Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Funeral, a Wedding and A Sanctuary Lamp

The Sanctuary Lamp at Clonoulty

I was looking forward to my nephew's two-day wedding party at Kilshane House, near Bansha, in the heart of the beautiful Glen of Aherlow when I received news that the mother of an old friend had died in Cork.  Sod's Law decreed that the funeral was scheduled for the same day as the wedding ceremony.  The two events separated by only an hour.  Missing either was not an option.  The solution to this conundrum was to attend the funeral service and burial afterwards and then head off tout suite to Tipperary.  The deceased mother had lived to a good old age so the funeral was a sombre rather than a very sad occasion. She was buried in St. Joseph's in Ballyphehane - a stately old cemetery now decommissioned except for those joining relatives. And so to Bansha. I missed the actual wedding ceremony but due to an apparently loquacious and pedantic priest managed to arrive at the hotel before the wedding party.  An immediate change of pace as I was transformed from knight of doleful countenance to glad-handling bon viveur. 

My mother's family are from this part of the world so over the weekend we met a cousin who told us a story about a sanctuary lamp that had been donated to the church in nearby Clonoulty.  It was dedicated to the memory of my grandfather Nicholas Maher who drowned in Tramore in 1919 - leaving a young family.  The lamp had suffered the ravages of time and the local parish priest had decided to jettison it in favour of a new model.  My cousin, a parishioner, contacted a well-got uncle who lived nearby and he arranged for it to be taken to Weirs in Dublin for a complete refurbishment.  We decided that we had to hunt down this family heirloom after the wedding festivities.

We were passing Ardmayle on the way there so we paused to view the Maher family plot in the beautiful old graveyard - just across the road from a crumbling Norman ruin.  The defunct family members lay in a well-maintained railed-off plot.  Looking back over the generations it struck me that they didn't go much for variety in first names.  The men were usually Nicholas or Philip, often both, and the women favoured Kathleen.  Many of the dozen or so interred were identified as being from Ballymore House.  As I had always assumed they hailed from Ardmayle House nearby, I decided we needed to find this Ballymore House also - it clearly played a significant role in our family saga . We drove on through Ardmayle and Goold's Cross until we came to Clonoulty.  It was early afternoon and the church had closed and the village was deserted.  I was for abandoning the mission but a more persistent brother suggested we seek out the local parish priest.  A solitary local pointed us to his house so we ran the gauntlet of a couple of yappy dogs and rang the bell.  Bad timing.  The priest arrived guarded in his welcome and still chewing his Sunday lunch. It was clear he wasn't going anywhere.  "Can you come back during the week?" was his best offer. However, when we enquired about the sacristan he saw a solution and directed us to a bungalow down the road.  A robust looking middle-aged women answered the door, also chewing.  However she quickly understood our mission and eschewing her lunch accompanied us to the church.  In we went and surveyed the family heirloom.  I don't know a lot about sanctuary lamps but I'd say it was a good lamp but not a great lamp.  Maybe Weir's enthusiastic cleaning had removed its aged and venerable aura. My gimlet-eyed brother espied an inscription etched in the bottom of the vessel:  "To the memory of Nicholas Maher esq. Ballymore House from his loving children June 1925". Poignant words from his young family - the poor man was only 39.

The amiable sacristan directed us towards Ballymore House which was nearby.  She knew our local family members and the current occupiers - naturally. The house was a short distance from Clonoulty going towards Goold's Cross.  We soon found the large period dwelling up a short tree-lined avenue.  We drove around the house to the back yard and were greeted by a couple of scruffy dogs.  Through the window we could see a group of six adults sitting around the dinner table.  Our campaign to disrupt Sunday lunches  in South Tipperary was remorseless.  The woman of the house emerged after a lengthy pause and listened to our story.  Come back in half an hour and we'll give you a tour we were told.  Returning we were met by the owner, a very friendly retired farmer by the name of Thomas Ryan.  He had bought the place from an uncle of mine.  He showed us around in an unhurried and informative way - notwithstanding the pull of the TV showing a thrilling Kilkenny/Tipp match that had the full attention of the rest of the family.  The house was essentially unchanged apart from the extending of the living-room out into the garden. There was a murky but homely feel to the place - we even got to see the bedrooms upstairs.  It was nice to greet the family ghosts.  

Ballymore House, Goold's Cross

Friday, February 14, 2014

Four Micks and Grandma Moses

Llewyn and Ulysses
Inside Llewyn Davis - the Coen Brothers latest film - has been getting mixed reviews. In the Guardian Mark Kermode is equivocal whereas his colleague Peter Bradshaw is downright enthusiastic.  Stuck in town yesterday between appointments I decided to check it out at the IFI.  It's the best place in Dublin to watch movies, far from the madding crowd's ignoble popcorn.  It's also the kind of place you can go on your own without feeling like Billy no mates.

I loved the film from start to finish. There were occasional glib moments (the surly car driver lighting up minutes after telling our hero he had none left) but these were vastly outweighed by many magic moments. As our aspirant musician travelled down his melancholy slide into oblivion we were well entertained along the way - both moved and amused.  I can't remember when I laughed so much at a film.  In one scene at a folk club he rails drunkenly at an act that is clearly based on the Clancy Brothers (but uglier and with appalling unmatching Aran sweaters). They are followed by an elderly fat woman playing (God help us all) a zither.  As he's thrown out he discourages newcomers from entering by describing the fare as "four micks and Grandma Moses".  There's also an hilarious road trip to Chicago with John Goodman playing a monstrous character who could be mistaken for Dr. John. The film is lit in a very melancholy and subdued way - the colour of constant disappointment.  The clubs, cheap apartments and agents' offices are pitch perfect. One of the recurring joys is the cast of peripheral characters - every one straight out of Diane Arbus's book of freaks.  Note particularly the ones he encounters at the uptown apartment of an elderly fan.  A part of the fun for old folkies is identifying the real-life parallels.  Is that Tom Paxton?  Peter, Paul and Mary? The film concludes with our hero in the gutter and the sound of Bob Dylan issuing from the nearby club.  Winners and losers. And by the way Llewyn gets everything he deserves for abandoning the cat.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Sheepman of Loughcrew

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 2 February 2014.

Review of: 

Peter Fallon, Poet, Publisher, Editor and Translator - Edited by Richard Rankin Russell

Few Irish poets get as close to the muck and manure of rural life as Peter Fallon - not perhaps since Patrick Kavanagh manned his plough in Inniskeen.  Heaney's digging was a metaphor, Fallon experiences the rural actuality in his daily round.  And, unlike Kavanagh, who abandoned Monaghan for the badlands of Baggot Street, Fallon has persisted in combining his sheep farming in Loughcrew with the writing and publishing of poetry.  He has also produced a well-received translation of Virgil's Georgics - empathising no doubt with its concern for man's struggle against a hostile natural world.  This curious confection, edited by American academic Richard Rankin Russell, is essentially a celebration of his life and work.  No reasonable person would quibble with the worthiness of the project.

Fallon's declared aim in life is "to keep the art of poetry alive and in good health" so that we can "improve our chances of fulfilling ourselves individually and collectively as a human, decent, kind society".  He has certainly succeeded in achieving the first part of this.  Without his Gallery Press it's doubtful that we'd have a poetry scene worth talking about.  Irish poets seeking publication would largely be left either to the tender mercies of the UK publishing houses or to a few small underpowered local imprints.  Seamus Heaney declared that "The poets on the Gallery list are indispensable to the art of poetry as an ongoing endeavour in Ireland.".  The importance of the Gallery Press for Irish poetry became even more marked following the demise of Liam Miller and the Dolmen Press in 1987.  Derek Mahon describes it as "a cottage industry with a global reach."  The Gallery Press is renowned both for the quality of its poetry and for its attention to production values.  The finished article is always worth looking at as well as reading.  Fallon has long been an enthusiastic supporter of Irish art.  In the early days he used Jim Fitzpatrick and Michael Kane and these days he features the work of contemporary artists such as Mary Lohan, John Shinnors and Martin Gale.

Fallon's earliest literary incarnation was as a member of Tara Telephone, a poetry and music ensemble that occasionally veered into Edith Sitwell territory.  A certain twee earnestness may have prevailed but in time it proved to be a hot house for a host of creative types and its alumni went on to adorn the Irish rock and poetry scenes for many years.  These included Fallon, Eamon Carr from the Horslips, Declan Sinnott, and the youthful Phil Lynnot - apparently a very nervous performer in those days.

The book is part critical study, part Festschrift - a kind of selection box for poetry lovers.  You can dip in and enjoy your favoured flavour.  It could be a poem, a critical essay or a biographical segment.  It's divided into five parts, each focusing on a different aspect of Fallon's life.  The first part deals with his work at the Gallery Press.  Parts two and three, the heart of the book, contain a series of critical essays on his poetry.  Part four establishes, tenuously, a US connection and the concluding part consists of 17 poems written in Fallon's honour by such luminaries as Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney.  A couple of the contributors are no longer with us.  There is an affectionate account of Fallon's life and work by his departed friend Denis O'Driscoll.  His perceptive essay is fulsome in its praise:  "Such is the extent of Peter's contribution that he is ensured a permanent place in the country's literature and literary history."  Heaney, in addition to his poem, contributes a short tribute written for the Gallery Press's 40th anniversary celebration at the Abbey.

Derek Mahon suggests of Fallon that "perhaps the publishing obscures the poetry a little, but I doubt this bothers him".  I'd be surprised if this piece of presumption were true.  All poets aspire to Parnassus.  A number of the critical essays in the book promote his cause.  The best of these is Maurice Harmon's Profane Rituals, a sure-footed stroll through Fallon's poetic output.   Harmon notes the varied settings:  the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, Ballynahinch, Co. Galway, and principally his home in the townland of Loughcrew.  Most of the poetry comes from his engagement with his local community.  His daily rituals are reflected in his poetry: badgers and hares, sheep and goats.  He notes that Fallon's "ear is true to local speech".   This is not Arcadia.  Farm work is hard and dirty, not for the faint-hearted, or the dung shy.  A poem about the death of his new born son John sounds a chilling and tragic note amidst his poems of rural life:

We pray at best for the open wound
to grow a scar.
We welcome him his deliverance.

There are things worse than death.

Both editor Richard Rankin Russell and Bryan Giemza trace American poet Wendell Berry's influence on Fallon's work.  The poet farmer from Kentucky also contributes a handsome review of Fallon's work:   "ordinary events made extraordinary by the amplitude of his care and the precision of his notice".

The book concludes with the 17 poems written in Fallon's honour.  A fine legacy in itself considering some of the names.  The one that snagged my attention was Northern Lights by Nuala Ni Dhomnaill (translated by Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith).  It has little to do with Fallon or Loughcrew but all to do with the eternal concerns of the poet:

"the whisper of the solar wind
above the black abyss"

Irish Academic Press
268 pp

John P. O'Sullivan
January 2014