Dublin: Scraps of Yeats

While in Ireland, I went twice to the William Butler Yeats exhibit at the National Library of Ireland. It’s a really good exhibit. Before going, I probably knew more than the average American about Yeats, but not much more. This exhibit really made the learning fun and interesting. It’s a great look at a time and place in Irish history that was fermenting with experimental art and revolutionary politics.

I liked that it showed the creative bent of the Yeats family. His father, sisters, and brother were all artists. They’ve been called the “most creative family in Irish history.” I also noted that his mother is described mainly by her depression and withdrawal. Families are complex.

"For the Road" by Jack B. Yeats
"For the Road" by Jack B. Yeats

As a poet, one of my favorite parts of the exhibit was the section that unpacks Yeats’ process for writing poems. Drafts and drafts of original handwritten sheets are in the exhibit with explanations of why he made the revisions that he did. I was especially intrigued by the “prose sketch” he did before any poem. He outlines what he was trying to achieve; made lists of images and words; worked out basic rhyme schemes and meter; and finally set about actually writing the verse.

But the best thing for the readers here is that the whole exhibit is online. It’s a truly amazing feat of interactive learning. The National Library has the most Yeats archival material of anyplace in the world and most of it has been sorted and presented in this exhibit. I spent hours in the actual exhibit and will probably spend hours more scouring the online version. Take a peek!

And since it’s All Hallows Weekend, I thought I’d include a little ghostly scrap.

All Souls’ Night
By William Butler Yeats

Midnight has come and the great Christ Church bell
And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night.
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine. …

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Howth: What the Heck’s the Book o’ Kells?

Our writers’ conference has officially ended. We had our reading last night and said our goodbyes over breakfast this morning. Today, Katie Chilton and I took the DART into Dublin. First on our itinerary was The Book of Kells at Trinity College library.

The Book of Kells was written around the year 800 AD. It contains the four gospels and is written on vellum made from 185 calf skins. It contains a Latin text of the Gospels in tiny script with amazing decorations of illumination in the margins, in the text, and whole decorative pages throughout. The manuscript was given to Trinity College in the 17th century. Two volumes can normally be seen each day, one opened to display a major decorated page, and one to show two pages of script.

Today’s pages were the illuminated title page from the gospel of Mark and a text page was Matthew 5:35-48 (“You have heard it said: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth …”)

Cat, mouse, host - Detail from the Book of Kells, Trinity College, Dublin
Cat, mouse, host - Detail from the Book of Kells, Trinity College, Dublin

One of my favorite images is apparently a reference to a medieval joke/conundrum: It shows a cat chasing a rat or mouse that is eating a Eucharistic host. The unanswered question was: If Jesus says “I am the bread of life and whoever eats of this bread shall have eternal life,” and if the host is truly turned into the Body of Christ so that all who eat of it will have life eternal, then what happens to the mouse who nibbles on the Eucharist in the middle of the night? And what about the cat that eats the mouse?

Ah…the human tendency to make simple things complex. What would we do if we couldn’t dither about such conundrums?.

Howth: A Woman Priest in Ireland

In the Irish Times on Tuesday, there was a nice commentary by Ginnie Kennerley. She’s a Church of Ireland (Anglican) priest and editor of Search magazine. Kennerley gives a little peek into her world as one of Ireland’s first women priests and the surprising warmth and receptivity she’s felt among the Catholics in Ireland, many asking her, “When will our church get round to it?”

A SURPRISING thing about being one of the first women priests in Ireland has been the extent to which it has taken me out into the wider church community. It aroused an interest which was much wider than in my own church, and this offered the opportunity for a good deal of exposure to students, congregations and clergy of other churches – all of it enriching. …

Ever since my childhood in England, with a grandmother, an uncle and an aunt who were Roman Catholic converts, I had been aware there were spiritual riches in the Catholic and the Orthodox traditions; this awareness fed into my occasional Christian Unity Week sermons down the years. Invariably there was a warm welcome on these occasions – so warm that one could be forgiven for impatience with the power plays between the churches’ representatives.

“When will our church get around to it, I wonder?” was a common remark at country events where people who had never met a woman in a collar pressed round to shake my hand.

I’ve been following the women’s ordination movement with great interest. You can track some of my musings in Rocking the Boat, an article I wrote for Sojourners..

Howth: ‘There’s No One As Irish as Barack O’Bama’

We had a great day in Dublin going to “James Joyce’s Tower” in Sandycove where Ulysses begins. Then had lunch at the National Library where we were able to watch the finals of the Poetry Out Loud contest.

I spent a fast hour in the National Gallery peeking at the Irish art of Sean Keating, Paul Henry, and Jack Butler Yeats (WB’s brother) and some of the classics: Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602), Diego Velázquez’s Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus (about which Denise Levertov wrote her poem The Servant-Girl at Emmaus), and Brueghhel and Rubens’ Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1628).

Dublin, St. Andrews Street, October 2008
Dublin, St. Andrews Street, October 2008

But we can’t forget that the American elections are only 15 days away. While Republicans and Democrats are doing their best to highlight their differences, there is one commonality among the four candidates for President and Vice President that none can deny their Irish roots, writes genealogist Megan Smolenyak in today’s Irish Times.

It is Barack Obama’s Irish heritage that seems to have surprised most, and I confess that I own a t-shirt that sports the title of the Hardy Drew and the Nancy Boys song: “There is no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but even the candidate was intrigued to learn of his Irish roots and has hinted of a possible visit to Moneygall, Co Offaly at some point.

Why Moneygall? Because that’s where his third great-grandfather, Fulmoth Kearney, lived before heading to Ohio in 1850. Many don’t realize that tracing the place of origin for diaspora descendants is usually quite a challenge, and in the case of Obama, I considered myself lucky to find a couple of tombstones in Ohio for Fulmoth’s father and brother that steered my research to Moneygall.

Their story is a version of the oft-heard famine tale. Members of the extended Kearney family began emigrating to America in the late 1700s, but it was the 1848 death of Fulmoth’s uncle Francis in Ohio that sparked the departure of his immediate family. In his will, Francis left land to Joseph, Fulmoth’s father, but only if he came to America to claim it. Joseph left in 1849 and Fulmoth and a sister followed in 1850, with Fulmoth’s reluctant mother and remaining brother and sister making the journey in 1851.

Recent research into earlier generations of the Kearney line by the Irish research firm, Eneclann, has revealed a colorful family history of wig-making, land-dealing and politics, extending to Dublin.

Slainte, O’Bama!.

Howth: Where Molly Bloom Said ‘Yes’

Dateline: Howth, Dublin, Ireland, overlooking the Irish Sea

Probably the most famous bit of modern Irish literature is James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Set in Dublin, it tracks a day (June 16, 1904) in the life of one Leopold Bloom. Joyce was experimenting with language and fracturing the established order of the novel in a way similar, perhaps, to Faulkner.

Taking Homer’s epic, Joyce makes an ordinary advertising salesman Leopold Bloom into the hero and all the daily adventures he encounters as he makes his way around Dublin. At the famous conclusion to Ulysses, Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, has an several page soliloquy in which she recalls her decision to accept her first date with Leopold when he wooed her on Howth Head.

Yesterday, Katie Chilton and I walked up to the trailhead that leads out to Howth Head. First we stopped for a few minutes to revel in a house where W.B. Yeats grew up. (Yeats wooed the fiery revolutionary Maude Gonne also on Howth Head.)

Finally, we headed out on the cliff trail and hiked up to the head. It’s a rugged, beautiful, terrifying height over the pounding surf. We watched crabbers pull in their pots. From the look of the “refuse” in the crevices of the rocks, I’d say Howth Head is still a place for lovers.

Howth Head, where Molly Bloom said 'yes'
Howth Head, where Molly Bloom said yes

Here’s a portion of Molly’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

…the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountains yes so we are flowers all a woman’s body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes…

…I was a Flower of the mountains yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him and yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.

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Howth: Fish is Life

Dateline: Howth, Dublin, Ireland, overlooking the Irish Sea

Just a taste of the town of Howth. It’s a fishing village with the finest and freshest fish you’ll find anywhere. Every morning I’ve had wild salmon for breakfast with eggs, tea, and toast.

On the West Pier in Howth I spotted this little trailer and couldn’t resist it.

Howth, Dublin, West Pier
Howth, Dublin, West Pier

I’m sure there is good Christian symbolism in this photo. It’s all part of tracking Jesus … once you catch the scent..

Howth: Obama in Ireland?

Dateline: Howth, Dublin, Ireland, overlooking the Irish Sea

The headlines in the Irish Times are much the same as in the States: “Banks to Pay One Billion Euros to Cover State Guarantee” and concern over whether or not new legislation cuts too much in health-care benefits for the elderly (over 70).

But in one-inch photos on the lower left-hand side of the front page are Obama, McCain, and Sarah P. (“Joltin’ Joe [Biden] has left and gone away”). The Irish and BBC commentators say that Obama won last night’s debate hands down. That McCain just looked old, ugly, and mean. And that Sarah “Bob Roberts” Palin has “provoked a sharp backlash among voters,” hurting McCain’s campaign.

The Op-Ed page only carries on commentary related to the U.S. presidential race: It’s by Garrison Keillor. The headline is “Barak’s Cool Poise a Testament to American Heart and Humour.”

“The man has walked tall,” writes Keillor, “and his wife has turned out to be the brightest figure in the whole political parade, an ebullient woman of quick wit and beautiful spirit.”

In other Obama v McCain news, I recommend taking at look at Rolling Stone‘s Oct. 18, 2008 issue. There is a very unpleasant investigative piece on McCain, Make-Believe Maverick by Tim Dickinson. Also don’t miss Karl Rove’s A-Team by Sean Woods. It’s good to know who is steering the spin machine in the Republican campaign.

My favorite quote from the McCain investigative piece is by retired brigadier general John H. Johns who studied with McCain at the National War College.

“He’s going to be Bush on steroids,” says Johns about McCain. “His hawkish views now are very dangerous. He puts military at the top of foreign policy rather than diplomacy, just like George Bush does. He and other neoconservatives are dedicated to converting the world to democracy and free markets, and they want to do it through the barrel of a gun.”

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Howth: “Water-Burn”

Dateline: Howth, Dublin, Ireland, overlooking the Irish Sea

I’ve been introduced to a new poet today, Belfast’s Michael Longley. Ted Deppe read a wonderful poem titled “Water-Burn.” Longley’s a voracious technical poet imbued with Buddhist tendencies.

After after years of weaving in and out of the politics of Belfast’s Shankill and Falls Roads, which divide the city, Longley moved to the West of Ireland and became fixated on the Irish landscape. “When I go to the West of Ireland,” he said in an interview with poet and teacher Clive Wilmer, “I don’t go there to have colourful talk with the natives. I go there to look at birds and flowers and the beautiful countryside … I think our relationship with the natural world and with the plants and animals is the major issue now.”

Water-Burn

We should have been galloping on horses, their hoofprints
Splashes of light, divots kicked out of the darkness,
Or hauling up lobster pots in a wake of sparks. Where
Were the otters and seals? Were the dolphins on fire?
Yes, we should have been doing more with our lives.

–Michael Longley

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Howth: “Spiritual Direction”

Dateline: Howth, Dublin, Ireland, overlooking the Irish Sea

The sun has poked up over Howth Head this morning and the sea is bright and blue. Howth harbor is a seal sanctuary, so the seals are rolling over slowly in the surf and the seagulls are harassing them with glee.

Last night, our writers group gathered at a local pub, Krugers, for a poetry reading by Ted Deppe from his forthcoming collection Orpheus on the Red Line (Tupelo Press, 2009). It’s a collection with great tenderness, wisdom, and a touching feel for the rough sides of ordinary life. I especially loved his poem “Houses of Hospitality” about Dorothy Day. I’ll try to get a copy and post it here.

In the meantime, below is one of Ted’s poems:

Spiritual Direction

Because she poked fun at the way his white robes
flew out behind him as he biked back
to the monastery for vespers

and then, recording her jokes in his journal,
he tried to recall each thing she’d said or done.

Because his hands shook when he phoned her
and later, when they walked beyond the gatehouse,
how the hills wouldn’t stop trembling–

he told himself he knew at least this much,
if the world shakes, pay attention!

Because of the long night, then, when he couldn’t not
think of her. Or the energy surging
through his ordered life, a wind

rising within him, the same energy he’d followed
long ago into the abbey, almost helpless again before it.

His reaching out of bed for his journal,
trying to describe the sound of her laughter
in the gatehouse corridor. As if God was leading him

away from the church, away even from God.
As if he was at last at the mercy.

-Theodore Deppe (from The Wanderer King).

Howth: No Second Troy

Dateline: Howth, Ireland, overlooking the Irish Sea

I made it to Howth, Ireland, just outside Dublin. Howth is the hook that goes out into the Irish Sea. It’s also where W.B. Yeats grew up and wrote his early poetry. My room looks out over the sea wall and tonight the moon is full, which brought us some wonderful tides today. The old abbey ruins on the hill are comforting in the moonlight and the buoys are calling out to the boats out for night fishing.

Yesterday, after arriving at 7 a.m., I took the Eirebus and Dublin Area Rapid Transit train from the Dublin airport to Howth Station. Then walked a half mile in the pouring rain to the King Sitric guesthouse where I’m staying this week. On the train was Yeat’s poem “No Second Troy.” It’s Yeat’s homage to the militant Irish freedom-fighter Maude Gonne. Yeats was in love with her. She was not in love with him. She advocated armed struggle to free Ireland from British rule. Yeats deplored violence and found it empty. In this poem, he compares her to that “face that launched a thousand ships,” Helen of Troy. Yeats found Gonne inspiring and she served as a poetic muse for him, but–like some political figures today–she stirred up a baseness in people that appalled him (“have taught to ignorant men most violent ways”).

No Second Troy
WHY should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great.
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
–William Butler Yeats

Look for more from Ireland in the days ahead!.