New Irish Singer Hozier

I never know for sure if I’m actually up with music trends or not, but my friend introduced me to Hozier the other day, and I wanted to share some of his music with you all.

Photo via

Photo via

For those of you who don’t know, Hozier is the stage name of Andrew Hozier-Byrne, a blues/soul musician (singer-songwriter) from Bray, County Wicklow in Ireland.

In his most famous single, “Take Me To Church,” Hozier sings of a tension between his feelings and his upbringing (in Catholic Ireland), and the accompanying music video chronicles the abuse of a homosexual couple at the hands of their community. The song went viral on YouTube and Reddit after it was released last July, and Hozier’s fanbase and fame has been growing since then, with the release of his second EP.

Watch the video here:

According to some interviews Hozier has done, although he himself states that the Catholic Church isn’t the cause of the human rights violations about which he sings, he’s adamant about the need for societal change, on a person-to-person level. NYMag’s The Cut did an interview with him, where you can learn more about his personal influences (including James Joyce!), his stance on LGBT rights, his hair (?), and the way he views his musical career.

Billboard caught up with his record manager to answer questions, which you can read here.

Huffington Post’s Gay Voices also wrote about “Take Me To Church” and the music video, which they compared to the Russian anti-gay policies that made headlines last fall before the Sochi Winter Olympics.

And here’s a live version of his song “Cherry Wine,” which may be my personal favorite.

Exploring the Symbolism of “Stripping the Willow”

Hi, all!

Last Tuesday, we discussed Kathleen Jamie’s poem “The Queen of Sheba” in class. I don’t remember who in class asked about the significance of the line “she wants to strip the willow,” but the question really stuck with me. I was convinced that willows had specific meaning attached to them, dealing with wisdom or some other aspect of Truth or knowledge– although I think now that may just have come from the Disney movie Pocahontas’ Grandmother Willow character.

Nevertheless, I wanted to push the symbolism a little further, to see if there was any background that we could be missing as non-Scottish readers. I did some research first on “symbolism of the willow” and found a number of websites (with perhaps questionable credibility) that were just begging to tell me about the magical/otherworldly powers of the willows.

Wikipedia shared that “in English folklore, a willow tree is believed to be quite sinister, capable of uprooting itself and stalking travellers.” (Also, in Japanese culture, willows are connected to otherworldly spirits like ghosts!)

Through my travels around the internet, I also learned that willow trees have medicinal uses, like to relieve colds, fevers, pains, and rheumatism. Willow trees are associated with the moon, with “the ability to adapt and adjust to life,” and with “the enhancement of psychic abilities.”

EHow shared that willows connected back to ancient Greece: “[Greek] Mythology tells us that the poet Orpheus received his gift for music and poetry after touching a willow in a grove sacred to Persephone, and the willow was linked to those skills.”

The OED, too, was pretty unhelpful, sharing very little by way of significance (and also not acknowledging the connection one website was CONVINCED about, in which “willow” and “witchcraft” came from the same root word).

Although I always use sites like Wikipedia and Ehow (and who doesn’t believe a website called “What’s Your Sign? Celtic Meanings of the Willow Tree!” last updated in 2003?), I still wasn’t quite sure of a literary reference to fit with the passage. Jamie speaks of “stripping” the willow, which I found particularly interesting– would you strip a willow to use its bark? Would you strip a willow to make a switch? So, on the off chance it was an idiom, I Googled the term.

As it turns out, “strip the willow” is a Scottish folk dance.

From just Googling the term, I found the following videos, which illustrate the dance of “stripping the willow.” The BBC version below also teaches you how to “strip the willow.” The dance has been around since the 1600s, and so it would be common knowledge of Scottish readers of the poem.

So when the Queen of Sheba wants to “strip the willow,” just as she wants “the keys to the National Library,” she is asking for part of Scotland, to participate in the culture and the history of the area to which she’s come. This makes her transformation of all the young women in the poem even more powerful– she takes part in the culture and reappropriates her own role in it (and the girls’ too, by extension).

The Irish Diaspora: It’s Not Easy Being Green

What does it mean to be Irish? Who can lay claim to Irish identity?

Global-Irish-Diaspora-MapObviously, these aren’t questions that can wholly be answered to satisfy everyone in this day and age (and with intercontinental travel so convenient). Was Yeats fully Irish, or “Irish enough”? What are people saying about the Irish diaspora these days, and what “being Irish” means, both to Ireland-born citizens, to the people who left, and their descendants? Can descendants of Irish emigrants lay claim to Ireland as mother country?

I’ll admit, I’m biased. My father’s father was born in County Tipperary, Ireland (up until his generation, we were O’Ryans), and throughout my childhood, I was told that we were Irish, and to be Irish is to be proud of being Irish. My aunts and uncles on my father’s side, and my parents instilled in me from a young age that Ireland was home too, and though we didn’t have the money to take trips there or to visit extended family there, Ireland was important to us. I come from a line of strict Irish Catholics– we eat corned beef and cabbage routinely, and always on New Year’s. While I was abroad in Europe, I took an extended weekend trip to Ireland and my entire family was ridiculously excited, offering to send me money, and sharing trip advice. And the trip itself was unbelievably important for me, too, in ways I didn’t understand until I got there. Though I’d never been there before, I won’t lie: I felt like I was home. (And it didn’t hurt that when I visited Galway that Saturday, a street vendor guessed my last name when I told him where my grandfather was from. “You must be a Ryan,” he had said. WHAT A FEELING.)

So my quest is personal, in some ways: although I’m not an Irish citizen, and I’m certainly an American, a part of me does want to believe I am Irish, even just a little bit. And I know that true (“true”) Irish people get frustrated when they hear others with Irish heritage claim Ireland as “their roots” or “their country.” I understand the term plastic paddy, and I worry about that term if I assert my/my father’s/my grandfather’s claim to Irish identity. I don’t have a way to resolve that conflict of self-identification, but that doesn’t seem to be an uncommon problem among diasporas.

What I’ve done here is collect some responses I’ve found surrounding this issue of identity and authenticity: what it means to be a member of the Irish diaspora (if I can even call myself that, or if that’s just my father/grandfather’s community), what Ireland has to say about it, and what people of the Internet want “being Irish” to mean.


Irish Times postPlan for National Diaspora Centre Announced: This is a (very!) recent article from the Irish Times (literally published today, sparking this post), which is announcing the future building of a National Diaspora Centre somewhere in Ireland, which will serve as a museum celebrating the achievements of the Irish people who emigrated through the centuries.

At least for me, this article seems to be a more formal acceptance of the Irish Diaspora as a part of Ireland’s identity (though not necessarily in the same way as true Irish citizens/people living in Ireland). Could this be a happy medium? Regardless, the Centre will be a tourist site, and is a fantastic idea to market Ireland as a country that has contributed a lot, even when the Irish “stop being Irish.”


Pro Genealogists’ post (, A Saint Patrick’s Day Reflection:  What Does it Mean to be “Irish”?: “In my view “Irish” means simply ‘from the island of Ireland.’ And I would urge all to respect the very complex history of Ireland and the many cultural experiences and political viewpoints of the Irish people.”

This article, which focuses on genealogy, explains that it’s not just a matter of “Irish means Catholic, Irish means anti-British, Irish means not from Northern Ireland.” We can’t understand what truly happened, historically, and so we have to tread lightly in characterizing an entire nation. Of course this is true, but it appears that the author takes a very exclusive route to understanding Irish identity: it is Ireland, and Ireland alone, that determines its identity, and outsiders (North Americans, the article states explicitly) should watch and not participate.


College Humor: The Trouble with Being Irish: “We share everything we have; like St. Patty’s day” you can party that day too.”

A humorous take on what it means, to this author, to be Irish. The author was (I assume?) born in Ireland, but is not “pure bred” Irish (i.e. has ancestors who are German, British, French, etc.), and although some people are appalled (?), he still calls himself “mostly Irish.” So being Irish, to him, is not ‘what culture you were born into,’ it is the culture of the majority of your heritage.


K-Blog: What Does It Mean to Be Irish?: A personal, poetic account of what being Irish means, to the author, who is no longer living in Ireland. Not the most brilliant post, but the author implies that being Irish means creativity, and connectedness with Irish artists who helped to make the country what it is through their craft.


Gaelic What Being Irish Means To You: A post on the Twitter hashtag #beingirishmeans contest, which was run by Irish Times.

Some of my favorites:

#beingirishmeans knowing all the words to Fairytale of NY, never knowing a stranger (aren’t any), and not forgetting the green of Ireland

#beingirishmeans Great pride in our Nobel prize winning authors, but never reading their works

Because it was a contest, there was one winning hashtag, which was this: #beingirishmeans emigrating because the country’s in tatters, and telling the world how much you miss it – Julia Cashman


A Quote, by Alexander McCall Smith, from Portuguese Irregular Verbs: “He had been thinking of how landscape moulds a language. It was impossible to imagine these hills giving forth anything but the soft syllables of Irish, just as only certain forms of German could be spoken on the high crags of Europe; or Dutch in the muddy, guttural, phlegmish lowlands.”


The next article is my final one, and my favorite, so I’ll just leave you all with a quote from the post. It’s written by an Irish citizen, who traveled to America and who changed his perspective on what it means to be Irish based on the love for his home country that he found here. I don’t think this approach to Irish identity is the only one that works, and I think it’s entirely valid that more authentically Irish people would take issue with appropriation when they see it, in many forms. But I feel welcomed at times and connected to my Irish heritage, and I can’t spend my life feeling guilty for what I feel. I may not be as Emerald as true Irishmen, but I know at least that I’m some shade of green.

I also think this comment section is particularly interesting, as it’s on the whole pretty respectful and informative. If you get a chance to read nothing else, read this one.

Got Ireland post, “What Does It Mean to Say, ‘I’m Irish’?”:

“So what does it mean to say “I’m Irish”? It’s so often said by people who were not born in Ireland, or have never even been to Ireland. So when these people say “I’m Irish” what exactly do they mean? One person said “My heart is Irish and that’s what’s important to me” another noted that for her it was “a state of mind” and others indicated that to have Irish heritage was to be, Irish…

These days, I fall in line with some of those Irish-born Facebook commenter’s who say things like “to see these people’s eyes light up when you talk to them of places they have only heard or read about, it’s a joy to behold” and with the ones who say “I’m just glad they love my country”. It makes me proud that so many people want to be connected with Ireland.”

Dylan Thomas: “After 39 years, this is all I’ve done.”

“Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  (from “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”)

As we just began reading Dylan Thomas today, I wanted to take a closer look at Thomas and his legacy, especially in light of the article we read for class regarding Thomas’ critical reception. Thomas was, as several articles report, a “troubled” man, known for drinking heavily, being violent, and having frequent affairs. His wife Caitlin wrote in her memoirs after his death, that their marriage had been “not a love story proper; it was more of a drink story.”


Caitlin is a fascinating story in herself– I found this photo of her posing naked for a photographer in one of the articles I read about Thomas.

Thomas died young (at the age of 39, just over 60 years ago) of pneumonia, brain swelling, and a fatty liver, never to change his image from that of the wreckful and reckless poet. And with Thomas living well into the 20th century, the media coverage of his life and death could hardly be separated from his works, as we have heard in class.

Although it is unclear whether in spite of or because of Thomas’ self-destructive behaviors, Thomas’s poetic legacy is profound, and persists well into today. Although some critics may have found themselves unable to escape from the idea of Thomas as a dangerous, foolish, immature poet, popular support for “Thomas-the-poet” in Wales and among British/American artists has been strong, and has overwhelmingly continued to the present. US Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were also noted to be fans of Thomas’ work; Carter helped to open the Dylan Thomas Center, a museum in Swansea, the Welsh town where Thomas was born.
Dylan or Thomas? Thomas or Dylan?

Dylan or Thomas? Thomas or Dylan?

The article we read for class mentioned that the American singer Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman) took his stage name from Thomas, and as of 2012 was considering headlining at a concert in Thomas’s memory in Swansea this year. (Take a quiz on Dylan and Thomas here— it’s harder than it looks!)
From an interview with Paul McCartney (Beatles frontman), it appears that John Lennon also owes much of his career to Thomas’s influence– McCartney believed Thomas was the reason Lennon started writing.
It’s particularly interesting to note that Thomas had such an effect on musicians, especially because it was mentioned in class today that his poetry is particularly musical in nature. Filmmakers, too, have found inspiration in Thomas, with the 2008 movie The Edge of Love starring Matthew Rhys, Sienna Miller, and Keira Knightley being just the latest in a slew of movies on the life and works of Thomas.
Wales, too, has been affected fundamentally by Thomas and his poetry. Beyond the museum in Thomas’ hometown, the homeland of the great poet recognizes his effect through awards, ceremonies, and other memorials. This year, 2014, is the 100-year anniversary of Thomas’ birth (the 27th of October, to be specific!). It’s already a huge to-do, with an entire website devoted to chronicling the events for the year. His name is also on a young writers’ prize, which has helped to provide the financial springboard for writers such as Rachel Trezise, Maggie Shipstead, and Nam Le.
Thomas with his mother, wife, and three children

Thomas with his mother, wife, and three children

Despite his wild habits, Thomas had a family with Caitlin, with three children, all of whom died in the past 15 years. Thomas’ granddaughter Hannah Ellis Thomas (child of Colm, the youngest of Thomas’ three children) is alive today, and is an integral part of the centennial celebration committee in Swansea. Take a look at this incredible view from Thomas’ home in Wales.
The title of this post is reportedly Thomas’ final words. I think it’s clear to anyone who isn’t an immediate critic of his style that Thomas accomplished much more post-mortem than he expected in life. The fascination with his life may play a role in his characterization as a poet, but his ability to write beautiful and multi-layered, complex creations has endured, challenging young artists of all generations to think about poems differently.
[Additionally, for all people who admire a good title, Thomas also wrote a collection of short story-like memoirs entitled The Portrait of the Artist As a Young Dog. You can buy it on Amazon.]