Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pádraigín McGillicuddy & the Rose of Tralee

© Maureen Hurley photo Literrata

I first met radio talk show host and Irish scholar Pádraigín McGillicuddy in the early '70s at the Rose of Tralee Beauty Pageant in San Francisco.* I was a highly unlikely Rose contestant, edging toward hippiedom while my straightlaced maiden Republican Aunt Jane was the tall, elegant one in the family.

Jane Reilly, an artist's model for the 1950s Gypsy Rose Gallo Girl billboard ads, was really a first generation San Franciscan Wild Irish Rose, whose face was plastered on backs of magazine covers and Sunday paper supplements nationwide.

The Gallo ads were so ubiquitous in the 1950s and 60s we never thought to save them. It was disconcerting to finish reading the Sunday Funnies and glimpse my aunt's face on the back page. People were always stopping her on the street and saying, "Gee, you look familiar." My Aunt Jane met a lot of people that way.

After serving in the Korean War, my Uncle John was discharged in New York, and was greeted by a billboard of Jane, larger than life, looming above him in Times Square. He didn't know about the Gallo ad as he was overseas. "Hey, that's my sister!" he yowled to a fellow soldier who said, "Yeah right! You and what army?" to his query "What's she doin' up there?"

My Aunt Jane had that towering Times Square effect over people. The only person I met that had taller stature than her was Celtic entrepreneur John Patrick Whooley, the passionate Irish radio producer, and founder/publisher of the West Coast's first Irish American newspaper, The Irish Herald, in 1962. With the founding of the paper, came the Irish Cultural Center in 1964.

John also opened the Irish Castle Shop on Geary Street and began the first West Coast chartered service to Ireland through his Hibernia Travel Service on Aer Lingus. He was a driving force in the rebuilding of the new United Irish Cultural Center out by the zoo.

John Whooley, a feisty red-headed West Corkonian, was a central figure in uniting not just the San Francisco, but the West Coast Irish diaspora as he was forever organizing Irish political and cultural events. John was also forever campaigning for a united Ireland, with "no border, no partition." He'd say, "Peace is coming soon..."

John was perhaps best known as the radio show host of the syndicated Irish music program, "Bits from Blarney." Every Sunday, my grandmother religiously tuned into his show.

Radio reception was poor in the crenulated folds of the hills of West Marin, but if she placed her hands on the radio, just so, and lo, it was a miracle—the station came in crystal clear. I was often deployed as an extra local hands on antenna. That's how I learned so many Irish ballads—holding onto that radio, as if with the hands of a faith healer, while looking longingly out the back door.

At one point or another, everybody got roped into one or another cultural event of John Whooley's. I guess they were in desperate need of more Rose of Tralee contestants if they were recruiting me. I was no Maureen O'Hara, though she was my namesake. (It was my mother's name too.) Or was it Maureen O'Sullivan?

Beauty pageants were not exactly vernacular in the 1970s, so I was cannon fodder for the judges. A hijacked body to fill the ranks. I don't recall if bribes were involved but I do remember a rather rare bribe in the form of a greenback $20 bill coming my way. I suspect my aunt Jane was on the Rose of Tralee committee... They needed a girl to represent each of Ireland's 32 counties, and they were a few counties short of a beauty pageant. And there I was, a deer caught in the headlights...

© Maureen Hurley photo Literrata

I grew up tomboy, on horseback, I was wild as the deer in the hills, as my grannie believed in nature, not nurture. On the occasions when I had to don a dress, I often wore other kid's hand-me-downs.

I'll never forget the time I wore my new-to-me gingham dress to the church social in Lagunitas only to have a snotty Nicasio girl tell me my hand-me-down with its ruffled neck and sleeves was her charity give-away. I was so humiliated. When the hippie movement flowered, I was more than relieved to be liberated from the censure of the fashion police.

Between my horses, sibling hierarchy bouts with my brother and an unfortunate maiden toboggan run conjoined with the back of my best friend Sue Williams' head, my nose had taken on a few rounds more than Robert Mitchum's and looked the worse for it. My sole interests were horses, Ireland and art.

Suffice to say, with a deviated septum, I was self-conscious about my Streisand beak and looks—or lack thereof. My Aunt Jane had even sent me to the Patricia Ford Modeling Agency in San Francisco to get some poise. But it didn't take.

"You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," my grannie always said. In those days, I had long hair to my waist (still do), I bit my nails like a mad beaver (still true), never wore makeup (still true). I was barely 5 foot two, straight as a board and skinny as a rail (alas, true no more!). The Ford Modeling agency merely made me feel even worse about my self image. They coldly looked me up and down with practiced eyes like I was questionable foundered horseflesh at an auction and they found me wanting. I lasted about three sessions before I rebelled....

On horseback I was a centaur riding the wind but afoot I was gawky and shy— the proverbial wild wallflower, I'd never been out on a date, never went to Homecoming or Senior Prom. I preferred the hills and ridges of the great outdoors. I think my aunt was trying to socialize and rebuild me from the ground up. She had her work cut out for her.

Unlike Sarah Bullock in "Miss Congeniality," I never transitioned from ugly cygnet into graceful swan. I didn't have a coach like Michael Caine niggling my every step along the way. I was more like the scrapper in "Little Miss Sunshine." Besides, it was the surreal '70s, everybody was tuning in, turning on and dropping out of the "oh wow, far out" reality like flies anyway.

To be fair, the Rose of Tralee contest winner was selected for personality, poise and cultural ambassador potential—there was no bathing suit section. A good thing too as I usually swam in my birthday suit. Originally, only Irish-born women were allowed to compete, the contest was later expanded to include anyone of Irish descent. Regional finals are held in June, and that year, girls from all over the world—from Rome to Sydney—competed, but to date, a San Francisco girl has never yet won a contest.

We were all lined up backstage ready to go on stage to announce the county we were representing when I overheard one girl say "County Longford," she deliberately took my assigned county! I couldn't compete without a county. There I was, standing in the wings, literally without a county. That's how I got into this mess to begin with.

After a a hurried huddle behind the curtain with my aunt, I discovered that I had Reilly relatives in County Cavan too, so there I was, Miss Cavan. I'd never even heard of County Cavan before that evening, and I mispronounced it in front of God and all. Ouch!

I'm the one with eyes closed.

Neither "lovely and fair," like in the Rose of Tralee song, I was in way over my league competing with the polished city-bred Irish American beauties bedecked in their pastel taffeta prom concoctions and they let me know I was not welcome in no uncertain terms—especially some of the Healey Irish dancers.

When I was in the loo stall, right before the Finale, I overheard the girls gossiping about someone in the powder room: "Did you see that get-up she's wearing? What a slut." As I stepped out of the stall, I wondered who it was they were shredding to bits until I overheard: "Yeah, and did you see, she's got no bra on either."

A pause. I glanced down at my scoop-necked red dress with its prim white Fauntleroy collar wings. You cold hear the angels tap-dancing on a pinhead. We all froze, even the air stood still. I faked a deaf ear, but my cheeks aflame, betrayed me. There was nothing I could do. I buttoned the matching bolero jacket to my slinky halter dress, with its comical red Humpty-Dumpty buttons, all the way up to the neck.

The only way out was to push brazenly through. The contestants parted like the Red Sea—silk rustling like the outgoing tide—as I marched up to the vanity mirror. I applied some red lipstick, turned and smacked my lips. One girl sufficiently recovered her wits to say, "You look kinda nice in makeup, you really should wear it more often." I said, "Peace, man. Beauty is more than skin-deep," and walked into the spotlight.

But I was crestfallen. I had tried so hard to fit in. For the big occasion, I even bought a brand-new $17.95 polyester knit cranberry wine dress at the Macy's bargain sale rack on 4th Street in San Rafael. Maybe I had been a bit too practical as I'd bought a dress that I could wear again later—sans the prim white collar—not like those girls in their elaborate strapless quilted chocolate bon-bon box frilled gowns. In comparison, my svelte halter dress was a real culture-clash Jezebel number. It never dawned on me that wearing red would also make me a prime target.

One of the judges, Pádraigín was savvy. She was the only one who made me feel at ease. Uppity women, we were both there under false pretenses. Instead of asking inane questions that I couldn't answer, she asked me about my horses and to explain to the panel how to paint or how to make a clay pot. Never articulate, I relaxed. A vortex opened in the distance of air between judge and contestant and I was able to talk to her about what I knew best.

I think we both knew the Rose of Tralee Contest was nonsense (and probably rigged, to boot). Never much of a joiner, I didn't want to be part of that community, I just wanted to win a free all expenses paid trip to Tralee for the winner and three runners up. I was pretty stunned to make it to the first round of ten runners up as Miss Cavan. I was either number five or seven—a prime number, thanks to Pádraigín. I was in complete shock to make it to the final heat. But of course the other judges didn't agree.

And what do you want most? Whirled peas. Right.

I still have my Rose of Tralee Miss Ireland contestant's sash, the green gilt lettering has long since faded and flaked off the white satin ribbon, but every year I haul it out and wear it St. Patrick's Day, just to buck the system. The look on people's faces is positively priceless....

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pádraigín McGillicuddy, "A Terrible Beauty"

Maureen Hurley From Literrata

While writing a blog on Seamus Heaney, I was checking on some fact and I was saddened to discover the passing of Bay Area Irish cultural activist, author and producer of an Irish radio show during the 1980s, "A Terrible Beauty," KPFA/KPFK FMs, Padraigin McGillicuddy. According to Macha's blog, Pádraigín died in Ireland in 2006. (Her daughter Kerry later wrote that it was in 2003. See comments below.)

I guess we're getting to that long in tooth age where the (e)mail brings more sad news than glad tidings. So many poets and artists passing this year—the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darweesh, Belgian's Laureate poet, Hugo Claus, Hayden Carruth, Navajo author Tony Hillerman, science fiction giants Michael Crichton, Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

In 2008, we also lost explorer Sir Edmund Hillary (Everest has never recovered), Irish American comedian George Carlin, blues legend Bo Diddley, even South African anti Apartheid activist, songbird, Miriam Makeba who just had a heart attack in the wings, after a show in Naples. Also gravelly Ronnie Drew, founder of The Dubliners.

And now, after a long bout with cancer, founder of New College Irish Studies, Danny Cassidy, author of “How the Irish Invented Slang,” is gone from us too.

I want to write to honor people who've inspired me, who've had an impact on my life and my art. Pádraigín was among them. Her arena was the spoken word.

I really only knew Pádraigín McGillicuddy from afar but she was a one-woman force of nature. Pádraigín's acerbic wit and no-nonsense intellect ever spurred me onward. I rarely listened to the radio when I lived in Forestville during the late 1970s and '90s as it was difficult getting reception ringed by steep coastal mountains and tall redwoods but Pádraigín's show was well worth the bother.

I first met Pádraigín at a Rose of Tralee pageant in the early '70s (or so I thought), and then again along with musicologist and linguist Jim Duran (Séamas Ó Direáin) and harpist Sharon Devlin Folsom at the Treasures of Early Irish Art exhibit at the San Francisco De Young Museum ca. 1977? It was the first time that most of the artifacts had ever left Ireland, including the Ardagh Chalice and the Book of Kells, so there was a lot of hubbub around the exhibit. Some pieces never made it across the Pond, as they were too fragile to ship.

You can still find the museum catalogue, 'Treasures of Early Irish Art: 1500 B.C. to 1500 A.D. From the Collections of the National Museum of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, Trinity College, Dublin" online. The Irish sent their most precious treasures to a series of museums across the American continent. I think it came to San Francisco before it went to the Met in New York but that doesn't make sense, and I can't find a reference. The book was in its 3rd printing by 1977. I remember we had to wait to get a copy. Anyone remember it?

In the late '80s or early '90s, Pádraigín later moved out to the Russian River, Occidental—I think—at least that's where we'd sometimes run into each other at the coffee shop or at events when I was still running the Russian River Writers' Guild poetry series. She'd invited me over for tea and I always meant to visit but never did... We had a mutual interest in Ella Young, as my childhood friend Micaela Carr's mother, Rosalind Sharpe Wall, knew her from the Bixby Canyon days of Big Sur.

But I was way over my head trying to survive at teaching poetry in the schools, finding and creating my own funding sources, writing grants, writing poetry, and writer-photographer-darkroom technician and newspaper deliverer for a chronically flailing alternative West County newspaper, The Paper (now The Bohemian), that I had little time for socializing.

We had grantwriting in common—she was editing a book on grants administration and fundraising in San Francisco. I remember one crisp winter afternoon, the both of us leaning on the hood of my truck, soaking up sunshine and talking grants. But she was in a whole other league than me. There's a copy of her grants compilation in, of all places, the King Saud University Libraries in Saudi Arabia! There's gotta be a story there.

Then I lost track of Pádraigín. I think she moved back to Oakland. I saw her at various Irish cultural and literary events from time to time. Last time I saw her was at a restaurant after a literary event (Finnegan's Awake?) with Jennifer Stone. They were bookends—the fine grand dames of letters, sipping wine wine in late afternoon. I don't recall what all we talked about but perhaps in the writing, memory will awaken. I might have even taken pictures....

Macha said "Pádraigín used to live in a huge old Victorian in Oakland, said to have been the childhood home of Gertrude Stein. She who is said to have said of Oakland, "There is no there there." I can't say what Oakland was like in the late 18th century when Gertrude lived there, but I find plenty there now."

Last I heard, she'd moved to Galway.

Some other references I found on the web were: No There There By Chris Rhomberg. The Irish in West Oakland, an oral history conducted 1982 by Kathryn Hughes, Padraigin McGillicuddy, Pamela Morton, and Sally Thomas.

KPFA Archives 1981-1994: Folk Music from Near and Far Out A Terrible Beauty. Old and new music from the Celtic regions, hosted by Pádraigín McGillicuddy.

Somebody had the presence of mind to record some of her later radio shows, and the tapes are listed as being stored at Stanford Dept. of Special Collections, and at Willamette University's Pacifica Tape Library.

At, under Pacifica Radio Archives there's a downloadable fragment from Patriarch Revealed and “Six Variations On A Theme of Blarney,” with Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. You must be a member of a Pacifica affiliate station to play audio. Anyone able to get a copy? Jack Foley?

Pádraigín interviewed hundreds of people including literary giant Iris Murdoch, activist Bernadette Devlin, Elsa Gidlow, UC Berkeley Chair and founder of Celtic Studies, Brenden O'Hehir, Joycean expert, Dr. Robert Tracy, Joan Keefe and more. Does anyone have a list?

If anyone has photos or stories about Pádraigín, please come forth.

There's not much else to be found on the web about Pádraigín except for her booklet,
The Patriarch Revealed: A Feminist View of St. Patrick (1981). I'd love to see that change.

Pádraigín McGillicuddy, Jim Duran, Sharon Folsom 1978—at KPFA.
 With thanks to Sean Folsom 

Letter from Macha on Pádraigín McGillicuddy

On 11/20/08, I wrote to Macha/Aline:

Did you ever find out anything more about Pádraigín? I read your 2006 blog. When did she die? Is Jim Durán still in Galway? Such old memories.... (I grew up in Forest Knolls.) See A Genius of Poets

On Nov 20, 2008, at 6:42 PM, M. Macha NightMare wrote:

Hi Maureen,

As far as I know, Pádraigín died in Ireland within the year before our visit ('06). Jim Duránwho lives right above the Spanish Arch in Galway, told  me. He's still there. He was here for a visit a few months ago and I was lucky enough to spend an evening with him. Was he your Gaelic teacher?

Since blogging about Pádraigín, I’ve raised the dead. I've gotten a phone call from her sister Caitlin in Forestville (very drunk, and not much of a fan of Pádraigín), and finally managed to get a contact for her daughter, Kerry. Evidently Pádraigín also has a brother named Cornelius.

Her son, Sean, committed suicide some years before Pádraigín returned to Ireland. His fiancée was a mutual friend of a friend of mine, and this former fiancée had some family photos she didn't want to throw away. She wanted to get them to someone in Pádraigín's family. I think she made contact with Caitlin.

Only recently I got a comment from Kerry on my blog, with her email, except that blogspot blocked it out. A few weeks ago I got a postcard from her with her email.

I have emails for Jim, Caitlin and Kerry, if you want them. Also have contacts for Sharon Devlin and Sean Folsom, if you happen to know that crowd of old Institute of Celtic Studies folks.

Are you familiar with Patricia Monaghan, Elizabeth Cunningham or Annie Finch? They're part of the Black Earth Institute in Wisconsin. (google it). Fabulous Irish-American poets all!

Do you still live in Northern California? I live in San Rafael.

I have many Hurley relatives. ;-)


Macha (aka Aline O'Brien)

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
M. Macha NightMare, P&W

From: mohurley
Subject: Re: Padraigin MacGullicuddy
Date: November 22, 2008

Macha/ Aline,

Did you ever live on the Russian River? For years, I used to coordinate a weekly poetry series there at Garbo's in Guerneville. There was an Aline I lost touch with.

I grew up wild in Forest Knolls and moved to, get this, Forestville. I've been in Oakland for 11 years.

I probably met Pádraigín through Jim Duran. He was the one who encouraged me to study Gaelic. How many languages does the man speak anyway? I remember he was at Fort Ord and spoke several African languages as well.

Last time I saw him was at LAX in 1983 or 84, we were heading to Guatemala and ran into him at the luggage carousel. Weirdly my boyfriend John Oliver Simon also knew him—as Jaime!

He organized a poetry reading for us at Angel's Gate in San Pedro. I remember standing with him along the cliffs north of the harbour when he began to unfold his life story, it was pretty fantastical. I'd love his email.

I ran into Pádraigín in a SF restaurant with a bunch of Irish women after Finnegan's Awake, (I think).  Jennifer Stone, among them. Used to see her at lots of events. Breeda Courtney knew her as well...

Caitlin in Foresville? Hmmm I wonder if I met her, I met so many people in those days, (daze) so many roads intersected and overlapped that after a while it became a blur.

The Russian River was an interesting place to be in the late 1970s and 1980s. I met all manner of folks famous and formerly famous...including the lead singer from It's a Beautiful Day, a gorgeous blond guy with the voice of an angel reduced to pumping gas at the Guerneville station...fallen from grace...Madame Blavatsky's sister...very Russian! John Prine's brother: I learned John's songs from him...May Sarton's sister came to the series for a while...I could go on....

Living in the moment, we never thought it would end, then AIDS struck the gay community and it foundered. Peter Pender, chess champ, Leonard Matlovitch who made the cover of Times: Military comes out of the closet...that's how I found out Hoover was gay. Something Thorman???...the guy who founded Gold's Gym, a real piece of work... Bill, the first Marlborough Man lived in the cabin across from me....(whod'a thunk that handsome cowboy hunk on horseback we saw on all the billboards and back of magazine covers, was gay. The KS ravaged his beautiful face...

Wow, methinks there's a log in progress here!! I'm trying to blog daily but I constantly fall off the wagon...prose tires head hurts yet the urge to tell stories is so strong...(you might want to check out what I've already written if you're interested in Marin stories....)

Adair Lara (Daly) and I grew up together and she's writing a memoir about growing up "Valley Rat? too. My blog is headed in that direction as well... I just learned how to put pix in my blog yesterday...with Picasa. So now I need to find pix for my older blogs. I only started writing in August 2007, but, seeking continuity, I backdated a lot of the older work. It's forced me to delve deep.

Sharon Devlin, I first met her at the big Irish exhibit at the De Young, probably that's where I met Jim. See, my granny was the only one there who could actually READ the Book of Kells, so we drew quite an audience! Someone came up and asked if she could read it...she snorted, "Of course I can. It's in Latin!" As if everybody could read Latin. Sharon had a baby, my grannie fussed over her as Sharon played the harp...

I don't know if Sharon and Sean Folsom would even remember me ...I went back several times as they played in the foyer every day....that's how I met Lief too...we corresponded for a while and traded some Hebridean mouth music tapes...I should try & find them, Wonder if they'll even play?

slan leat
aka The Morrighan!

Hey, I didn't name myself on that one! Someone else did. I would much rather have been called Macha of the horses, or even Epona.... but war goddess works. That I am...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Genius of Poets

In Colin Will's blog, Sunny Dunny, I read that Seanus Heaney suffered a small stroke two years back. I was shocked to hear the news from afar but relieved to know that he's on the mend. I'd heard something about it via the grapevine, but it was all the more shocking to see it so formal in print.

Seamus comes to SF/Berkeley every few years and we catch up. Come to think of it, it's been quiet on the Seamus front for some time, now. UC Berkeley hosts a Celtic Colloquium around St. Patrick's Day on the odd years (UCLA on even years) so we usually see Seamus in the madness of March.

Long before he became affectionately known in the Irish poetry community as "Famous Seamus," I first met him back in the 1981. One sunny afternoon on "A Terrible Beauty," KPFA FM, radio host Padraigin McGillicuddy was broadcasting the poems (Field Work) of this marvelous Northern Irish poet, a visiting professor at Harvard, who was scheduled to read later that evening at UC Berkeley.

It must've been around St Patrick's Day as I was hungry for some good Irish music, and of course, Padraigin's acerbic wit. She was reading about feminism & St Patrick, so it was an incendiary show.

Other than Padraigin's show, I rarely listened to the radio as it was difficult getting reception so far out in the country, unless the planets were aligned and the wind blew just right. We were ringed by coastal mountains and tall redwoods. But Padraigin was a force of nature to be reckoned with. If she said, "You simply MUST go and hear this poet read," then so we did. Seamus's disembodied voice rang out like the bell of St Patrick and disturbed the air around it.

I jumped into my old blue VW bug and drove 75 miles to Highway 101 and crossed the Richmond Bridge over to Berkeley just to hear him read (I lived in a remote part of Sonoma County, near the Russian River). It was a life-changing event that solidified my dedication to poetry. I was fairly new to writing but then I'd jumped feet first into the deep waters and learned to swim in the process. Well, maybe flounder....

I was terrified my '69 VW bug wouldn't make it the distance, as it was already old and on its last legs. It had a delicate carburetor and intermittent electrical coil issues so driving at night was a risky affair. I spent far too many hours by the side of the road fiddling with wires and fuel line to get it going. It wasn't cheap to drive to Berkekey either, plus I had an unreasonable fear of cities, having grown up in the rural backwaters of the country with cows and sheep....

Back then, I had a sort of agoraphobia (a real fear of the crowded marketplace) in the truest sense of the word. I rarely, if ever, left the wilds of West Sonoma County to visit the metropoli of San Francisco or Berkeley (despite the catchy milk ad" cows in Berkeley?), unless there was a compelling reason. Seamus's poetry was reason enough for me to crawl out of the hills.

It was an amazing evening. As luck would have it, I sat next to his wife Mairi (in the only seat left in the auditorium—I later realized it was Seamus's seat—talk about being in the hot seat!) and Mairi and I hit it off like a house afire as she was a teacher, I'd given her a book of my students' poetry and art (I was a California Arts Council artist in residence at a Santa Rosa school).

And so began my long distance poetic friendship with Seamus. Somewhere in cold storage, I have a letter he wrote to me while he was at Harvard, in praise of my long(winded) lines and sense of place in my poems—I will have to dig it out one day. Gawd only knows what drivel I sent him, one can only blush from afar, across time and distance.

* * *
We were at Poetry International in 1996, stuck in a sluggish elevator between floors with a crazy gaggle of giggling African poets, so Seamus pulled out a bottle and we were all drinking uisce beatha from a tiny bottle cap making all manner of toasts to the Summer Solstice and whatnot.

Keeping the whiskey flowing, Seamus discovered that his flask had, in fact, "developed a terrible leak" and that it was a at least a cardinal sin to to be ever putting the cap back on such a wee flask such as his until it was empty when we were in such good company.

So we lubricated our minds and invented toasts to many odd things. Geert van Istendael was soon proclaiming that ALL poets were Celts and so the African poets proclaimed themselves as being Black Irish and raised the bottle cap to the dim elevator light in giddy agreement.The best round was to toast a noun as we were all pretty much pure verb at that point and needed a good solid earthy noun to steady us down.

We coined a collective noun for a group of poets as a "Genius of Poets." Seamus and I shouted out in unison.

The elevator doors finally crept open and we stepped into the lobby, forever changed. A genius of poets blinded by the light.

Heal well, my friend. Heal well, the poet's spade isn't done excavating yet. Neil says, "Read the hand!"

Monday, November 17, 2008

BAWP "Teachers as Writers" with Greg Hamilton

Bay Area Writing Project facilitator (BAWP) Greg Hamilton works at the Marin Teaching Network, Larkspur where he coordinates the Literacy Project and is a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at UC Davis.

From Bay Area Writing Project 11/15/08

My first BAWP Saturday Workshop was with teaching consultant Greg Hamilton and our job was to meld memoir with the teaching practice. The personal meets the persuasive. Interesting. We all do this automatically, using personal story with argument. Only this time the process was made concrete—or should I say—transparent?

We wrote our introductions: Greg says he extensively uses the transcript process to rethink the writing process. He likes the blur between fiction and non-fiction. He asks, "Who's the audience? Teachers like story." Fiction = story (or vice versa) and concrete fact is the lens of non-fiction.

Theory and methodology.

1. Write an autobiographical incident and imbue it with story memoir). Theme: inspiration and writer's identity.

2. Write a persuasive expository paragraph. Prompt: What do you believe about teaching and language? Teacher/writer reciprocity.

I scribbled: "One must 'DO' before one learns" and in the learning process comes the teaching skills. My mother always said, "Those who DO, paint (or write) and those who can't, teach." So I do both. I teach and paint and write through several arts education venues including California Poets in the Schools (CPITS), Young Audiences of Northern CA (YANC), and KQED's SPARK program. This year I am funded through a new program as I am the recipient of an Oakland Cultural Arts grant at Cleveland Elementary School in Oakland.

My mother, who was clearly nuts, always drove me a little nuts. And so, on some level, when I became an artist in residence in Bay Area schools, I proved to her that I could do both.... She saw what I was doing with kids and later retracted that statement.

As we all introduced ourselves to the writing circle, I noted that I was the only non-teacher but there were great quotes from Linda Gregg and Amy Tan so I knew I was in very good company. Truly Teachers as Writers (or vice versa).

Q: Describe yourself in terms of a writer (focus on identity).

It was a bright, sunny day, much like today, I was pushing ten, standing on the cement slab below our house in West Marin, overlooking the lower field, while my horse grazed. I was daydreaming. I was always getting into trouble for daydreaming. As a consequence, school was a nightmare with teachers hounding me for attention. During math and reading, I'd daydream and drool, staring out the playground window to the sky above. My involuntary slurp always gave me away.

That day, I was adrift in thought, or maybe it was closer to non-thought, my mind was a blank slate, the winter sun warming me, when a disembodied male voice said, "You will be a famous writer someday."

Startled, I looked around. Not a being except my bright chestnut horse cropping the pale new grass and Winky the cat. Chiquita cocked one slender ear my direction.

Like Baby Snooks, she was an elderly skin-and-bones livery horse from the Lagunitas Stables, and then she later made the rounds as a Forest Farm Camp horse. She had to be at least 35, deep hollows above the eyes and long tooth slant confirmed her advanced age but not as old as old swaybacked Blackie in Tiburon who was well on his way toward breaking the Guinness Book of World records. My mother even rode her, for gawdsakes.

Chiquita and I were satellites tracking each other. We had a deep mammalian bond, perhaps because I had literally saved her from the tommy knackers (glue factory) crying, kicking and screaming.

In those days, Sputnik was still a new sky metaphor—though both launched and fallen a half-life ago. I knew the Iron Curtain, McCarthy, Communism and Russia were bad. Parts of Sputnik landed in LA. But my friend Stephanie's grandma Mimi spoke Russian. Would they deport her? We loved watching for the shiny cigar on its wobbly orbit across the Milky Way on crisp nights when the stars wavered.

Surely my horse didn't speak. But I was still young enough to believe in fairy tales and guardian angels.

I quickly slipped back into that dreamy reverie, as Winky the cat rolled luxuriously on the warm slab, inviting me to a tummy rub. I studied the pattern of his pale tiger stripes all smoke on grey. The disembodied speaker began to backpedal when I began to query him in earnest. "What do you mean by famous?" He retracted, "You will be well known as a writer..." to "perhaps in small, but important circles." Talk about backpedaling.

Flummoxed, I said. "That's impossible. I'm going to be an artist like my mother when I grow up, not a writer." On this point he stood firm, "No, you're going to be a writer." I thought that was an odd prediction as I could barely read. Having just learned at the end of third grade, I would wait two decades for the prophecy to come true, and to find that I am dyslexic.

Q; What are the connections, themes, observations? (Post-writing).

Storyline is central to my own writing process. But I want to begin at the beginning, instead of "in media res." I always want to go back to that moment when the idea of writing stories first entered my head. Then I get bogged down and overwhelmed by my own fastidiousness. It was a bit of a surprise to find that I hadn't visited that idea in 20 years. But I have unfinished business with the muse.

At this point we partnered up and read each other what we wrote. We then summarized the two parts into a short introduction.

I was delighted when one woman quoted Linda Gregg on writing. In "The Defeated," from "All of It Singing," she wrote: "It was like being alive twice." Taking the writing and presenting it back to the world was a never ending quality.

I thought of predictability versus surprise. I can't remember which poet told me, perhaps Carolyn Forché: if you know what you're going to write, then why do it? There has to be an element of surprise. Writing should both surprise and delight the senses. (Was that Frost?)

Hari Bhajan in her blog, Poetry Evolution, noted that at the 2006 Dodge Poetry Festival Linda Gregg said on Going Public with Private Feelings: "First I contain the poem, then I write the poem. My life is run by the rules of poetry. I feel safe in the world of poetry. I don’t argue with the poem."

The Gregg quote has an unexpected effect. I grew up on the next road over from Linda. Her family owned Forest Farm Camp—probably where my old horse came from, as she seemed to know the place. About the time Sputnik was triangulating the sky, Linda was graduating from Lagunitas School.

I remember Linda all golden running towards home when Billy Joe hit a pop fly foul ball and everyone had to retrace their steps to the last base. I was always trailing a decade behind her in school. It was a small community in those days. But like clockwork, after school, we rode our horses through Forest Farm Camp, much to her father's consternation.

I've long since learned that I can't argue with the writing. It goes where it wills. It has a life of its own. I find I can't contain it. I am the vehicle. It is writing me, defining me with its experience. A Nantucket sleigh ride.

Marty Williams, a Language Arts specialist, said she likes to honor each piece of writing by giving it its own folder (housed with all its revisions). I thought, if I did that, I'd have no room in my file cabinets, let alone, my house. The floors would buckle. She said particulars are needed for good writing.

Marty sees teaching as a reciprocal activity. Within the need for predictability, and structure, comes the writing, that being alive twice, is what teaches us. Writing is a journey, a psychoanalysis, a sharing of knowledge. Writing gives us a way how to present ourselves to the world.

Another teacher mentions that teachers and students are enigmas to each other. Sort of like the weatherman predicting the weather. You don't know what to expect. Another teacher said, "We're all so full of stories, they get so fired up but to put it into words is difficult." I thought of Muriel Ruckheyser's line: "The universe is made of stories."

Sure, writing is messy and out of control. I thought of my favorite Bob Hass conundrum, "Each particular erases from the clarity of a general idea." Go for the particulars. That's the juice of the storyline, not lofty ideas.

Someone mentions Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird." The story goes, that when she couldn't write about something—writer's block— her father said, "You just do it bird by bird."

I was relieved when Anne wrote: "Very few writers know where they're going until they've done it." Amen.

One teachers uses autobiography with her 11th graders to create meaning so that they become interesting to themselves and that is the beginning of compassion. Another uses memoir writing as a transparent process, the idea of model versus teach.

Greg says, "A teacher makes 300 decisions every 30 minutes." No wonder my brain hurts. Greg has us develop a social location map:

What are the main areas in your writing timeline? Write a history of your life as a writer.

We mind map. I'm really lousy at clustering, I find that I begin to over-explain my bubbles and soon I'm writing prose. My cluster orphaned at the top of the page.

My Social Map:

I began writing in earnest somewhere between 1978 and 1979. I didn't know what to do with it, as it was somewhere between ballad and poetry. I was given a lead on a poetry professor at Sonoma State where I was finishing up my BA in Art Studio and hanging out taking extra classes so I wouldn't have to begin repaying my student loan.

Someone urged me to submit poems in order to get into David Bromige's poetry class. I remember the phone call. I was at work, I was a housekeeper nanny working in Belvedere. I was in shock as he had accepted my work. I told David Bromige I didn't know if it was poetry or not but I couldn't help myself, it was pouring out of me.

What kicked off the hemorrhage of words—I'd been to a poetry reading with my first boyfriend Bob Hamilton, at Olney Hall, College of Marin. Gary Snyder was reading about MY landscape, my home hills—he was an interloper, didn't even get the place names right.

I knew the crevice and folds of West Marin like no other, having spent most waking hours of my life traversing the hills on horseback. I was a native. These ere my hills. My grandfather's hills. I listened to "Manzanita" and coyotes howling on the Bearshit Trail. I thought these were my mountains, my woods. I said, I can do that.

And so that was the seeds of my writing.

It was a hard arena to enter as Snyder was all for celebrating the mountain men poets, no women poets in his landscape. As Sharon Doubiago once asked me, "Where are the women poets on the Bearshit Trail?" She later wrote a paper on it.

Woods. Funny lexicon pollution. Here, on the Left Coast of Ectopia, we call it forest. Woods is an East Coast term. Connotes civilization versus primal wilderness. Mending walls aside, to invoke Frost, the west, by comparison, is still wild and untrammeled.

I got my first opportunity to visit an East Coast woods last summer, when I was poet in residence on Cape Cod, MA. We sat on Brian's deck at twilight, drinking homemade wine while being thoroughly sampled by mosquitoes.

Brian said his house was built on the crossroads of an old Indian Trail. We were sitting at the paleolithic crossroads to Cape Cod. Under moonlight we could see the white quartz gravel lining the path, like phosphorescence. I could see it though the dense pine forest was thick on all sides. I thought, "Aha! This too is a forest, not woods. Not deciduous."

Speaking of language usage, "Path" is another East Coast word. We tend to say trail, sticking to our mountain roots. A trail leading into the impenetrable forest conjured up more mystery than a path leading into the woods.

The darkness of the forest was like the unknown, the fear of being lost in the woods was very real in a place of no hills to find your way. Only dark, whispering branches and the pungency of pine needles underfoot.

No wonder the founding fathers were so eager to clear the land. They were claustrophobic. No hills of note to see far distances. The sea was the only place where one could see vast distances.

Writing is a tract leading into thick darkness. A clearing in the forest, a patch of sunlight. Gnosis.

(I really didn't like where that last piece of writing went, it made me squirm uncomfortably, I'm so out of my element, but as we were rediscovering, we don't control it, it controls us.)

Q: What is my advocacy topic in teaching? What do I want students to learn from my workshops? Take a topic, identify it, make a statement, not a story. We discuss autobiography and a series of incidents and critical moments that unfold and build a story whereas the persuasive focuses on bigger issues, education advocacy. Larger message.

All this writing in only an hour? Wow. It will take me fourteen times as long to transcribe it all.

What do I want my students to learn from my poetry workshops? Surprisingly, I discover that my own personal story doesn't enter into the mechanics of teaching writing (or art) in that I rarely share those personal moments with my students. I rarely step outside of myself to transmit a distillation of what I know. As for the probable outcome, the student writing as artifact serves as my checks and balances.

I want students to find authenticity of voice without degenerating into trite sloganistic language, I want them to tell their own story, not a TV version of how life should be lived. I use free verse (versus rap) as it lifts us out of the tyranny of bending to peer acceptable "voice," or a forced writing structure where the mechanics interfere with "voice." (Cat/hat/bat/sat/rat). (Or ho/mo/slow; bitch/itch).

The free verse approach allows them to leap from idea to idea, or to follow a threat they didn't know was there, the old adage that form follows function.

As a CPITS poet, I work with students of all ages and their abilities vary with age level. K-3rd graders are caught up in the physical mechanics of writing and the act of writing itself is a challenge. I do more oral work and take dictation, if necessary. (When I work with elders, I use a similar technique as they too are often writing challenged. It's too hard for them to hold a pen or type.)

I also pretend I have a bad memory and will reiterate the line so that they will correct me. I want them to correct me, it invests them in the language of they storytelling process. But kids are also attached to the empowerment that writing it all by themselves brings.

They are often frustrated by the fact that their minds are going at the speed of sound and they can't speak that fast, let alone write it down. The mechanics of writing interferes with, and changes their storyline and we mourn that loss. How then to work with them, it's a complex process of dictation and writing.

Part Two: Tell a story. Have the two forms talk to each other.

I grew up, not ABC (American Born Chinese) or Banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), to borrow a classmate's phraseology. I grew up Shamrock. I too was ABCI, American Born Child of Immigrants. Though we spoke English, it was Hiberneo-English. Consider it a dialect. Joyce did in "Ulysses."

I felt ashamed, I wanted to sound like those American born around me so I changed both my sentence structure and the music of the intonation. The urge to assimilate in the 1950s was a great leveler. In the process, I think I lost something of myself, and as a result, I became mute, without language for a long time—years. This is probably why I became a writer, to assuage the ghosts. Something about using one's language against the oppressor came to mind. That's an Irish saying.

How then, to preserve one's own authentic voice, and to not cowp under the pressure of subject/object structure? There's a reason why the Irish (or Scots) speak English differently. Irish (Gaelic) is a VSOP language: verb, subject, object and preposition.

Yes, preposition, it's the work-engine of the language, for without it, you can't construct a sentence in Irish, which is an extremely old and highly inflected Indo-European language. In addition, prepositions conjugate: at you, at me, etc. No infinitive verb forms either. No "to do." You can be at-doing, however. Then there's the is-be thing. But the verb to be is complex in any language.

UC Berkeley anthropology professor, the late Dr. Alan Dundes expressly warned us against the urge to clean up language when we were collecting our 40 bits of folklore. He instructed us not to destroy the integrity of the spoken word, to record, verbatim, if possible, with "warts and all" as that was part and parcel of the authentic language experience of the oral tradition.

Tape recorder and transcription was recommended, whenever possible but subjects often froze—like deer caught in the headlights—at the sight of a tape recorder and mike.

A camcorder introduced a whole new level of anxiety and interference to the faithful recording of oral tradition. Subjects dressed up, spoke in stilted phrases and generally dried up. So I resorted to discreetly writing down what they said. Luckily I'm a very fast writer (I was a newspaper reporter), so I can transcribe most of what people say (I can also read upside down). But I'm still unconsciously editing as I go.

What was harder, was to step back from my own literacy awareness and compelling urge for proper grammar and sentence structure as well as pronunciation. I actually "hear" punctuation within the spoken word—it's almost like having synaesthesia.

Here, I'd spent decades honing my speaking and writing skills (I was my own Henry Higgins), and on top of that, I had dyslexia to contend with as well. I was in the constant process of translating myself to myself. Dyslexics make 300 decisions every 30 minutes just to be understood.

The dyslexia is a whole other story I won't delve into her due to time constraints.

Suffice to say, it was important for me to "sound American," but as a collector of folklore I was asked to step out of that "voice" into an alien, yet familiar world of oral tradition. I was in the middle of code switching and speech acts, if you will.

What I discovered was that it excavated a whole new are a of writing for me—that the style of language was inexorably tied to specific events—memory and memoir taking a twisty-turn back to my origins.

At that moment I realized how hard-wired the stories are, dating back to the far reaches of time. How then to share the process with my students, many of whom are children of immigrants themselves—a "multinaety" of styles (to coin a word).

Writing is an intersection of one's own native thoughts and academic thought processes almost like____ (here I was interrupted and was never able to remember the end of my thought....)

Note bene: Ironically, to this day, I'm still asked where I was born as the singsong musicality often slips back into my voice when I'm not paying attention or the sentence structure slips into a quaint Yoda-esque VSOP. Most people guess London. Ouch! How did that backfire occur?

The Art of Memoir with Adam David Miller

NPWP Breakout Writing Workshops:
presented by Audrey Fielding

Where do we stand as travelers and writers? What is the nature of travel writing? We will talk and write about our focus, values and facts. We will explore how one moves from a personal travel event to a story to a thrilling travelogue. Bring your favorite travel journal entry to the workshop (optional).
Audrey Fielding is a retired San Francisco USD teacher and a long-time Bay Area Writing Project Teacher Consultant. For the past six years she has worked on a story-writing project in Namibia that has led to the publication of ten classroom readers for Namibian learners. Also, as an amateur birdwatcher, she has written a 2008 bird trip report you can find online at She is currently at work on a book about the land, food and music of the Salentine Peninsula in the heel of Southern Italy.

presented by Judy Bebelaar

In this workshop, we'll look at different ways to approach memoir, and different possibilities for genres. We'll do some warm-up writing, read some wonderful writers, and then write ourselves.
Judy Bebelaar is a BAWP Teacher Consultant and a writer who taught high school English and creative writing classes in San Francisco for 37 years; her students won many prizes, including eight National Scholastic writing awards. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in literary magazines including Rudolf's Diner, Red Wheelbarrow, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, Slant, Cape Rock, Blue Unicorn, Poem, The California Poets in the Schools anthologies Remembering What Happened and True Wonders, Willard and Maple, The Griffin, Pearl, and The Sulphur River Literary Review.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bay Area Writing Project

Well, well, well, I never got to begin the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project (maybe next year) but I did take a writing workshop with the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP) at UC Berkeley on Saturday morning.

My partner, Neil, a struggling, newishly employed English teacher at a continuation high school, was all gussied up and heading for the door. I asked, "where on earth are you going? It's only 8 AM. There's no school today." He mumbled something about attending BAWP but said he didn't think I could go too because I wasn't a teacher.

Ever the one to take "no" lightly, I fired, "Nonsense. Of course I can go."

Besides, the arts organization I teach through, California Poets in the Schools, AKA (CPITS) and BAWP have had a longstanding relationship, with Neil's mentor teacher, and BAWP coordinator, Judy Bebelaar, having served on the CPITS board. Few non-profit arts education can claim such a fabulous English teacher/poet as a board member as Judy. We served together. Oh, and she belly-dances too. I was the one who suggested that Neil mentor with Judy in the first place. Sheesh! Besides, the workshop was free.

And with less than 10 minutes warning, I managed to pull it together and blearily find my way into some reasonably unrumpled clothes, brew a vat of tea and then write write write. Not exactly a novel, but something to publish nonetheless. (What a portmanteau word is that!)

Saturday was one of those achingly beautiful Indian Summer days where the warm Santana winds had whipped the marine haze to the hinterlands and the coastal mountains ringing the bay were scimitar sharp silhouettes of indigo verging on violet against a cyanide sky.

The Bay was a cerulean mirror with gleaming jade islands, and on the Berkeley campus the liquidamber trees threatening to burst into pyrotechnic splendor.

(One NaNoWriMo mini contest is to submit your worst constructed sentence or paragraph to Red Room and the previous two paragraphs could easily qualify under the purple prose, or maybe the puce adverb category...)

Or maybe they could be a dishonorable contender for San Jose State's Bulwer Lytton Fiction Award for the world's worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel. ("It was a dark and stormy night..." You know the one.) My friend, writing teacher, Marianne Ware used to egg us on with a plethora of adjectives and adverbs to enter bodice-ripper sentence each year. But I just wasn't rotten enough. One of her students did win the dubious award.

But I digress, we were ensconced inside the hallowed halls of academia all day...the siren call of reflected light off the Bay plashing through the windows proved to be too much, so I snapped lots of photos of the participants and of poet Adam David Miller, whom I hadn't seen in years, between writing pages and pages of persuasive essay/personal memoir and travel memoirs.

From Bay Area Writing Project 11/15/08

But then I'm used to dividing my attention/ time. A Sagge, less than a week away from my birthday, with a Gemini rising, I secretly think my creativity is closer to the surface when I'm slightly distracted. No room for the censor to just say "no."

Now, Neil works from "No, you can't do that..." thing. It's a Scottish thing. Or maybe a UK thing. Or an escaped Beatles lyric. Fear of censure, fear of breaking rules, fear of disrupting societal norms, fear of drawing attention—are deeply ingrained. "I got something to say that might cause you pain.... No. You can't do that..."

Poor guy, even his initials have "No" embedded in them NONeill... Yeah, and denial is a river in Egypt. Having spent the summer in Scotland, I saw firsthand, the subconscious cultural artifacts at work, in situ. Not that I can begin to understand it, but I have a better understanding of it.

American culture is based on "Yes we can" and Europe is "No you can't." Cultural divide, cultural watershed.

Note Bene: I'm posting a longish slideshow here, that will become shorter after BAWP participants have had a chance to see them. I also suggested that we all blog our writing as it was all so good. So I'm blogging mine by way of example.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Obama's Irish Roots...

Apparently the "Obama is Irish" send-up is catching on like wildfire. Combing the headlines, from the Irish news service RTE    I find: ...Research by the genealogy website reveals that Mr Obama's great-great-great-grandfather was born in Ireland. Falmouth Kearney sailed from Ireland to New York in 1850 at the age of 19 on the S.S. Marmion arriving on the 20th of March. He settled in Ohio, married, had eight children, and later moved to Indiana, next door to the state Obama currently represents in the US Senate. Mr Keaney was part of the great American migration to escape the 1840s potato famine in Ireland. Mr Obama's father was from Kenya, while his mother grew up in Kansas. 'A great deal has been made of Obama's Kenyan roots, however his European ancestry has until now been overlooked', said Managing Director Simon Harper.

Other searches revealed that: according to records found in a local parishioner’s cellar, Barack Obama’s Irish ancestors originated in the midlands village of Moneygall and neighboring Shinrone in County Offaly, Ireland. He's descended from an 18th-Century Dublin businessman, a wigmaker, and a shoemaker. All we need now is the baker and the candlestick maker to complete the nursery rhyme.

The Irish PM, Taoiseach Brian Cowen has officially invited Obama to visit his ancestral home in County Offaly.

Apparently all this brouhaha has created quite a buzz in the tiny hamlet of Moneygall, which has one stoplight, two pubs and a population of 298. I'd say that Moneygall is definitely now officially on the map. They must be positively over the moon.

I can see the Irish kitchen iconography coming alive now in the corner niche, with Jesus, the sacred heart, Mary, the Pope and the Irish-Kenyan-American Anglican President, Barack Obama all aflame with votive candles. Adds a whole new meaning to the term, Black Irish.

Another newspaper reporter Richard L. Benkin, in The American Thinker, actually credited Obama's meteoric rise to the presidency to Irish luck: "Barack O'Bama and the Luck of the Irish."

Ohhh -kay....and....?

Interestingly, it's getting very "Kevin Bacon-ish" out there (Guare's Six Degrees of Separation). On the Google search engine alone, I found some 4,400,000 hits that Barack Obama is Irish. Something's making me uncomfortable about all this focus on the Irish, I'm not exactly sure what it is, so the only way out is to write through it. Probably with egg on my face. So bear with me as I sort through it. It's a bit like that disturbing Arby's Dancing Chimp ad that aired a while back.

With more than 34.5 to 40 millions Americans claiming Irish descent (not counting the 5-6 million Scots Irish)— that's more than 12-15% of the populace—as of the 2006 census. Or the percentage of Americans of Irish American descent is almost nine times that of the population of Ireland itself.

In Massachusetts alone, at least 24% of the population can claim Irish descent. According to the 2006 US Census, Irish is among the top-five ancestries claimed in every state except Hawaii. The question begs, so who isn't of Irish descent somewhere in the old family tree? The Irish have a quaint term for Americans (and Aussies, etc.,) separated from their Irish-born ancestor by several generations: Plastic Paddys.

So Obama is at least 1/16th Famine Irish on his mother's side, and more to the point, who did all his subsequent Irish Indiana ancestors marry? American Irish and Scots Irish? Both Dunham and Payne sound Irish or Anglo-Irish. And many, if not most of our American presidents (and the KKK) were what—of Scots-Irish descent? Someone mentioned that this election was the most Irish ticket yet—on BOTH sides.

Shall we throw in little Cherokee into the admixture as well? One only needs 1/16th blood to get on the tribal roster. Next to claiming Irish ancestry, is the American preoccupation of claiming native American ancestry—almost always Cherokee, BTW. According to another source, in Barack Obama's "Dreams from My Father," his great-grandmother Leona McCurry was hiding a family secret, she was part Native American. Someone mentioned: Cherokee.

OK, let's put this tenuous race and identity thing into another perspective; how many white Americans routinely claim Irish heritage that dates back to the Great Famine? Quite a few. They think nothing of stretching ancestral relationships to extremes by invoking a second great grandfather. And nobody laughs that one off.

During and after the Great Irish Famine (or The Great Hunger; An Gorta Mór) of 1845-1850, literally millions of "unskilled" Irish (Catholics) emigrated to urban North America, providing a vast instant workforce for industrial America. They worked in the factories, built the canals, laid the railroad tracks, mined the ore. Between 1820 and 1860, over one third of all immigrants to the United State were Irish Catholics who settled in huge urban enclaves in the north: New England. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Delaware.

New York City alone boasts more people who claim Irish heritage than the whole of Dublin's population. Hey that works out to something like a ratio of 1-in-6 (the ratio is higher on St. Paddy's Day, of course). By contrast, the Scots-Irish “ethnic group” tended to settle in rural climes—Appalachia and the South.

Among the the most Irish American cities/towns of America are Milton, MA, with 38% claiming Irish descent; Greeley, NB (pop. 527) 43%, and Butte, MT. Other "Irish" cities include Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Missouri, San Francisco and to a lesser degree in the south, Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans. We've come a long way from the hostile anti-Catholic Know Nothing Movement of the 1850s which was followed by the "No Irish Need Apply." But the road is still long.

More than one third (47%) of all U.S. presidents can claim Northern Ulster Anglo-Irish or Scots-Irish ancestral origins—from George Washington to President Bush. Andrew Jackson's parents were Irish born. The big Irish brouhaha over Kennedy was that he was Irish Catholic not Irish Protestant. Obama is Anglican. The Famine Irish are still, by and large, Catholic. Traditionally, the Irish Catholics have voted 80-95% Democratic. Protestant politicians are rarely identified as Irish, except Reagan and Clinton.

When I was on Cape Cod last summer, I surprised by, in ordinary conversation, "Hi my name is...and I'm from..." how many of the reserved Eastern Seaboard folks claimed Irish or Pilgrim/Puritan descent. No matter that at Plymouth Rock, the rock itself has been whittled down to a vestigial nub, protected from decades of overzealous souvenir hunters hungry for a piece of the rock.

It's an American thing to trace your roots, folks. Dubious links to the past. Miles Standish and all that. (Take that to the extreme: yeah, and I was an Egyptian princess in a past life...) I understand we all need something to hold onto. So, what exactly are people latching onto, by way of identity?

Many groups not traditionally associated with the Irish also have Irish ancestry including many Native American tribes; Caribbean Blacks and African Americans have more than a little Irish blood, thanks to Cromwell's selling of Irish child slaves in the Barbados. I don't even want to think about convoluted Kenyan family trees under British Colonial Rule. When Barack Obama was born (in Honolulu), Kenya was still a British colony. He was largely raised ad educated abroad, so he's a citizen of the world. 

Obama’s mother was a Dunham (by way of the Kansas Kearneys). His father was from Kenya . Some say his mother and father met after the long march over the bridge in Selma, Alabama. He was born in Hawaii. That makes him... er, Hawaiian? Shaka, bro! Another report mentions Indonesian roots as well. By way of his stepfather? Another mentions Arab. Are we secretly trying to whitewash him? That makes him multi-racial. Embrace the change. Let us all be colorblind global citizens.

As  (Barry) Obama so aptly put it, "I've got pieces of everybody in me." Yes.

I am reminded of Bono's "Let's Put Humanity Back on Earth" speech:

Let's not forget ... no Blacks, no Irish.
Let's not forget ... the back of the bus.
Let's not forget ... apartheid and Jim Crow.
Let's not forget ... women couldn't vote.

Yeah Bono. Let's keep our eye on the prize.

Yes we can, Bharhach O'Bhamagh. Yes we did.

Because of the Internet, I also know some strange Obama factoids: Obama is a Mac user, he uses OWC hard drive enclosures, I know he writes poetry.... Yes.

Ad Gilbert Bailon wrote in STD Today (St. Louis): "Mr. Obama has a rare opportunity to unite diverse people. Americans should resist reflexive temptations to cast his actions along racial lines. He and the country have too much at stake to get sidetracked with divisive racial politics."

But he's still a dark horse and only time will tell if he has the chops to get us out of this pickle we're in. It's up to us to continue to stay in the race and be proactive in politics and not take a back seat, like during the Bush regime. We let that one happen, folks, by not being proactive. Yes we did.

Barack Obama stated several times that he can't deliver universal health care or create a sweeping clean energy policy on his own. We will all need to do our part. Yes we do.

Only the first 100 days will really tell. But I have faith. Yes we can.

Friday, November 14, 2008

There's No One as Irish as Barack O'Bama

Certainly there are many amazing Obama tidbits floating out there on the Internet, but imagine my surprise when I saw on YouTube, a sean nos send-up on Obama at the Starry Plough's Sunday Session in Berkeley by none other than Shay Black.

The viral video, "There's No One as Irish as Barack O'Bama" was recorded at the precocious 13-year-old weekly Sunday night Irish music session on September 14th, 2008.

The basic verses of the song, "There's No One as Irish as Barack O'Bama" were created by the Corrigan Brothers (aka Hardy Drew and the Nancy Boys) in Ireland. The tune itself was borrowed from "The Green Hills of Tara. After a bit of a scuff, permission to add additional verses was later given to Shay Black by the Corrigan Brothers. Extra verse contributions (in some form) were added as well as Celia Ramsey, Chris Caswell, Walter Askew (Salty Walt), Craig Johnson, Tom Clancy, Barry Gleeson, Dave Sahn, and Peter Heelan.

Apparently rumor has it that Obama himself has seen the video and it is reported that he loved the song. It's goin' down in folk history alright, as it's already posted on Mudcat. Cafe.

Painted on the back wall of the Starry Plough is an apt quote from Irish activist James Connolly:

In the preface to "Revolutionary Song " (1907), James Connolly, who was also later a leader of the Easter Rebellion, wrote:

"No Revolutionary movement is complete without its poetic expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses, they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, fears, and hopes the loves and hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement; it is the dogma of the few and not the faith of the multitude."

I've reread that quote many times at Sunday Sessions. Now it takes on a whole other level of meaning. Defiant singing indeed.

Before Barack, there was Jack....

Apparently it's a getting pretty viral out there, folks, with over 700,000 views.

O'Leary, O'Reilly, O'Hare, & O'Hara
There's no one as Irish as Barack O'Bama

Saints be praised! Who'd a known Obama was as Irish as bacon and cabbage?

From the ol' Blarney Stone to the green hills of Tara...
There's no one as Irish as Barack O'Bama....

Once upon a time Barack did go by the name of Barry. Barry O'Bama  or make that   Bairi O Bhamaigh?

Rumor has it that Hardy Drew and The Nancy Boys were invited to open one of the inaugural balls after the US Presidential election. Not too sure how singer Shay Black fits into all this as he's the one we're all listening to on the video. But the tune's catchy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day At Grace Cathedral

We attended  the Thirtieth Annual Royal British Legion Service of Remembrance, a memorial service in honor of the fallen veterans of WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf Wars—I & II. Many members of the San Francisco Caledonian Club gave moving speeches including SFCC Chief Alan Purves and decorated WWII war heroes Danny Mander, Patrick Sweetman, MBE. Danny Mander talked from the top of his head, and it was pure poetry in the oral tradition. I didn't think to write it down in time.

I didn't know most of the Episcopalian hymns, but Amazing Grace on the bagpipes never sounded so lovely in the cathedral nave.

Cribnotes for a poem:
(I waited too long to type them up and now the emotional charge is gone. If I find the thread again, then I'll work on this.)

On the eleventh month,
on the eleventh day,
and at the eleventh hour
we will remember Armistice Day
we will remember
In Flanders Field
at the Western Front
the soldier who went mad after seven days
they made him stay ten
a Canadian surgeon
spent 17 days at the front
the horror, the horror
Wilfred Owen
living with that fragility

dulce et decorum est

age shall not weary them
they planted poppies
so that blood will bloom again

we suffer from spiritual amnesia:
we romanticise
we sentimentalize
then we demonize
and latinize ad infinitum

I remember the mass graves of Verdun
red poppies swooned in the breeze

at the front, soldiers went mad
too long at the front was insanity
"wastage" was 400 a day
we are the dead
we are the dead
friendly fire 
at the going down of the sun

the army of the dead
honor  no borders
the army of the fallen
salute no nationality other than death
they shall not grow old as we grow old
we grow old, we grow old
yet we live as they cannot

et lux perpetua
fili me, fili me domine

the wasteland
the horror
for all your tomorrows
they gave up their past

"Me thinks I should know you," said King Lear...

oh the dreadful wind and rain
sang the daughters of Lear
at the going down of the sun

during the Last Post
notes met mid air,
clashed and reverberated off the walls
they became the clash and din of the battlefield
this remembrance is about us
it is for us, the living and the dead
a call to be alive, to be fully alive

today there are only five living survivors of WWI
they are 108 to 115 years of age
another died last Tuesday
soon living memory will pass into oblivion 
and onto the pages of history
the Reveille sounded by the bugler
and the poppies shall fall

At the end of the service 
red poppy petals flurried down from the nave 
to cover the altar steps with a red snow
and still we send troops to Iraq.

From Veteran's Memorial 2008

Sunset (and moonrise) over City Hall was a showstopper.
From Veteran's Memorial 2008

Afterwards, we went over to the Herbst War Memorial Theater and had a bit of a do with Danny Mander singing war songs joined by Neil O'Neill on the guitar. We let the rafters ring.

One thing I learned is to not try to keep up with the British Legion when it comes to drinking. Neil said that the British Legions was formed as a drinking club for ex servicemen. Now I understand.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Night in Oakland

In Oakland, on Election Nigh, voters were literally dancing in the streets. Firecrackers and guns were let off, it was like the 4th of July in November.

The Ethiopians and Eritreans on the balconies next door went clean mad. They played Bob Marley, Buffalo Soldier and the Limbo.

You could tell when the California Electoral vote finally came in.

The entire city collectively screamed at once. We were all shouting a rousing rugby rendition of a echo and call cheer: Oh Bah Ma! Oh Bah Ma! Oh Bah Ma! I forgave my neighbors for all the other times they woke me in the middle of the night. Tomorrow was gonna be a brand new day.

Nobody got very much sleep on Election night in Oakland.

We were all on Cloud Nine.