Monday, March 17, 2014

Yeats, the Gaol, and Thin Lizzy: Happy St. Patrick's Day!

I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride  
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:  
A terrible beauty is born.

These words from Yeats's masterful poem "Easter, 1916" rumbled through my head last month when I visited Dublin, and Kilmainham Gaol, because of the strange beauty of its architecture.

The gaol was a place of unmitigated suffering from its opening in 1796 through to the
famine year 1845–1852, when the poor were truly incarcerated for stealing bread, to the early 20th century when the leaders and followers of the 1916 uprising—fourteen at least— were shot by firing squad on the grounds.

Here's the thing about being an American visiting Ireland: We were a colony of England, and when that no longer felt tenable, we had a Revolution. It was bloody, and lasted 8 long years, April 19, 1775  until the surrender at Yorktown, September 3, 1783. Then it was over and we were free of British Crown Rule.

The Irish tried the same, and ended up with 800 years of bloodshed, and a third of their country still under the crown. Such different fates for two countries with the same goals.

We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English. Winston Churchill

Since the Good Friday Agreement, signed 10 April 1998, sanity returned to the two isles, and the daily/monthly killing of the 1970s was finally over. Economic prosperity has come and gone in the Celtic Tiger and the banking collapses.

Dubin Today: Irish Is Spoken & the English Like to Visit
What struck me most last month were the cultural things. For instance, the amazing resurrection of Irish, the Gaelic language.  The English language is so associated with Ireland through the brilliance of Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, Cavanaugh, etc., that it's easy to forget that it is the language of the conqueror. Forty years ago or so Ireland made a conscious effort to revive their native language. Today: official signs are in Irish first, then English; there are Irish language soap operas, sports shows, and talk shows, as well as columns in print and online; and you hear the Elven-sounding language spoken casually on cell phones.

I was also suprised how many young English guys and girls were visiting. At the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, at the dinner/show with traditional Irish music, there were lots of and lots of Englishmen. One couple was on their honeymoon. Seems that the progeny of the conquerors are lucky to be able to enjoy the extensive charms of the vanquished, who were never entirely done in.

And in fact, are the coolest, quirkiest bunch of people on the planet. Case in point: outside of my hotel was a statue of Phil Lynott, late of Thin Lizzy, Ireland's first great rock band to go international. He was born in England to an Afro-Guyanese father and an Irish mother, and went to live with an uncle in Dublin when he was 4. Friends said that he insisted on being called Irish and wiki lists his "origin" as Ireland. Below a smoking performance of "Whiskey in the Jar."

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday at the 2013 Venice Biennale

I am not much of a photographer, and my mind thinks in words before images. But these pictures I took at the 55the Venice Biennale have stuck with me. Sculptor Pawel Althamer installed Venetians (2013), life size sculptures of local Venetians, casting their faces and hands in plaster before joining them to bodies composed of extruded ribbons of gray plastic. Althamer: "It is a major achievement to realize that the body is only a vehicle for the soul."

Josef Koudelka's work in the historic first ever pavilion from the Vatican (Holy See). A look at the the decay of man's world. I get an Ozymandias vibe from the hand.

Mia Xiaochun of the People's Republic of China work The Last Judgment of Cypberspace is a virtual, digitzed version of Michelangelo's The Last Judgment. Xiaochun has replaced the 400 individual images of people in Michelandelo's with one cyber person.

"Thank God Christmas is over. I prefer Ash Wednesday." Waugh & T.S.Eliot

 "Thank God Christmas is over. I prefer Ash Wednesday."
So wrote the fevered Catholic convert, Evelyn Waugh, commenting on his children’s impertinence. A glib remark from a man who lived a privileged life.

The photo here is from my visit to Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. The stark cross is on the spot where 15 participants of the 1916 Easter Uprising were shot dead by firing squad, including all seven signatories of the Proclamation.

The exasperation of a pampered writer or a reminder of the tragic fate of a band of revolutionaries,  one can appreciate the austerity of Ash Wednesday, a time to think about the endgame, when our vessels of bodies will be returned to the earth.

The words that hang over the day are from the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer: while the earth shall be cast upon the body by some standing by, the priest shall say,

"Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ."

Based on: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” — Gen 3:19

And Then There's T.S.Eliot
I get called to jury duty every three to four years like clockwork. One time I was even sequestered on a jury. That’s a tale for another time.

A few years ago I was in a different room than my usual at 110 Centre street. This room had a white marker board behind the officers’ desk. On it were written quotes meant to be funny to those hanging out in the jury pool:

“They also serve who only stand and wait”

I recognized that quote. It's Churchill by way of Milton “When I consider how my light is spent”


“Teach us to care and not to care, Teach us to sit still”

Hmm. I didn’t recognize that quote. It really bothered me.

It happened to be Ash Wednesday. At the lunch break I made my way over to St. Andrew’s, the Catholic church near 1 Police Plaza.

Where, to my complete amazement, in the middle of the sermon, I hear the priest say “Teach us to care and not to care, Teach us to sit still”

And then go on to explicate some of the T.S.Eliot poem it is from, "Ash Wednesday."


That the homily would reference this quote on the day I saw it? And that somehow I had missed studying that poem in a fairly rigorous English lit education.

Sometimes the universe gives you what you need. I wanted to know where that line was from, and through no effort of my own, the universe tossed me the reference. I think of this every year on Ash Wednesday, that are lives are connected in many wonderful and amazing ways.

An excerpt from the last section of Eliot’s very ample poem meditation on Ash Wednesday, which he wrote after his conversion to Anglicanism.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn


Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.