The Fringes of the Fringe

I may have a problem when it comes to remote Northern islands. Ireland was the first, and when I visited it in the 80s, it still was in many ways remote from the rest of the world. The Celtic Tiger economic boom was still in the future, as were all of the horrible cheap looking holiday homes on the coasts that followed the tiger. It was cheap, the coffee was awful, you could hitchhike all around the country in complete safety and there were no big roads. I still love Ireland, but in the last 25 years, it has become more like the rest of Europe; you can zoom across the country on a four lane highway, and there’s been a lot of unfortunate building. Traditional Irish cottages looked like this, three windows and a door, whitewashed, under a thatched roof:





That’s Ben Bulben in the background, by the way, where Yeats roamed as a boy.




Nowadays, if you want to rent a cottage, you’re more likely to find something like this… 5 star and glamorous, according to the ad.



And worse, the collapse of the Celtic Tiger left half finished developments all over the country. Here’s a gallery from HuffPost.

My new obsession is Iceland, which reminds me of Ireland 30 years ago, only with volcanoes. Iceland, curiously, has some claim to being a partially Celtic country. The Irish monks who first settled there before the Vikings arrived in 874 hardly count, because, of course, they left no descendants.

[caption id="attachment_957" align="alignright" width="163"]irish_monks Irish monks sailing to Iceland in a very small boat.

They were just looking for the most remote place imaginable to pray and get closer to their God.

Nor do the early Viking settlers sound very Celtic; they have names like Ingolfur Arnason (there should be an accent on the o in Ingolfur, but this interface won’t let me add it) and Hrafna-Floki Vilgerðarson, Raven-Floki son of Vilgerð, and Unn the Deep Minded, an extraordinary woman who lead her whole family to a new life in Iceland from… Ireland, via Scotland and the Orkney Islands. She was Norse through and through, but plenty of other women who went with the Vikings to Iceland seem not to have been. Recent DNA studies suggest that 63% of Settler women were actually from the British Isles; 80% of Settler men, on the other hand, were Nordic. What does this mean? Well, let’s just say that some of those women were probably given little choice about whom they “married” and where they went. You can read more about the DNA study at the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic studies, where I was lucky enough to spend 6 weeks last Fall. Next up (next summer) the Orkney Islands. I’ll keep you posted.


That’s Leif Ericsson behind me, looking towards America.

Welcome to the Blog

Because this blog is supposed to allow you to indulge your interests (or obsessions) in a more freeform and creative way than academic papers permit, I don’t want to establish too many rules. Make it fun, make it pretty, that’s about it. Each week 4 people should post, according to the schedule below– if this schedule is inconvenient for you, then trade with someone. All posts should be up by the end of the day on Friday of that week, but here again, I see no need to make a hard deadline.

Posting when you’re supposed to is only part of your job; you should also take the time to respond to other people’s posts– not all of them, but whatever you find interesting or want to add to.

Like any good general, I will go first (this one doesn’t count).5a3b797d3df6f695babb188726affce0

More on Cuchulain

This is just an addendum to Natalia’s post on Cuchulain. The description of his battle fury (or “warp spasm” in Kinsella’s translation) will give you a sense of how different Irish epic is from, say, the Iliad. There is no interest whatsoever in realism:

The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing,
hideous and shapeless, unheard of.

His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot,
shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream.
His body made a furious twist inside his skin,
so that his feet and shins and knees switched to the rear
and his heels and calves switched to the front.

The balled sinews of his calves switched to the front of his shins,
each big knot the size of a warrior’s bunched fist.
On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck,
each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child.

His face and features became a red bowl;
he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane could not probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull;
the other eye fell out along his cheek.

His mouth weirdly distorted:
his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared;
his lungs and liver flapped in his mouth and throat;
his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow,
and fiery flakes large as a ram’s fleece reached his mouth from his throat.

His heart boomed loud in his breast like the baying of a watch-dog at its feed
or the sound of a lion among bears.
Malignant mists and spurts of fire flickered red in the vaporous clouds
that rose boiling above his head,
so fierce was his fury.

The hero-halo rose out of his brow,
long and broad as a warrior’s whetstone,
long as a snout,
and he went mad rattling his shields, urging on his charioteer
and harassing the hosts.

Then, tall and thick,
steady and strong,
high as the mast of a noble ship,
rose up from the dead center of his skull
a straight spout of black blood,
darkly and magically smoking.

In that style, then,
he drove out to find his enemies
and did his thunder-feat
and killed a hundred,
then two hundred,
then three hundred,
then four hundred,
then five hundred…
From The Tain, translated Thomas Kinsella, from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge. c. 1969 Thomas Kinsella

I took this from the website of a composer named David Heuser; you can also listen to his spoken voice/electronic version Warp-Spasm.

Here too is the statue of Cuchulain that stands in the GPO (General Post Office) in Dublin, where the rebels of 1916 made their stand.

Dying Cuchulain, by Oliver Sheppard

Dying Cuchulain, by Oliver Sheppard

Cuchulain ties himself to a stone, so that he can go on fighting even as he is dying; I’ve always thought that there was an analogy intended to James Connolly, who as you will recall was actually tied to a chair to be executed. As you can see, one of Cuchulain’s bronze feet is all shiny from where generations of people (including myself) have touched it for luck.

Sleeping in Dylan Thomas’ bed!

Well, not quite, perhaps, but imagine my surprise on checking into the Washington Square Hotel to find that among the “many acclaimed actors, musicians and writers” who have stayed here (according to the Guest Directory) was one Dylan Thomas! And we are right down the street from the tavern in which he consumed those 17 (or was it 18?) shots of whiskey.

View from what I'm going to pretend was Dylan Thomas' own bedroom.

View from what I’m going to pretend was Dylan Thomas’ own bedroom.

Jack Butler Yeats, 1871-1957

433px-Jack_Butler_YeatsJack Butler Yeats was six years younger than his brother William, and probably didn’t see much of him growing up, because when the family moved rather suddenly to London when he was six or seven, they left him with his grandmother in Sligo for the next eleven years. Apparently, it was a better place for a little boy to grow up. It doesn’t seem to have harmed young Jack, who loved Sligo and painted it until the very end of his life.

He came by his artistic talent naturally; his father had abandoned a career in the law to become a portrait painter–this was perhaps the one rare family in which deciding to become a poet probably sounded perfectly reasonable.

Yeats studied art in London, started out as an illustrator, working for a variety of publications in London and later Dublin presses. Here is a broadside from 1902:

broadsheetidxAfter returning to Ireland in 1910, he devoted himself primarily to painting, and was inspired by the landscapes of Sligo throughout his life. The painting below, titled Returning from the Bathe, shows the seacoast near where he grew up.JYeats_Returning_from_Bathe

And this is Two Travellers.JYeats_Two_TravellersThere’s an entire gallery in the National Gallery in Dublin devoted to Yeats’ paintings. I like them a great deal, but I wonder whether W.B. did? They are hard to reconcile with the line about painting in “Under Ben Bulben”: “after that/ Confusion fell upon our thought.”

For more on Jack Yeats, see the National Gallery website, and this nice essay by Colm Tóibín in The Guardian.

Yeatsian Geography

As a child, Yeats spent his summer holidays in beautiful (if damp!) County Sligo, in the West of Ireland. It was there that he met Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markiewicz (née Gore-Booth); “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz”, a late poem, is a lament for lost beauty and lost innocence. The sisters lived at Lissadell House, which still stands, although it has recently been the subject of extended (and fairly incomprehensible) legal disputes. Lissadell

Another of the great houses Yeats knew well, Lady Gregory’s Coole Park, was not so lucky; damaged during the Civil War, it was destroyed in the ’40s and survives now only as a national park, but once it looked like this:


Yeats himself returned to Sligo upon his marriage, buying a very different sort of house, Thoor Ballylee, a Norman tower which inspired “The Tower.” It doesn’t look like a comfortable place to live, but I have visited it, and it is surprisingly snug inside.

balleythoor-ballylee3This is the “winding stair.”

Yeats is buried in Sligo, in Drumcliffe Churchyard, “under Ben Bulben” as he had requested. A “ben” (or a “pin” in some parts of the country, is a mountain, or what passes for a mountain in Ireland.

BenbulbenmountThe inscription on Yeats’ gravestone consists of the last few lines of his last poem, “Under Ben Bulben.” My favorite English teacher in college used to claim that when first he visited Yeats’ grave, a single black crow feather fell softly down from the sky to lie upon it; he kept it as a page marker in his collected Yeats. I’m not entirely sure that story is true (he was a great teller of tales!) but I certainly hope so.



Please think of this blog as a space where you can muse about whatever you like… tomorrow’s readings, haggis, the difficulty of deciphering Welsh pronounciation, your favorite band with some claim to being Celtic. If you are desperate for a prompt, email me and I’ll send you one, but these may be idiosyncratic at best! Add pictures, media files, whatever you like.

I’ll make the first post, so no one else has to…

The Celtic Fringe: Irish, Scots and Welsh poetry 1747-2009

This course will explore works by Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats, Hugh MacDiarmaid and Seamus Heaney, as well as those of more recent poets such as Paul Muldoon, Carol-Ann Duffy, Kathleen Jamie, Tom Leonard, and Gwyneth Lewis. Special attention will be paid to the roots of contemporary Welsh, Irish and Scottish poetics in the native traditions of the Celtic languages and to the contribution of these poems to post-colonial discourse.

Members of the class are invited to post here whenever and however they please.  Importing links, videos, images, etc. is highly encouraged.