Monday, September 22, 1997

Huckleberries

MY cousin Sineád and I went huckleberrying on the Autumn Equinox at our secret spot on Inverness Ridge near Tomales Bay, where we used to go berrying with our grandmother. Hard to believe so much time has passed since I hiked the highlands of the other Inverness, Scotland. I once thought that 20 years was a widening gulf—impossible to retrace extant memories of childhood. Here, at Tomales, it really is like Loch Ness; in the pine forest we’ve strange white deer from China instead of the red deer. Instead of Nessie sightings, the San Andreas Fault stretches its monstrous length northward and great white sharks relentlessly patrol the mouth of the bay. My grandmother said Nessie was a coelacanth—Gaelic ceili, for “singing” fish. As a child she remembered the fishermen catching the rare singing fish in the North Sea. From the isthmus, we could see Point Reyes in the distance, a mountainous corona against the shimmering sea, separating Drake’s Bay from the raging Pacific—a misnamed ocean!

The weather at the Point is capricious. Once my aunts and uncles went out to the headlands to gather abalone. Caught in a whiteout of tule fog, they nearly drove off the cliffs. Only the urgent whispering surf on the rocks saved them. Offshore fog rising like a vast wall against a sky where tiny fishing boats disappear into its maws, makes me think of a Chinese silk scroll, or a painting I once saw in the Tate Gallery by Turner. The wind-ravaged bishop pines, draped in the pale traces of Spanish mosses we once used as green tresses, took a severe beating from last year’s storms. So many uprooted trees met an abrupt end—we used them as aerial pathways up the steep hillsides. This part, primordial as the beginnings of time, unscathed by the devastating Inverness Ridge inferno that blackened the hills for miles. But the resilient land is again clothed in the succulent grasses the deer favor at sunset.

Neruda wrote Death is an admiral on a ship. . . Many shipwrecks along this treacherous coast. We found hand-forged square nails, slow crawling moonsnails, and pottery shards in the lagoons and on the beaches of Limantour Spit. The natives of Point Reyes and Bodega Bay thought the sailing ships arose like white birds from the belly of the sea, and the white-skinned explorers—ghosts. They tried to sing away the apparitions of the otherworld. They had no words for this, other than the arrival of death.

Because this peninsula is now public land, Point Reyes National Seashore, we’re not supposed to gather anything: huckleberries, or moss-covered antlers. Short, thick branch: a fallow deer’s. Non-native, like us. We lugged our 2-year-old nephew, Seán, through the undergrowth. He plucked each berry like a little king appraising jewels in sunlight, then greedily fisted them into his mouth until he was tattooed with violet juice. Returning the memory of those who came before us, we re-enacted an age-old ritual, gathering berries before the fall—no matter that our skin is white, not red.

My aunt will make pies and ice cream, our teeth will be indigo-stained for days (like my fingers). How Pictish! The berries, so labor-intensive (cleaning takes longer than picking), we make jokes, compare them to caviar, as we drop them from silver spoons, polishing them, black pearls on purpling terrycloth towels. But it gives us an excuse to be together, like in the old days. We’ll eat pie and have tea from the Blue Willow teapot with a cracked spout. Later, we’ll go to a party at the Straus farm across Tomales Bay on the barren, grassy Marshall hillsides and make gallons of huckleberry ice cream with their cream fresh from the dairy. Jungle-lush Inverness Ridge is part of what’s left of the granitic Pacific Plate, while Marshall with its thin red soil of Franciscan strata, is part of the North American Plate. Two continents divided by a thin bay, different as night and day.


© 1997 revised 2000 Maureen Hurley

Tuesday, September 9, 1997

Modern Celtic Literature; Prof. Robert Tracy


FALL 1997  Celtic Studies 139? (4 units), Modern Celtic Literature; Prof. Robert Tracy;  (audited, no papers)                        
This course is structured around a chronological survey of Irish writing in Irish and English spanning the period from the 18th to the 20th c. It aims to give students a sense of the breadth of writing which emerged from Ireland during this period, as well as an exposure to the cultural and political debates which were explored through this writing.
                                                                       
TEXTS:
Penguin Anthology of Irish Poets
Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent
Elizabeth Bowden, The Last September
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Sean O’Casey, Three Dublin Plays: The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars
Lady Augusta Gregory, Cuchulainn of Muirthemne: The Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster (See also Gods & Fighting Men).
John M. Synge, Complete Plays of John M. Synge (Riders to the Sea)
William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, Editor: Richard J. Finneran
William Butler Yeats, Three Plays
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
James Joyce, The Dubliners
Brian Freel, Collected Plays

Plus xeroxed readings. Roger Casement, etc.


Neil is signed up for this class at UC Berkeley but we are too weak to do much, so I'm to be la lecctrice, the shadow reader,  to help him through class.

Thursday, September 4, 1997

The Sky is Falling

A WELSH poet in living in Amsterdam’s benign exile, deep in his cups, lamented how we Celts suffer from a racial lack of confidence: A nation without a language; a nation without a heart. I dreamed I had to memorize 5 lines in Welsh—just sounds, no images. Each new line forced out the old one. Though I speak no Welsh, I awoke holding the cadence of a sister tongue in my mouth. I told him we’re archaic sentinels from a culture (and languages) stubbornly hovering on the brink of extinction for centuries on end.

In Louven, I found an arch, deciphered the Old Irish: another university founded by Irish monks in the so-called Dark Ages. Hibernius ipsis Hiberniores. Johannes Scottus Eriugena (Seán, the Irishman b. 810), a founder of the continental universities, taught at Laon and at the Paris Court School (when he wasn’t being accused of heresy. His doctrines championed free will long before Luther’s). He wrote: Nothing is more laborious than to fight against stupidity for it won’t bend to any authority and it won’t be convinced by reason. Punning in Latin, the king made a playful swipe at Eriugena, asked him the difference between a fool and a Scot (Irishman). The hot-blooded Eriugena replied, “Only the table.” (Quid distat inter sottum et scottum). Seated across from the scholar, the king was flabbergasted by the turned tables! But it is said satire was the first art form in Ireland. Or was it war?

One of Alexander of Macedonia’s generals, during negotiation of a peace treaty, queried a Celtic chieftain: What do you Celts fear most? The Gaul contemptuously replied: That the sky should fall upon our heads. How does one come to terms with Cenedl heb raith; cenedl heb galon: A nation without a language; a nation without a heart. I prefer phrases like Tá grá agam ort or Yr wyf yn du garu to the names of war. Words from the Irish: slogan: sluagh garim, a Celtic battle cry, and furor is to blood-summon. Glamour, corrupted grammar, this fierce love of words is in the blood. The dark, threatening sky again. Tantrum. I write in the enemy tongue, my own asleep.



©1997 revised 2000 Maureen Hurley

Wednesday, September 3, 1997

Anim Chara

The cats formed semi-colons at the foot of my bed: intensity overwhelms those who don’t understand the Celtic temperament. As if it were my fault, I dream of people before I meet them. A good Cartesian response to the unmeasurable.

I know craziness second-hand, my mother’s indulgements—influenced by the drug-induced ’60s & ’70s. Then, my grandmother also spent her free time wandered about the house muttering curses to Cromwell, the Anglo Saxons & Jutes. The sassanach, she spat.

When I was a child, I thought they were swear words. I knew they were bad, very bad, that I mustn’t forget my history. Who we are, where we came from. And when I recognize “kin” so far from home, I am overwhelmed. It’s a rare and pleasurable thing to meet like-minded souls.

At 30, I knew I was different than others. . . I‘ve learned that the doors of perception don’t open for everyone: if so, forgive my trespass. There’s an Irish word for it: an mochara (soul/heart friend).

To sleep, to dream. . . Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine: people live in one another’s shadows. I dreamed I had to memorize 5 lines in Welsh—it was all a jumble of sounds, with no images to hang onto. I no sooner got one line down, when it forced out the one preceding it, and so on through the night. I can’t even begin to pronounce Welsh, I barely know the rules of Irish. I awoke with the cadence. Perhaps this is the Welsh poet Paul Evan’s gift to me. Pay attention to the rhythms. Teachers come in the most surprising forms.

Once Vins van Neervan and I went to Louven in Belgium where he went to University to study philosophy. Wandering Marika's city, we stumbled upon an arch with Old Irish enscribed on the lintel.

To my surprise, I was able to decipher it. . . perhaps one of the few visitors able to do so in the past several hundred years. We found the gates to a college founded by Irish monks in the so-called Dark Ages. And here we are, archaic sentinels from a culture (and languages) on the verge of extinction for nearly as many centuries. And we’ve so rudely taken a long time dyin’ at that.

The Celts are going, the Celts are going at last. Hurrah! Soon a Celt on the streets of Dublin will be as rare as seeing an Indian on the streets of Manhattan.—British Government, ca. 1847.

In my family, we eat sodabread with tea, croon Irish songs when the uisge beatha gets the better of us: Oh the praties they grow small. . .

My grandmother, Jennie (Sínead) Walsh Reilly, never let us forget our history: 1 to 4.5 million dead from the Famine Years. We managed to hold onto our farms: the Walshes, and Sullivans of Bantry—at Coomb an n-Or; the Reillys and Duffys of Long Kesh, Fioragh and Drogheda on my grandfather’s side.

They came to America in 1919 and 1904, respectively. They were active in the Gaelic League, my grandfather was founder of the Knights of the Red Branch in San Francisco, the IRA gunrunning story I’ve told before.

When Lord Russell said: the famine is good, teach ’em a lesson, the Indian nation collected something to the tune of $212 for food; they sent us maize. Too late. Coffin ships to America. Slavers to the Barbados. From the Celtic Fringe to the Celtic diaspora. All those children sold in slavery: this is why so many Blacks have Irish surnames, blue eyes and freckles.

They say there was enough food in Ireland to feed 20 million. Instead we fed the British with our bones. Their sheep replaced us. But we survived. Sínn Fein: Ourselves, alone, she said, Never forget. Use their language against them, she said.

This, my inheritance. Slainte Gael macushla mo chroidhe. During the famine years, ships filled with Irish cattle and grain sailed for Britain while we died with grass stains on our teeth. Béal na blát: from the mouth of flowers. I am allergic to both corn and potatoes (as well as hazelnuts—the kernel of knowledge).

My father’s history I know very little of: Joseph Hurley from County Cork. There’s a Rebel Cork connection, but I believe Viola Heaney was born in Boston. Something about Lace Curtain Irish, that may be a rumor, but I have a sideboard of heavy Irish crystal.

Odd that I might be distantly related to Séamus Heaney. . . At Poetry International in 1993, I told him of this connection, he laughed, called me coozin, giving me a big smacker. We sang Irish songs, lifted our glasses high.

I told him of my grandfather’s IRA connections, I was surprised to learn he knew of my grandfather’s friend Liam Mellows. And of course, Parnell. All this fragmented history, my grandmother literally cursing Cromwell till her dying day.

Something struck me about our having a racial lack of confidence—rang a bell: my grandmother said similar words to that effect. The fighting underdog. I wish I knew more about our Welsh connections, other than Strongbow, and the Norman Invasion: Hibernius ipsis Hiberniores.

My grandmother maintained we got the name Walsh because we came from Wales—what, 1000 years ago? A bit distant. My great-grandfather Michael Walsh raised fast horses, drove cattle between bonfires at Lúgnasadh to ensure fertility. Ironically Walsh/Welsh means foreigner in the Germanic, wealas. An Anglo Saxon appellation?

One of Alexander of Macedonia’s generals during negotiation of a peace treaty, queried a Celtic chieftain: What do Celts fear most? The Gaul replied in formal address: That the sky should fall upon our heads.

Slogan: sluagh garim, a Celtic battle cry, furor is to blood-summon. How does one come to terms with: Cenedl heb raith; cenedl heb galon (a nation without a language; a nation without a heart). I prefer phrases like Tá grá agam ort or Yr wyf yn du garu to the names of war. Glamour, corrupted from grammar, this rough magic by which we strike. It’s in the blood. The dark, threatening sky. Again.

My anim is Maureen/Little Mairi/Mara/Maura (bitter herbs or small rebellion) not the more common Muire (mother of God). I prefer my crib-Irish: she of the sea.

Mor could be translated as great, or muir/ sea, depending on the fada. The Mórríghan is great goddess of the sea. Rí is royalty. The shapechanger war goddess Morrigu isn’t exactly milquetoast, there are others I’d prefer to emulate. At least she doesn’t lie.



© 1997? Maureen Hurley (Originally a letter poem to the Chilean poet Waldo Rojas Serreno)