Friday, 17 March 2017

An Old Irish Miscellany: From Artistic Dress to Fairy Tales

Portrait of Lady Lavery as Kathleen Ni Houlihan, by
Sir John Lavery
Lady Wilde:  "The everything that is artistic-the fascinations of life, beauty of form, music, poetry, song, splendour, and noble pleasures.  Their kings in ancient times were elected for their personal beauty as much as for their chivalrous qualities. No man with a blemish or deformity was allowed to reign.  Then, their appreciation of intellect proved the value they set on the spiritual and ideal above the material and the brutal.  The poet ranked next to the princes of the land. His person was sacred in battle; he was endowed with an estate, so that his soul might be free from sordid cares; and his robe of many colours, and the golden circlet on his brow at the festivals, showed his claim and right to rank next to royalty, and to sit at the right hand of the king.  Poetry, learning, music oratory, heroism, and splendour of achievement-these were the true objects of homage and admiration amongst the ancient Irish.
There was nothing brutal in their ideal of life; no hideous images or revolting cruelties; and the beautiful and graceful Sidhe race, with their plaintive music and soft melancholy, and aspirations for a lost heaven, is the expression in a graceful and beautiful symbol of the instinctive tendencies of the Irish nature to all that is most divine in human intellect, and soft and tender in human emotion.

Ireland is a land of mists and mystic shadows; of cloud-wraiths on the purple mountains; of weird silences in the lonely hills, and fitful skies of deepest gloom alternating with gorgeous sunset splendours.  All the fantastic caprice of an ever-varying atmosphere stirs the imagination, and makes the Irish people strangely sensitive to spiritual influences.  They see visions and dream dreams, and are haunted at all times by an ever-present sense of the supernatural...They are made for worshippers, poets, artists, musicians, orators; to move the world by passion, not by logic. Scepticism will never take root in Ireland; infidelity is impossible to the people.  To believe fanatically, trust implicitly, hope infinitely, and perhaps to revenge implacably-these are the unchanging and ineradicable characteristics of Irish nature, of Celtic nature, we may say; for it has been the same throughout all history and all ages.  And it is these passionate qualities the make the Celt the great motive force of the world, ever striving against limitations towards some vision of ideal splendour; the restless centrifugal force of life, as opposed the centripetal, which is ever seeking a calm quiescent rest within its appointed sphere.
The very tendency to superstition, so marked in Irish nature, arises from an instinctive dislike to the narrow limitations of common sense.  It is characterized by a passionate yearning towards the vague, the mystic, the invisible, and the boundless infinite of the realms of imagination. ...the Irish love youth, beauty, splendour, lavish generosity, music and song, the feast and the dance. "

Riders of the Sidhe

The mid/late Victorian era was an extremely creative time in the artistic world.  There were many forms created and revived, from Medievalism to the Pre-Raphaelites, the Aesthetic Movement, etc...  One important movement in Ireland and Scotland that was related to the Arts & Crafts Movement was the Celtic Revival.  Suddenly artists and craftsmen were looking back to traditional, regional design and reviving and reworking them in a blaze of rich creativity, after so many years of the culture being repressed in every way.  From traditional crafts, to painting, literature, music, and theatre-this movement kept growing in the years that followed.

In 'The Oxford Book of Ireland', there is a delightful story recounted by Mary Colum in her book 'Life and the Dream', from 1928, of herself and her friends who adopted the theatrical artistic Irish dress, which went unappreciated by some of the locals...they just didn't understand these girls with their lovely noble tendencies!  I give them full credit for trying: 

"In decorating themselves in a traditional Irish manner, the female sex were not behindhand, especially the youthful members thereof.  It may be doubted, however, if the women's garment which really had been concocted from pictures was especially Irish:  it was probably simply the costume of the Medieval European lady with a few fancy Celtic fixtures attached.  A girl poet, friend of mine, Moirin Fox, never wore any other garb. She would appear in the Abbey in gorgeous purple and gold, a torc on her forehead, a Tara brooch fastening her brath, and various other accoutrements of the ancient Irish, including the inevitable amber.  The rest of us only occasionally appeared in Gaelic costume, which, of course, had to be Irish manufactured material.  For dressy wear I had a white garment with blue and green embroidery, a blue brath, copper brooches, and other archaeological adornments.  For more ordinary wear I had the Irish costume in blue green, a brath of the same colour with embroideries out of The Book Of Kells.  These, as I remember, were chiefly of snakes eating one another's tales.  With this went a blue stone necklace, a little silver harp fastening the brath, a silver Claddagh ring, and a silver snake bracelet which I'm afraid was early Victorian rather than early Celtic.  This getup was alright for the Abbey Theatre of Gaelic League dances, but once when myself and a friend, Siav Trench, in a similar getup and a more striking colour scheme, walked down a street where the fishwomen were selling their fish, we were openly derided.  The fishmongers called out, 'Will yez look at the Irishers trying to look like stained glass windows?  What is the country coming to at all, at all?  Them Irishers are going daft!'  We were not too sensitive to ridicule, but we did not again wear such garments in parts of the city where anything out of the ordinary was mocked at so vociferously." 

Illustration by Katherine Cameron, from 'Celtic Tales' by Louey Chisholm

Some centuries-old Irish verses, very lovely and expressing complete delight in nature:

The Hill of Howth
Delightful to be on the Hill of Howth, very sweet to be above its white sea; the perfect fertile hill, home of ships, the vine-grown pleasant warlike peak.
The peak where Finn and Fianna used to be, the peak where were drinking horns and cups, the peak where bold O'Duinn brought Grainne one day in stress of pursuit.
The peak bright-knolled beyond all hills, with its hill-top round and green and rugged; the hill full of swordsmen, full of wild garlic and trees, the many-coloured peak, full of beasts, wooded.
The peak that is loveliest throughout the land of Ireland, the bright peak above the sea of gulls, it is a hard step for me to leave it, lovely Hill of delightful Howth.      Irish 14th century

The Wayside Fountain
Cenn Escrach of the orchards, a dwelling for the meadow bees, there is a shining thicket in its midst, with a drinking-cup of wooden laths.

The Blackbird's Song
The little bird has given a whistle from the tip of its bright yellow beak; the blackbird from the yellow-tufted bough sends forth its call over Loch Loigh.

The Hermit Blackbird
Ah, blackbird, it is well for you where your nest is in the bushes; a hermit that clangs no bell, sweet, soft, and peaceful is your call.

The Spring
Spring of Traigh Dha Bhan, lovely is your pure-topped cress; since your crop has become neglected your brook-lime is not allowed to grow.
Your trout out from your banks, your wild swine in your wilderness; the stags of your fine hunting crag, your dappled red-breasted fawns.
Your nuts on the crest of your trees, your fish in the waters of your stream; lovely is the colour of our springs of arum lily, green brook in the wooded hollow...

Sliabh gCua
Sliabh gCua, haunt of wolves, rugged and dark, the wind wails about its glens, wolves howl around its chasms' the fierce brown deer bells in autumn around it, the crane screams over its crags.

The Storm
Cold is the night in the Great Moor, the rain pours down, no trifle; a roar in which the clean wind rejoices howls over the sheltering wood.

Look before you to the north-east at the glorious sea, home of creatures, dwelling of seals; wanton and splendid, it has taken on flood-tide.

There is a great wealth and treasure of folk legends and fairy tales from Ireland.  W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory laboured intensely at gathering material in this area and re-telling these imaginative tales; and so did Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, Oscar Wilde's equally eccentric mother, of whom I relayed some of her observations of the Irish at the beginning of this blog.

In Irish fairy tales, the fairies were not pretty little creatures of a generally kindly disposition, they were tricky and easily offended, and having a darker and more sinister nature, and were not to be crossed.

'A Donegal Fairy' by Leticia Maclintock:
"Ay, it's a bad thing to displeasure the gentry, sure enough-they can be unfriendly if they're angered, an' they can be the very best o' gude neighbours if they're treated kindly.  My mother's sisterwas her lone in the house one day, wi' a big pot o' water boiling on the fire, and ane o' the wee folk fell down the chimney, and slipped wi' his leg in the hot water.  He let a terrible squeal out o' him, an; in a minute the house was full o' wee crathurs pulling him out o' the pot, an' carrying him across the floor.  "Did she scald you?" my aunt heard them saying to him.  "Na, na, it was mysel' scalded my ainsel', quoth the wee fellow. "A weel, a weel," says they, "If it was your ainsel' scalded yoursel', we'll say nothing, but if she has scalded you, we'd ha' made her pay."

'The Dance', Robin Flower, Poems and Translations, 1931:

On the white wall flickered the sputtering lamp
And lit the shadowy kitchen, the sanded floor,
The girls by the painted dresser, the dripping men
Late from the sea and huddled,
These on the settle, those by the table; the turf
Sent up faint smoke, and faint in the chimney a light
From the frost-fed stars trembled and died and trembled again in the smoke.
'Rise up now, Shane', said a voice, and another:
'Kate, stand out on the floor'; the girls to the men
Cried challenge on challenge; a lilt in the corner rose
And climbed and wavered and fell, and springing again
Called to the heavy feet of the men; the girls wild-eyed,
Their bare feet beating the measure, their loose hair flying,
Danced to the shuttle of lilted music weaving
Into a measure the light and the heavy foot.

One of my all-time favourite television series adapted from the humorous Somerville & Ross Irish R.M. books:

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Stories For Christmas by Alison Uttley

This collection of twelve fantastical stories is my current selection for Christmas reading.  My copy is a vintage Puffin edition from 1977, with beautiful cover art by Gavin Rowe. It is an utterly charming and cosy book where unexpected, magical and beautiful things happen for Christmas; and kindness abounds. Trees can think and talk, dolls come to life and make festive preparations, and animals carry on and prepare for the festivities as if they were humans.  It is one of the loveliest Christmas books I've read, and one of the sweetest books I've ever encountered.  Even though the stories were originally intended for younger readers, they are so delightful that people of any age should read this, to bring back a touch of simple childhood innocence and unlimited imagination.  Merry Christmas!

'Blazing log fires, mince pies, red holly berries and the peal of church bells ringing out over snow-covered fields:  the twelve stories in this collection capture all the warmth and fun of Christmas as celebrated in the traditional country way that Alison Uttley knew and loved when she was a child.'

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Woeful World of Wuthering Heights

I saw a very interesting blog about Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights' today  and it brought back my feelings when reading this story about eight years ago. It's a great book, but not one I enjoyed, it was more an experience of getting pulled in and absorbed by its strange, dark, moody, tragic, passionate, and dramatic world.   It haunted me continually during the week I read it, even encroaching into my dreams. If I'd had a wild, windy moor to forlornly wander onto (donning a flowing cape), I would have done so.

 "My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath...I am Heathcliff - he's always, always in my my own being".

"And what was it that had suggested the tremendous tumult...Merely, the branch of a fir-tree that touched my lattice as the blast wailed by, and rattled its dry cones against the panes!... This time I remembered I was lying in the oak closet and I heard distinctly the gusty wind, and the driving of the snow; I heard, also, the fir-bough repeat its teasing sound, and ascribed it to the right cause:  but it annoyed me so much, that I resolved to silence it, if possible; and I thought, I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement...'I must stop it, nevertheless!' I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch:  instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand!  The intense horror of nightmare came over me; I tried to draw back my arm, but, the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, Let me in-let me in!"

Charlotte Bronte wrote that: "Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block on a solitary moor...with time and labour the crag took human shape, and there it stands colossal".



Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The Intriguing Bookish Beginning of 'Postern of Fate' by Agatha Christie

'Postern of Fate' by Agatha Christie, from 1973, is not considered one of her best stories.  It is one of her last books, and the last one with Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who are getting on in years by this time. In fact, the writing is rather poor at the start of the book, and one wonders if she intentionally used such poor dialogue and excessive repetitiveness to express a decrease in mental faculties for characters no longer young?   Or was she sadly not writing as well as before?  Who knows?  Despite that,  I've always liked this book and have read it several times; not sure if I can even explain why, but there is an atmosphere to it that appeals to me. 

In the beginning of the story, the Beresfords had just moved into an old house in the country, or rather a village (a theme that always appeals), and the adventure begins gently with attempts to sort through and arrange masses of books.  Along with their own books, Tommy and Tuppence also acquired many old books from the previous owners, and ones that had apparently been in the house for many years before that.  

Now this is my favourite part:  Whilst going through and trying to organise all those books, Tuppence gets consumed with browsing through and reminiscing about wonderful books she'd read in childhood.  A wonderful array of tantalizing titles are mentioned:

Mrs. Thomas Beresford replaced The Cuckoo Clock, by Mrs. Molesworth, choosing a vacant place on the third shelf from the bottom.  The Mrs. Molesworths were congregated here together.  Tuppence drew out The Tapestry Room and held it thoughtfully in her fingers.  Or she might read Four Winds Farm.

She removed  some more books.  Three-quarters of an hour passed with her absorbed first in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, then with Charlotte Yonge's Unknown to History.  Her hands lingered over the fat shabbiness of The Daisy Chain.

Albert mounted on a chair and banging each book in turn to dislodge such dust as it had managed to gather on it, handed things down.  Tuppence received them with a good deal of rapture.
"Oh, fancy!  All these.  I really have forgotten a lot of these.  Oh, here's The Amulet and here's The Psamayad (Psammead).  Here's The New Treasure Seekers.  Oh, I love all those.  No, don't put them on shelves yet, Albert.  I think I'll have to read them first.  Well, I mean, one or two of them first, perhaps.  Now, what's this one?  Let me see.  The Red Cockade.  Oh yes, that was one of the historical ones.  That was very exciting.  And there's Under the Red Robe, too.  Lots of Stanley Weyman.  Lots and lots.  Of course I used to read those when I was about ten or eleven... The Prisoner of Zenda.  One's first introduction, really, to the romantic novel.  The romance of Princess Flavia.  The King of Ruritania.  Rudolph Rassendyll, some name like that, whom one dreamt of at night."

Albert handed down another selection.   (Then mention is made of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Catriona, and The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson).

"The Black Arrow.  I declare!  The Black Arrow!  Now that's one of the first books really I ever got hold of and read...Now let me think...The Black Arrow.  Yes, of course, it was that picture on the wall with eyes-real eyes-looking through the eyes of the picture.  It was splendid.  So frightening, just that....It was all about-oh yes, the cat and dog?  No.  The cat, the rat and Lovell, the dog.  Rule all England under the hog..."  She sat down in the chair, took The Black Arrow, opened the pages and engrossed herself.  "Oh dear," she said, "how wonderful this is.  I've really forgotten it quite enough to enjoy reading it all over again.  It was so exciting." 

'The Black Arrow' is a great book indeed, and in the midst of reading it, Tuppence finds a mysterious code and message within the pages, and thus begins the mystery story. 

Friday, 8 July 2016

The Ghost of Down Hill by Edgar Wallace

This is a rather rare edition of this story, which I found for next to nothing in a secondhand book shop many years ago.  Even more unusual is that it still had the dust jacket, though in a somewhat fragile state. Here is the rather spooky passage that is illustrated in the book jacket art:

'The Ghost of Down Hill' by Edgar Wallace, 1929:

 "She undressed and sat in her kimono by the open window looking over the garden. It was the third quarter of the moon and it was rising as she looked out upon that most wonderful of landscapes. The snowy expanse of the Downs lay in blue shadow and the moonlight flooded the broad white Weald with an uncanny radiance. She sighed happily, switched off the light and snuggled into bed. The strangeness of the room and , perhaps, the queer smell which all new furniture has, prevented her sleeping as soundly as she expected. 

 She turned from side to side, dozing fitfully, and then she heard the faint sound of a foot on the gravel path outside. From the position of the patch of moonlight on the floor she knew it must be very late and wondered if her uncle was in the habit of taking midnight strolls on such a freezing night. Slipping out of bed she pulled on her dressing-gown, walked to the window, and looked out. And then her blood froze, and her knees gave under her, for there in the middle of the garden path, standing out against the snowy background, was a figure in the sombre habit of a monk! The cowl was drawn over his head and the face was invisible.

It stood there motionless, its hands concealed in its wide sleeves, its head bent as in thought. Then slowly the head turned and the moonlight fell upon the bony face, the hollow sockets of its eyes, the white gleam of its fleshless teeth.
For a moment she stared, paralysed, incapable of sound or movement; and then she found her voice, and with a shrill scream collapsed on the floor in a dead faint".

Friday, 29 January 2016

The Poets On Winter- George Mackay Brown

Looking through some books, there was a bookmark on this little piece by the late Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown, from 1987:

The Poets On Winter:
'As the the day lengthens the caald strengthens', the old folk used to say, drawing on a great hoard of folk memory. It's true enough. Looking back over many years, January seems always to be the month to be feared, with claws and teeth of ice. It is the month when Robert Burns was born- "Twas then a blast o' Janwar' win' .../ Blew hansel in on Robin'... There is a dark rich magic in this time of year that Burns loved and exploited to the full. It's impossible to imagine his greatest poem, 'Tam o' Shanter', in a summer setting: a storm, with darkness, was essential.
His cantata, 'The Jolly Beggars', is a winter-time extravaganza. He weaves his magic about a winter-evicted mouse. 'The Cottar's Saturday Night'-that pious pastoral- falls in winter-time, when hearts and hearth-stone burn more brightly. Many of his lyrics too, are stoked to winter ardour- 'Oh, wert thou in the cold blast...' Does not the whole world sing 'Auld Lang Syne' at New Year? - though nearly always they get the words wrong.

It may be that high summer is too obviously 'practical' -with abundance of flowers, birdsong, fleeces, honey, sunshine - and poets like a thin soil to work in, so that the beauties of art can vie with the overflowing riches of nature.
The coldness and cruelty of nature is in one of Keats's greatest poems, 'The Eve of Saint Agnes'. He makes a marvellous distillation from the bitter wind, the shivering sheep, the frozen breath of the bedesman that was 'like pious incense from a censer old'.
Possibly the joy of winter for artists is the knowledge that the seed is lying under the snow, with all of summer's abundance locked in it. The waiting and the longing are more wonderful that the consumation.
'Twelfth Night'- that is, January the sixth- Shakespeare called one of the happiest of his plays. Another he titled 'The Winter's Tale': a title to enchant any audience, because it is at the time of darkness and snow that people draw in to the fireside to listen to the old men's stories. Even nowadays, I suppose, TV has more viewers than on lingering rose-scented evenings.
George Mackay Brown.

Paintings one and three by John Arthur Malcolm Aldridge; middle painting by James McIntosh Patrick, 'Winter In Angus'.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

A Christmas Scene From 'Sir Gawain And The Green Knight'

This king lay at Camelot one Christmastide
With many mighty lords, manly liegemen,
Members rightly reckoned of the Round Table,
In splendid celebration, seemly and carefree.
There tussling in tournament time and again
Jousted in jollity these gentle knights,
Then in court carnival sang catches and danced;
For fifteen days the feasting there was full in like measure
With all the meat and merry-making men could devise,
Gladly ringing glee, glorious to hear,
A noble din by day, dancing at night!
All was happiness in the height in halls and chambers
For lords and their ladies, delectable joy...

Then the first course came in with such cracking of trumpets,
(Whence bright bedecked blazons in banners hung)
Such din of drumming and a deal of fine piping,
Such wild warbles whelming and echoing
That hearts were uplifted high at the strains.
Then delicacies and dainties were delivered to the guests,
Fresh food in foison, such freight of full dishes
That space was scarce at the social tables
For the several soups set before them in silver on the cloth.
Each feaster made free with the fare,
Took lightly and nothing loth;
Twelve plates were for every pair,
Good beer and bright wine both.

Wishing a Merry Christmas to all!