About Jamie

I'm a mom and a new wife. I edit books for a living. And I travel when I can.

“Nuala O’Faolain, 68, Irish Memoirist, Is Dead” *

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in March 2012.

Some years ago when I still worked in the corporate world, I was driving home from my job listening to NPR. It was late (yes: I worked late too frequently, even then) and they were running an interview with Nuala O’Faolain. She had just turned sixty, and the interview had to do with the paperback reissue of her first novel, My Dream of You.

Nuala O’Faolain. I lifted this photo from the Irish Independent. 🙂

Her protagonist, Kathleen de Burca, is an older woman who unexpectedly falls in love after having given up on that ever happening. There is much, much more that goes on in this layered and nuanced novel (I loved it), but the radio interviewer headed down that older-love path, as many of Kathleen’s details seemed to echo O’Faolain’s personal life.

In this interview O’Faolain said (I’m paraphrasing) that as she had begun aging, she’d been essentially written off by younger people. They think I’ve given up “all that,” she said (meaning wild, passionate emotional and physical love), but I haven’t. I still long for “the Other.”

At the time, her words struck me right through the heart (I’d been divorced and alone for some time) and there I was, driving down the highway, sobbing like a baby. But this was her gift: as a writer and speaker she is unsentimental, painfully honest, eloquent in that way the Irish are—and sees right to the heart of the matter.

I’d never heard of her before that night (in Ireland she was a household name) but I went to the bookstore the very next day and bought My Dream of You. After that I read Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman and later her second memoir, Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman. I was moved, always, by what this woman had to say.

When I stumbled on the headline above, then, you can imagine my sorrow. I’d felt like I knew her! Less than a month before she died she did a sad but unblinking radio interview about her impending death. It was a sensation in Ireland. (You can read it here or listen to it here. It’s really good for seeing / hearing the rhythm of her Irish way of speaking, if you are interested in that sort of thing, as I am.) “It must look as if I’m an awful divil for publicity altogether,” she said.

Perhaps. But even now, her writing deserves your attention. Have a look. Let me know what you think.

*This headline is nearly a decade old; it’s from a story in the New York Times dated 11 May 2008.

I’m the Person I Always Was—Only Now I Say What I Think Out Loud

Yes. You’ve probably noticed. I’ve been speaking my mind. 🙂

When I got divorced in 1990, I became a very busy single mom working two and three jobs. Life continued apace, and the country had lots of interesting things going on, but I kept my thoughts to myself because I didn’t feel qualified to speak up. I’m a facts gal. I always have been. And if I’m not in possession of the facts, I’d rather be silent than be stupid.

Back in those days some male members of my family had a lot to say about politics—even knowing that I didn’t agree with them*—but I let it roll off because I didn’t feel like I was up on all the facts, so I couldn’t have an intelligent conversation about it. During that time, I prided myself on keeping the peace, and I’ve since prided myself on keeping things light. On the blog I talk about travel and my fortunate life. On Facebook I talked about my kid, my pets, my now-husband, the yard, my work … all the things I love and care about.

And as long as I did that, I was OK.

Oh, I watched all the ugly, partisan memes that twisted the truth (or often lied). I saw lots of them on my brother’s Facebook feed. I watched that angry, mean stuff from Alex Jones, Mark Levin, and Fox News (and so, so many others) posted by people I thought I knew. I heard the disgust in certain voices when the word liberal was spoken or written. It hurt when people I know used the word libtard in my presence. I didn’t like it, but I said nothing. I was “a good girl,” it seems.

But on 25 November 2015 in South Carolina, Donald Trump publicly mocked a disabled man, and I’ve not been able to move past that.

There’s a lot more than that, of course. Trump lies. He’s selfish and greedy. He’s a racist, a xenophobe, and a hater of the worst sort. He’s a science denier. He is a serial sexual assaulter. He’s also not particularly bright, which is something that really bothers me.

I kept silent a little longer. But now I just can’t. Staying silent destroyed my personal serenity and played havoc with my mental and physical health. “I cannot and I will not retract anything,” Martin Luther said at the Diet of Worms in 1521, “since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” That’s where I’m at, y’all. There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience.

Interestingly, because I’ve spoken up now, because I’ve stepped out of my good-girl role, because I have dared to criticize the man they voted for, some people I know have called me a hater.

To those people I say: clearly you don’t know me at all. I have always had these opinions you don’t like. I’m just talking back now because I have my facts in hand. Oh, I’m a smartass, all right. Sure, I’m angry. And yes, I have a very low tolerance for bullshit (and always have). But I’m no hater. There’s a difference.

*Because I’ve had the same fundamental beliefs about life, and the goodness of it, and the notion that in the end we as humans and as a nation will be judged by how we treat the least among us since I was about ten years old, arguing politics at the dinner table with my daddy, who encouraged me in all things, even my renegade allegiance to the Democratic party.

“Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence. We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.”
Robert F. Kennedy, speech, “On the Mindless Menace of Violence,” in Cleveland, Ohio, 5 April 1968

Poetry Geek

This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in April 2013.

When I was a kid I loved studying poetry in school. For the same reason I love a jigsaw puzzle, for the same reason I loved diagramming sentences (yes! and I’m not ashamed to admit it), for the same reasons I enjoy editing now, I loved the discussions about symbolism and simile and structure.

I loved parsing the words, teasing out the message that just wasn’t clear to a thirteen-year-old of limited frame of reference. “I met a traveler from an antique land,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1817,* “Who said, ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone …’” and these lines never fail to thrill me. I’m right there in that desert. It’s a fairly transparent sonnet, actually, but I was quite impressed with it when I was thirteen and I am still, these many years later.

I also love being exposed to new poetry. So I was delighted to read a post from poet Isabel Rogers, in which she mentioned this gorgeous piece—“The Lammas Hireling” by Ian Duhig. The poem won the (UK) Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition in 2000. I immediately sought it out—and it’s lovely—but knew I needed to do a little research.

Isn’t it always an adventure to read and then think and imagine what’s going on in a poem? You can start with the title. Lammas, as it turns out, is a pre-Christian tradition: a harvest festival on August first. The hireling is simply a man, a stranger, engaged at a rural hiring fair. Duhig himself tells us this is how farm “labour was engaged well into the last century.”

Americans unfamiliar with the folk traditions of the British Isles will be stumped by a couple references. Duhig says,

It’s based on a story I heard when I was in Northern Ireland, out for a very late night walk, a local person pointed out a house he told me was where the local witches used to live, and in their tradition witches would change into hares, and when the father was dying, his family was very embarrassed because the father’s body was turning into a hare’s and this bloke [who] told me the story said he attended the funeral and the last thing you could hear was the hare’s paws beating the lid of the coffin as they lowered it into the ground.

Now there’s a story for ’round the campfire, eh? The poet goes on to say, “‘A cow with leather horns’ is another name for a hare—if you think about it you’ll see why.” That last line, of course, is the best part of reading poetry, as we’ve discussed. If you think about it, you’ll see why.

Read the poem again.

Now, just for fun, watch this short film from filmmaker (and poet!) Paul Casey, founder of the Ó Bhéal reading series in Cork.

What do you think? Now that you’ve watched the film, do you think there could there be a less magical interpretation? Casey gets us started when he says the poem “explores superstition in 20th century rural Ireland.” What do you think of his choice of a woman to play the hireling, when the poem calls the hireling “he”? Is the old widower a reliable narrator? You tell me.

UPDATE: This post became known to the poet within minutes of the time it published, and in short order I was having a Twitter conversation with him. He said, “If obscurities remain—allowing for its unreliable/unhinged narrator—do ask.” Don’t hesitate, friends: @IanDuhig.

* “Ozymandius” was published in the 11 January 1818 issue of the (London) Examiner.
Thank you, Isabel, for exposing me to “The Lammas Hireling.”
There’s some more interesting discussion about the poem here.

 

Ireland on the Page

This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in September 2012.

Before I visited Ireland the first time, I did an enormous amount of reading—about history, culture, and so on. The history, in particular, is a lot to grasp for an American. That whole Troubles thing? We. Just. Don’t. Get it.

I’d long been fascinated by Ireland. This allure probably had some genesis in—don’t laugh—the 1966 Disney movie The Fighting Prince of Donegal. (I said don’t laugh. I still have a VHS copy. It’s based on a 1957 novel by Robert T. Reilly, Red Hugh: Prince of Donegal, and is Good Clean Fun.)

I’d read Joyce in high school, of course (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners; I’m not any braver than that). Ten years later I read Leon Uris’s Trinity (subtitle: A Novel of Ireland) and finally thought I understood the Irish Troubles. As we’ve discussed (here, say, and here), there is a power to convey history even through fiction. (Sadly, the book didn’t stand up well in a recent reread. Which isn’t to say you mightn’t enjoy it, just that it is no longer my cuppa.)

In the years that followed I read quite a bit of Roddy Doyle’s wonderful fiction; I’d found Nuala O’Faolain and Fergal Keane. I read The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World by Thomas Keneally (he of Schindler’s List fame) and another piece of Irish history fell into place. I found a little book called A Literary Guide to Ireland by Thomas and Susan Cahill (touring Ireland by way of its writers? you can imagine my delight). This led me to Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, which was pure nonfiction pleasure. Highly recommended.

Irish history has been discussed in a variety of fiction and nonfiction, all immanently readable. (It’s been covered in movies, too, but that’s another post.) It’s an ongoing thing, this personal study of Irish history, but by the time I finally visited Ireland, I at least had the basics in hand. Not everyone is as interested in drilling down the way I am, I guess, but if you travel to a country not your own, how can you experience it as anything more than a Disneyland (Oh, look, honey! Sheep! So cute!) if you don’t know at least a little something?

This was borne home to me in an incident I experienced in Dublin at Kilmainham Gaol. Now a museum, the gaol played an important role in recent Irish history, having been the site of the executions of fourteen men who participated in the Easter Rising, including all seven of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. It is a solemn and sorrowful place.

On this particular day our tour group was being led by a soft-spoken young man who looked to be in his mid-twenties; he was probably a graduate student at one of the local universities. Also in our group was a large American man who seemed desperate to show the rest of us—and the very Irish docent—how much he knew about Ireland, about the Rising (he called it the Uprising … sigh), really, about everything. He kept peppering our young guide with questions and comments, which were answered fully and patiently.

And then the guide said something about the Irish Civil War.

The big guy sputtered. “Civil war? What civil war?” Hahahaha. Yes, dude. Didn’t you watch the movie? Michael Collins didn’t die at British hands.

Without doubt, Irish history is complicated. And, as Fergal Keane notes, “ruthless … nasty, [and] tribal.” But if you want to understand it, you can. I can recommend a book. 🙂 The Irishman and I found it in the United Nations bookshop, of all places: Ireland: An Illustrated History, by Henry Weisser. It’s short—you can read it in an afternoon—and has everything you need to know.

Not Your Average Journalist

This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in September 2012.

A friend of mine “introduced” me to Irish writer and broadcaster Fergal Keane in the late ’90s; his BBC Radio 4 broadcast of his emotional essay “Letter to Daniel” had recently caused an enormous stir the British Isles. (Forget the stiff upper lip; when a man waxes profound about his newborn, folks get a little worked up.)

Fergal Keane. Snagged from the BBC.

Keane was born to Irish parents in London, but grew up in Ireland. His father was the locally famous radio and stage actor Éamonn Keane; more importantly to our story (his father’s career and alcoholism having made him nearly a stranger to the family), his uncle (and surrogate father) was the playwright and author John B. Keane. (His play The Field is one you might be familiar with; it was made into a 1990 movie starring Richard Harris, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. You should have a look.)

A way with words apparently ran in the family. Young Fergal started his career as a newspaper journalist, then moved to broadcast journalism, first with Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) and then the BBC, which sent him to South Africa, where he covered the end of apartheid. He made his name reporting the “hot” wars on the BBC and writing about them in the Independent, where he was a weekly columnist for years. If there was a war zone, Fergal Keane was there: Sierra Leone, Burma, Congo, Angola, Bosnia, Afghanistan, the genocide in Rwanda.

He also had a rep for getting too involved with his stories. “Keane has been scorched by criticism of his heart-on-sleeve broadcasting style and accused of believing he has a monopoly on the moral high ground,” the Telegraph’s Elizabeth Grice writes. “Some of his reports … have exposed his own feelings, it’s said, at the expense of professional detachment and a proper account of what is going on.”

Personally, I like that depth of involvement. I like that he cares. His writing is evocative, engaging, humane, and just gorgeous. He makes me cry. (But who wouldn’t cry about what happened in Rwanda in 1994?) Keane himself says, “The best correspondents for me are those who haven’t been afraid to be human.” Yes.

I’ve read two collections of his columns, Letter to Daniel and Letters Home, and his memoir, All of These People. I would recommend these, certainly. I don’t know if I can bear a whole book about Rwanda (Season of Blood) but I intend to try; Keane has said, “Rwanda was the defining experience of my adult life. … Nothing prepared me for what I saw in Rwanda.” He wrote some truly memorable columns in the aftermath of 9/11, including his first reaction on 13 September, “There is only one way to defeat such hatred.” That was eleven years ago today. And here is one about the IRA’s announcement, in late October 2001, that it would decommission its weapons. The line “A vast pasture of sacred cows has been dispatched to the abattoir” is classic Keane (read it a couple times to appreciate the craftsmanship).

Fergal Keane has given up chasing wars now—he’s won awards and accolades enough—and is doing more writing. Lucky us! Whether you’re a writer or a reader, I urge you to seek out his books.

Gaeltacht (GALE-tucked)

This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in October 2012.

I have warm memories of sitting in a pub in Malin, on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal. The population of this village is only 122, and I’m pretty sure most of them were there that late afternoon. It was raining outside—blustering, really—but we were all snug inside. The Irishman had his tea and was watching the game; I had my feet propped up, alternately sipping tea and whiskey. (Highly recommended.)

I loved this place!

I love sitting in a busy place and listening to (OK: eavesdropping on) the conversations around me, little snatches of this and that, meaningless without context but still entertaining. The accents on Inishowen are very thick and Scottish-sounding (to an American’s ear) when folks are speaking English, but as I sat there listening, I realized I was hearing Gaelic (that is, Irish) spoken in natural conversation for the first time. I couldn’t understand a word.

Welcome to the Gaeltacht.

The term Gaeltacht refers to the Irish (Gaelic)-speaking regions of Ireland. Here the road signs are exclusively in Irish, and 75 percent of the people who live here speak it as their first language. There are three principal Gaeltacht regions in the Republic: Kerry, Galway, and Donegal (which is the largest). Historically these were the more rural and remote areas as well.

Nowhere was this more in evidence than in County Kerry, 340 miles to the south and west of Inishiowen. Lying 5 kilometers off the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, the largest of the Blasket Islands (there are six) was inhabited continuously for at least three hundred years, although no one lives there now. It was a hard life—no electricity, no running water, a three-mile crossing to the mainland, weather permitting, followed by a five-mile walk by road for a priest, or a twelve-mile walk to reach a doctor—but in this isolated location, the Blasket islanders retained their own culture and tradition—at the very heart of which lay their continuing use of the Irish language.

“Discovered” in the early 1900s by scholars who were delighted to find perhaps the only outpost of Irish speakers who could not speak English and who had (not coincidentally) a rich storytelling tradition, the islanders were encouraged to write their life stories in their native tongue. This yielded a priceless literary legacy, dozens of books that are still in print today. Three of the most notable are are Machnamh Seanamhná (An Old Woman’s Reflections, by Peig Sayers, 1939), Fiche Bliain Ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing, by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, 1933), and An tOileánach (The Islandman, by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, 1929).

Irish enjoys constitutional status as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland. This manifests itself in challenging signage and other ways, too, like the all-Gaelic-all-the-time television channel. The e-mail that comes to me from the Irishman’s place of business is always followed by this:

This email and any files transmitted with it are confidential and intended solely for the use of the individual or entity to whom they are addressed. Tá an t-eolas sa ríomhphost seo agus in aon chomhad a ghabhann leis rúnda agus ceaptha le haghaidh úsáid an té nó an aonáin ar seoladh chuige iad agus na húsáide sin amháin.

When I look at that second sentence, I don’t even know where to start. Gaelic is not easy, not self-evident: the word taoiseach—which means “chieftain” or “leader” in Irish—you’ll recall, is pronounced TEE-shock. You have probably pronounced an Irish name or two, like Seán (John), Liam (William). You’ve heard of Sinéad O’Connor, whose given name is pronounced shin-ADE. But this is not much help when you’re presented with Is tuairimí nó dearcthaí an údair amháin aon tuairimí nó dearcthaí ann (Any views or opinions presented are solely those of the author).

It does help when one’s traveling companion enjoys the role of Chief Instructor and Sometime Tour Guide. I constantly pester the Irishman with requests for the pronunciation of Gaelic names and terms. There are a myriad of them in any museum in Dublin—say, the National Gallery. After he’d had enough one day, he resorted to an answer any parent will recognize: the next time I asked, “How do you pronounce …?” he replied, “What do you think?” We were standing in front of The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. (Here’s the painting; it’s a well-known event in Ireland’s history, wherein one of Ireland’s Norman conquerors married a local girl related to the high kings of Ireland, thus solidifying the Norman [French] hold on the country.) I’m proud to report that I figured it out—pronounce this EE-fah. If you say it out loud, you’ll hear the English version of this name: Eva.

Oh, the Joys of Travel!

Oh, the joys of travel! To feel the excitement of sudden departure, not always knowing whither. Surely you and I are in agreement about that. How often did my life seem concentrated in that single moment of departure. To travel far, far—and that first morning’s awakening under a new sky! And to find oneself in it—no, to discover more of oneself there. To experience there, too, where one has never been before,
one’s own continuity of being and, at the same time,
to feel that something in your heart, somehow indigenous to this new land,
is coming to life from the moment of your arrival.
You feel your blood infused with some new intelligence,
wondrously nourished by things you had no way of knowing.

–Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to a friend, 3 February 1923