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)

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