Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Back to the Curragh

It’s a long time since I visited the Curragh – a racecourse I first encountered when my mother took me to Chamier’s eventful Irish Derby back in the mists of time. It was Oaks Day and I had a horsey friend visiting from the USA so off we went . No one had told me it was under renovation. The main stand, which overlooks the final furlong, was completely blocked off and the viewing area confined to a narrow strip along the rails that could fit only a couple of hundred. The alternative, temporary stand was set at an angle to the rails opposite the run off area – well beyond the winning post. Neither option, rails or stand, allowed you to follow the progress of the race until the final furlong or so. To do that you had to watch the big screen (a TV experience). It’s farcical that they ran an important race like the Oaks in such a ramshackle venue. It should have been switched to Leopardstown. In the UK they regularly switch venues for important races to facilitate renovation.

However, we made the best of it and my mood was certainly improved by getting a few decent priced winners. Also, a friend got us into the parade ring where we rubbed shoulders with all the players. We shamelessly sidled up to Aidan O’Brien’s huddle as he gave instructions to his three jockeys before the Oaks. A lot of good it did them as it transpired. Mainly it was good to get up close to the gorgeous horses, the lithe young fillies and the burly old sprinters. The usual personalities were around. Tracey Piggot is a dire presenter but I was impressed with her energy and enthusiasm as she dashed about. She’s certainly aging gracefully. Not so alas Ted Walsh and Robert Hall. Walsh’s atrophied shtick has grown wearisome. Check out the way he refers to jockeys by their first names, a familiarity those listening may not enjoy. Neither have the personality to front a show and their cosy insider demeanour lacks bite and insight. They should be put out to pasture - there’ll be no need to geld them. But getting out of RTÉ is far more difficult than getting into it so I suspect we’re lumbered with the old bores ‘til they’re hauled off to the knacker’s yard.

I also saw Pat Smullen in the parade ring. He was looking fine after his recent bout of cancer. His erstwhile boss Dermot Weld was also around – seemingly ageless apart from the dodgily-dyed black hair. A good egg. The main event was an exciting race. I fancied O’Brien’s Forever Together, in part because she had done me a favor in the English Oaks, but also because she had form over the O’Brien’s other runner, the favourite Magic Wand. Things worked out according to plan until about just before the line where my girl was grabbed by the William Haggas trained Sea of Class. Painful.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Gerald Dawe: The Wrong Country – Essays on Modern Irish Writing

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 29 July 2018

It’s hardly surprising that a man who spent most of his working life in academe should get snippy with those who speak disparagingly of “ivory towers”. In his new collection of essays on modern Irish writing, Gerald Dawe describes the term as “a silly patronising phrase for intellectual and imaginative effort”. While a light whiff of the academy may occasionally emanate from these essays, they are free, mercifully, of the prolixity and gratuitous esotericism that have been known to emerge from that source. We get both insight and entertainment. The opening essay outlines the very direct influence of  Yeats’ later poetry on Beckett and also describes the only meeting between the two in Killiney where Beckett “was disgusted with the way W. B. Yeats simpered over his wife”. Dawe is a poet so we expect and get fluent phrase making. In his essay on the tragic John Berryman (above) and his generation blighted and buried by drink, drugs and depression Dawe comments laconically: “by the 1990s poetry was viewed much more as a career than as a complex fate”.

The title of the book, The Wrong Country, is taken from Hugo Hamilton’s memoir The Speckled People. Hamilton counsels writers not to be afraid of saying the opposite to received wisdom even if everyone  “thinks you’re in the wrong country, speaking the wrong language.” This supplies a loose organising principle for the essays some of which feature Irish writers whose early works were banned and neglected for mocking conventional wisdom and mores. The fascinating and underrated Northern poet John Hewitt is much admired by Dawe. We read of an encounter between Hewitt and Sean McBride in 1948 at Yeats’ reinterment in Drumcliffe. Hewitt tells McBride that the North won’t countenance any federation with the South until the Irish government tackle “censorship, divorce, birth control and the place of organised religion”. What would the old socialist think of us now we wonder.

Ireland in the 1950s was a miserable place. Money was tight, and censorship was tighter, emigration was rife due to “the failure of De Valera’s nationalism”. It seemed that fun was forbidden and and the Church ruled the land. But along came J. P. Donleavy with the Ginger Man and Brendan Behan with Borstal Boy and the Quare Fella to point us towards a more unbuttoned (literally in a famous scene in the Ginger Man) and carefree world where cakes and ale were consumed with abandon. This period also featured Patrick Kavanagh’s break through collection Come Dance with Kitty Stobling that expressed attitudes questioning the Church’s writ. Dawe is clearly a fan of the man from Mucker and it’s good to see his masterpiece The Great Hunger get a well-deserved pat on the back:  “one of the mid-century Irish classics.”. The hunger referred to in this poem is of course not the Famine but the sexless lives of Maguire and his fellow farmers in rural Ireland.

Professor Dawe’s previous publication (The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets) aroused the ire of those who police gender quotas. There can be no such quibble here.  Female writers are very well represented. He’s an enthusiastic champion of Dorothy Molloy, the Ballina poet and painter, who died prematurely in 2004. He highlights the work of lesser-known writers such as Michelle O’Sullivan and Leontia Flynn, and does not neglect the estimable Eavan Boland and his fellow emeritus professor of English at Trinity, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Dawe traces the relationship between Bobby Sands’ writing and the “romantic and patriotic poetry of Ethna Carbery”. He’s a bit sniffy however about the value of her work asserting its quality is “not vindicated with the passage of time”.

There are also pieces on Stewart Parker whose “untimely death robbed Irish literature of one of its most liberated and articulate voices.”; on James Plunkett’s Strumpet City (reminding us of Rashers tragic end); and the book ends with a look at the ups and downs of literary life as seen through the eyes of Oliver Goldsmith.

While these essays are excellent and entertaining in themselves, the most substantial achievement of this book is that it will send you back to (or initiate your interest in) the writers and works that are so enthusiastically featured. In this Professor Dawe has done the Irish literary world some service.

The Wrong Country – Essays on Modern Irish Writing
Irish Academic Press
PP:  293
RRP:  €22.95

John P. O’Sullivan

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Blue Moon at Newlands Cross Crematorium

The art world seems to be suffering a lot of casualties this summer. The latest was Bernard Taylor, brother of John and Pat who run Taylor Galleries. Bernard was also involved in the art business but his area was hanging and transporting paintings.  He was a highly-skilled technician in this area and had a very sympathetic eye for a hanging. He was employed by all the high-end galleries and museums in the country and was the OPW’s main man when it came to Government buildings. Apart from his competence in hanging, he was a thoroughly amiable and charming man and good fun to meet for a pint. He had an infinite supply of entertaining and often scurrilous stories about the Irish art scene. He encountered some tragedy in his life (two of his sons died prematurely) but bore it with admirable fortitude. I last met him at Sean McSweeney’s funeral in Wicklow a few weeks ago. He looked shook but was as amiable as ever, giving no indication of the terminal nature of his cancer. He was cremated at Newlands Cross yesterday. The great and the good of the Irish art world were there in addition to a large attendance of family and friends from the Clondalkin area. I spotted Robert Ballagh, Brian Burke, Charles Tyrrell, Martin Gale, John Daly from Hillsboro Fine Art, Ib Jorgensen, James O’Halloran from Adam’s, John de Vere, and the Kerlin boys Ken and David amongst many others. It was a simple lay service with little God bothering apart from a hymn and a few biblical readings. A lady from the OPW, whose name I didn’t get, delivered a very warm and well structured tribute to Bernard – covering both the professional and the private man. We learned how proud he was of his very impressive head of blonde hair and how smartly he was always turned out even for work. I hadn’t attended this crematorium before and I was impressed by its facilities. There was loads of parking, a fine semi-circular room/chapel with plenty of seating, and at the end of the service the wicker-work coffin descended slowly into the basement below the church while we listened to a lengthy and aptly plangent version of Blue Moon by the Mavericks. Definitely a good way to go, if you must. Although poor Bernard had not quite reached 60.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 15 July 2018

There’s a veritable feast of Famine-related art on view in Skibbereen and its environs over the next two months. The corner-stone event, Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, features an exhibition at the Uilinn gallery in Skibbereen, opening on 19 July. It consists of 50 paintings from the collection of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, Connecticut. It was shown in Dublin Castle earlier this year but its title takes on a more literal hue now that it reaches West Cork. Its curator Niamh O’Sullivan described the Great Famine “as the migration crisis of the 19th Century” and anyone viewing this exhibition and the associated shows will be struck by the contemporary resonances – not least the plight of 20th Century migrants on Lesbos and Lampedusa. On the days following the opening of this exhibition, a number of site-specific events will also take place in the surrounding area under the auspices of Ann Davoren and her team at Uilinn.

Skibbereen has long been regarded as the epicentre of the Great Irish Famine. In a travel journal written in 1847, Lord Dufferin referred to Skibbereen in the County of Cork as “the very nucleus of famine and disease”. It’s fitting then that the town should host activities that recover, record, and remind us of this shameful episode in our colonial history. A period where greedy landlords, entrenched racism and laissez-faire economics conspired to inflict a devastating famine on a country with plentiful alternative food sources.  It’s the time of the year when West Cork is busy with tourists, very many of them English, and these shows should help broadcast more widely a part of our history that many are still uncomfortable with at home and ignorant of abroad.

The Irish Famine had very little in the way of contemporary visual records or associated art. There were gross caricatures in Punch magazine (depicting Paddy’s plight as caused by his own brutish stupidity) and the sanitized drawings of Jerome Mahony in the Illustrated London News – which at least elicited empathy from a largely indifferent British public. The only contemporaneous art to depict the disaster was Daniel Macdonald’s romanticized work. Irish Peasant Children shows a chubby-cheeked trio, well clothed and seemingly carefree. Only a darkening sky in the background suggests trouble ahead. Aside from Macdonald and some of Mahony’s drawings most of the pertinent art in the Uilinn show comes from the latter half of the  20th Century and later. Two of the most persistent and effective chroniclers of the Famine are sculptors John Behan and Rowan Gillespie. Behan’s Famine Mother and Children is based on a well-known Jerome Mahony drawing called Bridget O’Donnell and Children – but Behan’s sculpture has the poignant heft of art that’s lacking in Mahony’s illustration. The most immediately impactful image on view is Lillian Lucy Davidson’s Gorta. It shows a gaunt and desperate trio burying a child in unconsecrated ground. Other striking and evocative works are Hughie O’Donoghue’s On Our Knees and William Crozier’s Rainbow’s End. O’Donoghue’s mother came from the Erris area of North Mayo, a place as devastated as West Cork was by the Famine. The artist has regularly turned to that area for inspiration and recently built a house and studio there.

Three of the associated art events are site specific and so carry with them the haunting relevance of their locales. Out past Reen Pier, near Union Hall, a narrow road leads to a large isolated property belonging to the artist John Kelly. Kelly was born in England but the family went to Australia when he was six months old. He has a Cork connection through his father who was born near Mallow. Kelly is best known internationally for his Cow up a Tree sculpture (a version of which sits on his land overlooking the sea, to the bemusement of passing sailors) but also paints and makes prints to service galleries in Melbourne, London, Cork and Dublin. Kelly has fabricated a scale model of the Tate Modern amidst the sculpted wonders that abound on his property. The Tate family’s fortunes were built initially on a green-grocery business in Liverpool. During the Famine their shops received the regular supplies of fruit and vegetable from Ireland necessary to sustain its business. A tour of the Reen Farm Sculpture Garden on the 26 July will include a reading by Jeremy Irons of the famous N. M. Cummins letter to the Duke of Wellington. The letter describes in harrowing detail what happened in the area round where Kelly has located his Tate model: “In the first six (hovels) famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearance dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse-cloth, naked above the knees. I approached in horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive, they were in fever - four children, a woman, and at what had once been a man.”

Another event that points directly to local experience around Skibbereen is Toma McCullim’s 110 Skibbereen Girls project. In 1850, 110 girls were plucked from the workhouse in Skibbereen and sent to Adelaide and Melbourne in Australia, ostensibly for domestic work. However, as there were nine men to every woman in the colony at this time, their primary role was as breeders. The project was referred to as the Earl Grey scheme after the Colonial Secretary of the time. McCullim who works as an art therapist in the Community Hospital, on the site of the old workhouse, came up with the idea of involving staff and residents in developing a permanent site specific artwork to mark this moment in history. She sees the girls removal from the workhouse as a positive thing “we can’t imagine the horrors they were leaving. It’s a story about courage and having a belief in the future.” Before their voyage each girl was given clothes, a bowl and a spoon. The significance of a spoon as a metaphor in the context of the Famine is obvious.The current hospital cares for the elderly. Staff and patients were given beeswax and asked to fashion individual spoons which would later be cast in bronze. These will be embedded in the original workhouse wall (an artwork in itself) just inside the entrance to the hospital. Viewers can stand on on a block of Australian sandstone, sourced and donated by the Australian Embassy to view this surreal and poignant piece. There are 10,000 Australian citizens directly descended from these girls and some of them will attend the official unveiling of this sculpture on the 20th July. These include Judith Constable who is a descendant of Jane Leary, one of the 110. Thereafter it will be on permanent display in the grounds of the community hospital.

The overgrown remnants  of the old workhouse in Schull will feature an intriguing multi-media event entitled Anáil na Beatha (breath of life) on 21 July. It has been created by Alanna O’Kelly, a multi-media artist with an international reputation. At 9.30 pm on that evening the audience will be guided in what O’Kelly describes as a “slightly processional way” through a landscape containing story tellers, contemporary videos featuring fleeing migrants and refugees, performance artists using black butter (a nod to the old butter road nearby), a local choir, and Cormac Begley breathing the concertina (no I don’t know either). The procession will culminate in a gathering around the Famine grave outside the walls of the workhouse. O’Kelly thinks of the workhouse as “a sacred site” and her aim “is bringing people there and giving them something to think about”.

Other events planned include schools programmes, lectures, walking tours, concerts and theatre. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre, under its energetic and innovative director Terri Kearney, provides an excellent permanent exhibition of the Famine story and will conduct guided tours of Famine sites during August. It will also unveil some new Famine information panels on the walls of the hulking old soup kitchen building near the Centre.


Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The HSE - A Minor Sympton of a Major Malaise

Due to my impressive longevity the HSE have very kindly bestowed upon me a new medical card. It got the name of my GP wrong however so I called the designated number to correct this – as advised in the accompanying letter. The number was 1890 252 919. When I called this number I was advised that it could be expensive to make a call on this number and that an alternative number 051 595129 could be used. Very thoughtful I said to myself but why not tell us this in the first place. Anyway I call the cheaper option and am advised again that I should call 051 595129 – the number I am currently calling. I hang in there and am told to press 1 for English and 2 for Irish. This public service tokenism is standard so not a whit disconcerted I press 1. There’s the sound of a disconnection and suddenly I’m back being advised to use 051 595129 instead of the more expensive 1890252919. I go through this sequence a few times and give up (try it yourself). When I worked in IT the customer was sacred and fucking them around like this would lead to drastic consequences for the idiot who perpetrated it. It’s a simple system that no one in the HSE has bothered their arse to test. Your job is safe no matter how inept you are and the organisation always trumps the poor punter. Just a small example of a far greater malaise.