his great counter-reformation works. The internationalism of these writers is often sorely missed, as nowadays, despite our travel we don’t often have other outside perspectives. Outside meaning, really outside. Outside meaning not just Britain and America.
One instance. Topical. Last Saturday (May 6th) the sometime international footballer Eamon Dunphy reviewed a book on Journalism in 20th century Ireland. We all know that he is famous for the phrase, ‘a good footballer, not a great footballer.’ Well, ‘this was a terrible review, not a bad review.’ His basic point of view is that we were a backward and ignorant lot of slobs until some English and American journalists brought us the sword of light. He gave us the old ‘insular’ charge which I have already refuted. But then I come upon the slimy phrase ‘The arrival of television posed a new threat to Ireland’s brutal rulers.’ Ireland’s brutal rulers? Compared to whom?
Franco, Salazar, Hitler, Mussolini, Quisling? Envar Hoxha? The British Raj in India, the tortures in Kenya, the French in Algeria. As they say nowadays, give us a break!
It is a classic example of cultural cringe.
Moran, the main character in John McGahern’s novel Amongst Women asks the question ‘What was it all about?’ Meaning what did independence mean for this state, and there is an implication that it was a waste of time. Don’t worry, I could rant from now until the sun goes down on our failures and fissures and scandals.
But just for the laugh, let us answer Moran’s question. What was it all about? Much of it was about not being part of imperialist wars in the rest of the world, about killing people who had no animosity towards us, and only goodwill if they had the chance. I don’t know about you, but that is important to me. I think it was a great success that our war of independence took the gun out of our politics (I mean the politics of the 26 county state) for nearly 100 years. I think it is a success that we are one of the longest unbroken peaceful democratic one-person one-vote states in the entire world. Don’t knock it. And I think, when you look at all of the international metrics, all the measurements of social and political well-being carried out by reputable international bodies, you will find we are always up there with the best.
I mention only one. There is a regular measurement of literacy amongst 15 year olds carried out by PISA and the OECD every few years. Do you know where we came in this? We came third in the developed world! What exactly do you want? To be first? I was always suspicious of the guy who came first in the class. He was either a swot, or a friend of the teacher’s. Being third ain’t bad. But instead of crowing about this, which we should, our Minister for Education and Skills and Science and Gadgets and Whatever You’re Having Yourself came on television and said, ‘Ah but we must do better at science!’
Ok, maybe we should. But no matter how fast you travel, the world goes at a different pace. And you will notice by now that we hardly mentioned the world. But if Ireland is only a blob on the landscape of the west of Europe, there is a sense in which Europe is merely a finger of the great landmass that is EurAsia and Africa. I think we need to connect fast with those Gaelic football teams in Ulan Bator and in Vladivostock.
The great Scottish poet George Campbell Hay (Iain Mac Iain Deórsa), who uniquely wrote in English, Scots and Gaelic wrote a poem about the destruction of Bizerta, a Tunisian town, during the Second World War. Also, almost uniquely, (if we can say that) he resisted conscription into the British Army during that war, and lived on his wits on the Scottish mountains for months before being forced to fight. It is a savage poem which curses war and the destruction of innocent people, but it is particularly savage about Europe as an engine of destruction – not any country of Europe just Europe. Europe is not neutral in the destruction of the world. Do we really wish to be part of this? It is one of those poems which has stayed with me always:
‘C’ainm nochd tha orra
Na sráidean bochda anns a’ sgeith gach uinneag
A lasraichean ‘s a deatach
A sradagan ‘s a sgreadaich gach thuinidh
Is taigh ar thaigh ga reubadh
Am broinn a’ chéile
Am brúchdadh toit a’ tuiteam…
Có a-nochd a pháigheas
Seann chís abhaisteach na fala cumant?’
Those two last lines translate: ‘Who tonight will pay the price/ Of our common blood – and twice?’
He also has another great poem which he calls ‘Gaoir na hEorpa’ which I translate as ‘Europe’s Downfall.’
Europe’s fancy walls and castles
Are tumbled down in heaps of rubble.
All those lovely carvings, split
And shattered from chap to neck.
Her towers and turrets all undone
Bitterly blasted one by one.
Her hallowed people in their halls
Are scattered now across the world.
Needy people in their plight
Turning their days to endless night.
The sharp cry of pity’s limbs
Competes to drown the howling winds.
One third of Europe’s beauty, strength
Dissipated, wasted, done for, spent.
The old refuge of art, culture, ha!
Humanity’s beating heart, or wha’?
But now she is only a prick of Asia,
A kind of Balkans…or whatever.
That last one bears repeating, ‘a prick of Asia.’ It might well be the future. The point I am making is one better made in a great Billy Joel song ‘My Life’ ‘– But sooner or later you sleep in your own space/ Either way it’s ok/…you wake up with yourself.’
For all that, and for all that, we must wake up to make music and noise in the world; but we also have to, just sometimes, wake up with ourselves.