Tuesday, 8 June 2010

In praise of the Irish National Font

A week in County Clare, thanks to the hospitality of generous friends, beside the majesty and mystery of Lough Derg, the waters of which, every time you glance back from book, or plate, or glass, or the face of lover or friend, have changed their colours.
The herons lift their great bodies off the stones with one or two wing-flaps, and then retract their necks as they soar, rather as a plane retracts its undercarriage. The swans (albeit bigger) need a long, long run, step and frantic flap along the lake before they get airborne. But once aloft, that creaking, calling sound carries from one shore to the other...
“All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter step...”
We’re near enough to visit (again) Yeats’ one-time home, Thor Ballylee, shut this year after a flood, and Coole House and Park, where he memorialised the swans, and to wonder why exactly the mansion there was demolished (one of our friends, who is real Irish, hints darkly at a potential reason: Yeats and his circle at Coole, as Protestants, she says, were regarded in the early days of independence as “not real Irish.” Yet the tower at Ballylee, as potent a symbol, survives and is cherished).
I’m the grandson of a Dublin woman who was one of a family of fourteen children, and who fell in love with and wed an English sergeant major, so I guess I have some of the contradictions of Ireland in my veins, and while we’re in East Clare I think about them a lot.
How do you, after centuries as a colony, retrieve from the shadows a national identity which has been eclipsed and repressed, and overtaken by momentous transformations – industrial, economic, ideological? Won’t what you retrieve and shape inevitably be some kind of artifice, a construct which will, in turn, throw its own shadows and give rise to new anxieties?
But not to face up to – or face down – the anxieties and the task is to risk a cultural paralysis, and one of the things I love about Ireland is, for example, that every city, town, village and hamlet, having first been named in its familiar form, is then named again in Irish, the letters engraved always in the same Gaelic typeface, which I have taken to calling the Irish National Font – a phenomenon which is altogether more pleasurable than a National Front.
Are these names genuine salvages from the past, or themselves reconstructions, or speculations, or a mixture of the three?
Which brings me to an island in the Lough, where there are the remains of three ancient churches or chapels, which once made up a monastery, and a broken bell tower, and a number of tombs; and on which your author was photographed five years ago, wearing a beret, since lost and replaced, and a beard, since ditto and not ditto, and carrying three-and-a-half stone more than he’s carrying now.
The place name in the English tongue is “Holy Island”, which asserts – to me, at least – the sense of the numinous that its landscape and atmosphere impart (this year, for example, picnicking in sunshine by the shore, among masses of ragged robin and wild yellow iris, mottled leaves showing where the orchids had been, with thrushes singing and reed buntings performing acrobatics nearby).
But the name in Irish is Iniscealtra, meaning, they say locally, “Church Island”, which on the one hand seems prosaically unIrish, bearing the same nominative relation to “Holy Island” as London’s “Marble Arch” does to its Parisian equivalent, “L’Arc de Triomphe;” but which on the other, seems to put the ecclesiastical ruins at an arm’s length, as it were, hinting at a very different (pagan?) perspective from which the churches are an addendum to the island, and not its meaning.
And then, rootling around on the Internet when we got home, I found a third possibility, a contraction (deliberate?) from Inisceltchair to Iniscealtra. Celtchair was a Hercules figure in pre-Christian Irish legend, a hero huge and grey, with a fearsome lance that burst into flames if it wasn’t regularly drenched in blood.
At the end of his story Celtchair kills the black hound Doelchu – on the island? – but one drop of its poisoned blood trickles up the lance, infects him, and he dies.
Let me argue then, that it is not in the resolution of such ambiguities (and shadows), but in their coexistence, that the true identity of the island, and perhaps of Ireland, is to be found.
Footnote, June 9: Back in London, walking on Hampstead Heath this morning, I noticed for the first time a flare of ragged robin among yellow irises on the bank of the Highgate No 1. pond. A little way out in the water, a large black dog was swimming. Well, now. Mr Yeats?
"I had not eyes like those enchanted eyes,
Yet dreamed that beings happier than men
Moved round me in the shadows, and at night
My dreams were cloven by voices and by fires..."
(From: I walked among the seven woods of Coole)
Footnote, June 12: I did not know when I wrote this last that something of further relevance - or coincidence - would unfold from my trip to Eire; I tell the story in a footnote to an earlier blog in March this year.

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