Archive for ‘Ireland’


“No one could find me on their own, I’m off the beaten track…”

American Halloween may be the most medieval of holidays, even if the omnipresence of New World pumpkins obscures its already murky traditions. Most people carve jack-o’-lanterns, for example, without wondering why the heck they’re doing it. The curious can look to Irish folklore, to a tangle of tales about a scoundrel named Jack whose evil deeds keep him out of Heaven but whose tricks sufficiently infuriate the Devil to bar him forever from Hell. With nowhere to go after death, Jack roams the earth, his path lit only by the glow of an ember in a hollowed-out turnip.

Between the eighth-century inception of All Saints’ Day in Rome and the pre-Christian celebrations of Samhain, I see no harm in presuming that the jack-o’-lantern tradition is medieval too. And so last October I turned to my more sensible half and asked her: “Why doesn’t anyone carve turnips anymore?”

As it turns out, Old World jack-o’-lanterns are weirdly easy to make. Cut off the top, scoop out the brains with a melon baller, and use one of those cheap little mini-saws—they’re sold every autumn as pumpkin-carving tools, although they’re nigh-useless on the real thing—to turn a humble, bulbous root into an eerie little sentinel.

We found these—the largest turnips I’ve ever seen—at a roadside produce market out here in the Maryland boonies. The taproots add unexpected spookiness, and the skin is thick enough that you can hang them with a head full of tea-light without worrying that they’ll break and fall.

Should you suffer pumpkin withdrawal, you can easily give your lantern the traditional jagged leer.

So why did lantern-carving immigrants from the British Isles turn in their turnips for all things cucurbita? Some people have suggested that North American turnips tend to be smaller than their New World cousins, and thus harder to carve, but I don’t think that’s it; rather, pumpkins have one clear advantage over hollowed-out turnips. Carved pumpkins can survive with their dignity intact for days or weeks if the weather’s right and squirrels don’t get into them—but our Old World jack-o’-lanterns lasted only two or three days before their little faces wizened into unrecognizability. A damned soul wandering the night for all eternity needs better visibility than that. On the other hand, turnips are faster and safer to carve and much less messy, so we’re happy to light them along our porch as tokens of fleeting glory, retelling a legend the centuries never quite quenched.

“We’ll wait in stone circles, ’til the force comes through…”

For most of us, inspiration is a whisper, slight and private—so I love when eccentrics with outsized visions find huge ways to share their obsessions with us. A few weeks ago, I discovered one such site in Pennsylvania; it’s literally monumental.

Along an uphill webwork of winding roads, you’ll find a stone circle and dozens of other menhirs, dolmens, and megaliths strewn across 17 acres of groves and paths. The park is a refuge for pilgrims to rest, roam, ponder, and (in my case) take snapshots with antique Polaroids, most of them as murky as whatever moved the soul in a nearby house to haul these huge stones into place.

Celtic nostalgia is cousin to medievalism; a kindred impulse shaped them both. As far back as the English constitutional debates of the 17th and 18th centuries—was the Norman Conquest legit?—the druids were in play. Supporters of Parliament wanted to show continuity from the Germanic Saxons, who were seen as practicing a sort of primitive democracy temporarily kiboshed in 1066; monarchists wanted to override their claims with a more ancient political inheritance from pre-Germanic Celtic Britons. With the druids in mind, boosters of the British Empire also saw proof that savage people could be conquered, colonized, and redeemed—although the Welsh and the Cornish soon showed the power of druids as defiant patriotic symbols instead.

In the 1760s, the discovery of an epic cycle by the ancient bard Ossian famously beguiled readers on both sides of the Atlantic; it was a fake by a Scottish poet, but the Celts of romance conquered and thrived. Students of medieval lit still read Arthurian legend in the wake of 20th-century scholars like Roger Loomis, who never failed to discern minute echoes of Celtic ritual on every interminable page. Since the 1980s, the comically prolific John and Caitlin Matthews have cranked out piles of books that nourished a neo-druid British counterculture with growing political heft.

In the United States, popular Celticism has been domesticated; as with medievalism, less is at stake, so we make it our own. You’ll find it in neopagan spirituality and in the nostalgia of Scottish and Irish ancestral pride—and, it seems, in the shady groves of eastern Pennsylvania.

As I rested under a wooden awning, a golf cart came zipping down from the large modern house overlooking the stones. Behind the wheel was Bill, who founded the park in the 1970s. We talked about the inevitable breakdown of human institutions, the fleeting nature of the physical world, and the holy mischief of making places for future myth.

According to his book (for sale on the honor system in a nearby shed), Bill was a Presbyterian minister, but a series of dreams and mystical experiences on the Scottish island of Iona apparently turned him into a universalist. Since then, he’s busily created what is, at the very least, an ecumenical work of visionary landscape art. In addition to the main stone circle, his site includes a dolmen devoted to Thor, a path through a “faerie ring,” sacred male and female groves, a quirky bell tower inspired by an Ionian saint who was buried alive, stones for St. David and St. Brigid, and a lovely chapel to St. Columba, the Irishman who spread Christianity in Scotland.

[scanned, reversed Land Camera negative – the only good photo I got that day]

Although Bill welcomes the public from dawn to dusk and religious revelers on certain evenings, I’ve deliberately not used the name of the park to help preserve it just a little from search-engine omnipresence. “We had 600 people on the land over Memorial Day,” Bill told me—not ruefully, but with a glimmer of concern. With a huge, happy laugh, he said he sometimes tells his board that they ought to take down the entire website. He didn’t quite mean it, but I liked his reason. “People will still come,” he said, as if he’d known so since the dawn of time. “They’ll find it when they need it.”

“Fortune prevailing across the western ocean…”

[This post originally ran on St. Patrick’s Day 2009, but since life is conspiring to prevent me from writing new stuff, I present…a rerun!]

On St. Patrick’s Day, my block is a riot of counterfeit green. My neighbors, the locals, and crowds of outsiders embarrass and degrade themselves, and the sidewalks are rampant with bellowing drunks: “I’m not Irish, but I’m Irish today! Wooooo!” As the Irish economy continues to shrink, an international day of blarney may be unseemly, but there’s no better time to fall back on the Pogues.

With their drinking songs, tin-whistle ditties, and rousing odes to old-school Irishness, the Pogues are the sons of a more squalid age. Shane MacGowan, their lead singer and most prolific lyricist, has long exemplified the beer-blasted Irishman: profane, incoherent, staggering, sad, by turns violent and wistful, poetic and crass. By mumbling through lines like “Jimmy played harmonica in the pub where I was born,” MacGowan reinforced the image of a culture of cackling, chaotic brawlers whose sole goal in drinking themselves to death was to get in on the first round in Hell.

So yes, the Pogues have cultivated a cartoonish image, but they deserve credit for a more profound accomplishment: they were the unlikely vanguard of Irish internationalism before all that “Celtic Tiger” hype took hold. You can see it in their lyrics, which include references not only to Cuchullain and Cromwell but also to Rhineland mythology, the works of Jean Genet, and, in a funny folk cover, Jesse James. Sure, the Pogues eulogize Irish novelist Christy Brown as “a man of renown from Dingle to Down,” but they also sing about Gallipoli, they invoke Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” and they even flirt with Coleridge. They croon about being lost in Louisiana, they bemoan being down and out in Nepal, and they dabble in Spanish history, offering the only ode to Federico Garcia Lorca in which a crass reference to “the faggot poet” could possibly be seen as sympathetic.

Often, the Pogues depart from folk ditties to dabble in tunes that evoke Guinness-flecked spaghetti Westerns or Celticized Bernstein soundtracks, and they throw themselves into the Cole Porter songbook without explanation or apology. Listen to “House of the Gods” and you’ll get a sense of how much thought goes into making such clangy, boisterous, intoxicating music. MacGowan’s goofy song about meeting a transvestite hooker on a Thai beach includes an opening and closing flourish that’s wonderfully wry: it’s a high-strung, ironic rendition of the melody from “You Still Believe in Me,” a sincere love song by—who else?—the Beach Boys.

Of course, the Pogues can be plainly sincere, especially when singing about squandered dreams. “Fairytale of New York,” MacGowan’s duet with the late Kirsty MacColl, has become a lachrymose Christmas favorite, but its popularity overshadows the superior “Thousands are Sailing,” guitarist Phillip Chevron’s bittersweet tale of Irish immigration:

In Manhattan’s desert twilight,
In the death of afternoon,
We stepped hand in hand on Broadway
Like the first men on the moon,

And “The Blackbird” broke the silence
As you whistled it so sweet,
And in Brendan Behan’s footsteps
I danced up and down the street.

Chevron’s characterization of the Irish as both celebrating and fleeing their “fear of priests with empty plates, from guilt and weeping effigies” combines regret, wistfulness, superstition, and self-loathing; that’s the sort of artistry that makes the Pogues more than a novelty band with a repertoire of drinking songs. Only a lyricist who’s seen the rest of the world could think so clearly and write so eloquently about Ireland’s place within it.

Granted, the Pogues are improbable spokesmen for Irish internationalism—and not only because half the band is actually English. Watch the documentary If I Should Fall From Grace and marvel at footage of Shane MacGowan—drunken, petulant, rotten-toothed, and suicidal. Could this incoherent bum really be the literate soul who wrote the Pogues’ most poignant songs? Did he really go to Thailand, Nepal, New York, and Mississippi? Is there really a Rain Street where he observed Ireland in all its Chaucerian glory, or was the whole business born of drugs and booze?

Who knows? Today, raise a few pints to the Pogues. When a world full of expats looked back with nostalgia, the Pogues looked beyond Irish shores. If you just need to drink and be raucous and weepy, they gave you a suitable soundtrack. If you aspire to be worldly and wise, they gave you good songs for that, too.

“Fortune prevailing across the western ocean…”

On St. Patrick’s Day, my block is a riot of counterfeit green. My neighbors, the locals, and crowds of outsiders embarrass and degrade themselves, and the sidewalks are rampant with bellowing drunks: “I’m not Irish, but I’m Irish today! Wooooo!” As the Irish economy continues to shrink, an international day of blarney may be unseemly, but there’s no better time to fall back on the Pogues.

With their drinking songs, tin-whistle ditties, and rousing odes to old-school Irishness, the Pogues are the sons of a more squalid age. Shane MacGowan, their lead singer and most prolific lyricist, has long exemplified the beer-blasted Irishman: profane, incoherent, staggering, sad, by turns violent and wistful, poetic and crass. By mumbling through lines like “Jimmy played harmonica in the pub where I was born,” MacGowan reinforced the image of a culture of cackling, chaotic brawlers whose sole goal in drinking themselves to death was to get in on the first round in Hell.

So yes, the Pogues have cultivated a cartoonish image, but they deserve credit for a more profound accomplishment: they were the unlikely vanguard of Irish internationalism before all that “Celtic Tiger” hype took hold. You can see it in their lyrics, which include references not only to Cuchullain and Cromwell but also to Rhineland mythology, the works of Jean Genet, and, in a funny folk cover, Jesse James. Sure, the Pogues eulogize Irish novelist Christy Brown as “a man of renown from Dingle to Down,” but they also sing about Gallipoli, they invoke Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” and they even flirt with Coleridge. They croon about being lost in Louisiana, they bemoan being down and out in Nepal, and they dabble in Spanish history, offering the only ode to Federico Garcia Lorca in which a crass reference to “the faggot poet” could possibly be seen as sympathetic.

Often, the Pogues depart from folk ditties to dabble in tunes that evoke Guinness-flecked spaghetti Westerns or Celticized Bernstein soundtracks, and they throw themselves into the Cole Porter songbook without explanation or apology. Listen to “House of the Gods” and you’ll get a sense of how much thought goes into making such clangy, boisterous, intoxicating music. MacGowan’s goofy song about meeting a transvestite hooker on a Thai beach includes an opening and closing flourish that’s wonderfully wry: it’s a high-strung, ironic rendition of the melody from “You Still Believe in Me,” a sincere love song by—who else?—the Beach Boys.

Of course, the Pogues can be plainly sincere, especially when singing about squandered dreams. “Fairytale of New York,” MacGowan’s duet with the late Kirsty MacColl, has become a lachrymose Christmas favorite, but its popularity overshadows the superior “Thousands are Sailing,” guitarist Phillip Chevron’s bittersweet tale of Irish immigration:

In Manhattan’s desert twilight,
In the death of afternoon,
We stepped hand in hand on Broadway
Like the first men on the moon,

And “The Blackbird” broke the silence
As you whistled it so sweet,
And in Brendan Behan’s footsteps
I danced up and down the street.

Chevron’s characterization of the Irish as both celebrating and fleeing their “fear of priests with empty plates, from guilt and weeping effigies” combines regret, wistfulness, superstition, and self-loathing; that’s the sort of artistry that makes the Pogues more than a novelty band with a repertoire of drinking songs. Only a lyricist who’s seen the rest of the world could think so clearly and write so eloquently about Ireland’s place within it.

Granted, the Pogues are improbable spokesmen for Irish internationalism—and not only because half the band is actually English. Watch the documentary If I Should Fall From Grace and marvel at footage of Shane MacGowan—drunken, petulant, rotten-toothed, and suicidal. Could this incoherent bum really be the literate soul who wrote the Pogues’ most poignant songs? Did he really go to Thailand, Nepal, New York, and Mississippi? Is there really a Rain Street where he observed Ireland in all its Chaucerian glory, or was the whole business born of drugs and booze?

Who knows? Today, raise a few pints to the Pogues. When a world full of expats looked back with nostalgia, the Pogues looked beyond Irish shores. If you just need to drink and be raucous and weepy, they gave you a suitable soundtrack. If you aspire to be worldly and wise, they gave you good songs for that, too.