They Speak English, Don’t They?

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

When you’re planning your first trip to Ireland—excitedly, it’s something you’ve dreamed of for decades—the one thing you don’t think is Oh, and I’d better pick up a translation dictionary. Because they speak English over there.

Don’t they?

Um, yes, of course they do.  But you may find yourself doing the smile-and-nod (which is universal sign language for “I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but … OK”) more often than you’d expect.

(Warning: what follows is not for the sensitively eared.)

Like the time we had a flat tire in Tralee and were directed to Tony O’Donoghue’s Tyre Service. As the driver of the car, I marched in and indicated my need for a new tire to the proprietor, who understood me just fine. (They get a lot of American television over there and are used to—and imitate with glee—our accent.) Tony then replied at length. I smiled and nodded, and as Tony walked away, the Irishman murmured, “I’ll bet you didn’t understand a word of that.” I hadn’t. Not a word. And I’d been trying. “It’s a very thick Kerry accent,” he said. “I didn’t catch everything either.”

It’s interesting, the variety of regional accents one encounters in a country the size of Indiana. (To be fair, I can distinguish a Southern accent on a state-by-state basis, though most non-Southerners would probably hear them as all the same.) And not just accents—the vernacular changes too. When I was seeking editorial help from the Irishman (a Dubliner) for a novel set in Ireland, I had to answer characterization questions first: “Who are the speakers, where are they from? Dublin? The west? Cork? Those Corkmen”—a shake of the head—“have a language all their own. Are they working class or upper class?”

One thing visiting Americans certainly find disconcerting is the use of what we might delicately call profanity, but which are merely mild exclamations or slang completely unrelated to … well, what we Yanks think we hear. Words like feck or arse are somewhat shocking to our Puritan ears, though I am assured those Irish nuns have heard this and more (for example, Dubliners are fond of bluddy hell). It’s just not the same, I’m told. (Don’t believe me? Watch this well-received performance by Fascinating Aïda, complete with subtitles.)

It does get easier when you converse with a native-speaker every day. But when I am with the fam and everyone’s talking at once … I just smile and nod.

My Favorite Book (This Year)

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in January 2014.

I read thirty-three* books for pleasure in 2012—and at the end of the year I boiled it all down to One Favorite Book, difficult though that was. I read fifty-four in 2013, and most of them were titles I’d happily recommend, for one reason or another.

I blogged about some—Life After LifeThe Best of YouthThe Round HouseAfter Visiting FriendsLong Time, No SeeFresh Off the BoatNow & ThenThe Interestings—and have planned posts on a few more, including that orgy of classic Irish literature in which I indulged.

But the one favorite book seemed like a good idea then and it still seems like a good idea, so here it is—my favorite book of 2013. I knew the minute I closed the cover this one would be my choice; that was last summer, and as much as I loved Life After Life, I never wavered.

My favorite book last year was Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. I bought my copy in Ireland in May, because I didn’t want to wait for it to release here, so eager was I for this book.

The Irish cover. No, I don’t get it, either.

You know by now that I read all sorts of titles and genres, but I don’t mind declaring I am an unabashed lover of literary fiction. Lately it’s been hip to diss lit-fic, to sigh and say, Pretty writing’s all well and good but I want a great story!—even authors who should know better have said things like this—but don’t bring that trash talk around me, please. TransAtlantic is all about the story.

Three of them, in fact. All true.

In 1919, two young aviators from the recently ended World War hurry to pilot the first nonstop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to the west of Ireland. Alcock and Brown carry with them a batch of specially postmarked letters—one which will not be opened for almost a hundred years. The second narrative is set in 1845, when Frederick Douglass spent two years in Ireland to promote the abolitionist cause, raise funds, and avoid recapture by his former owner. Finally we read about U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s efforts (with others) to negotiate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which would bring peace, at last, to Northern Ireland.

The stories are seemingly unrelated; each is lovely and complete. Together they begin to show the complex public relationship between the United States and Ireland. And it wasn’t until I was well into the 1998 story that I began to discern the connections between them. Oh, yes, there’s the obvious (the trips back and forth across the Atlantic) as well as the symbolic (a black man asking the Irish for money to gain freedom) … and then there’s the sublime.

There’s a fourth story, as it turns out—completely fictional—which creates the novel and shows the myriad private human connections between Ireland and America. And as this story stepped out of the historical narrative where it had been hiding in plain sight, it quite simply took my breath away.

Author Column McCann made his own transatlantic crossing at age twenty-one, a Dubliner who’d been a reporter for the Irish Press. His intent, the Guardian says, was “to write ‘the great Irish-American novel.’” That reviewer believes McCann’s previous book—2009’s Let the Great World Spin, which sold a million copies and won the National Book award—might well be it.

Not a bad start 🙂 but TransAtlantic deserves consideration too. Some twenty-six years after his arrival, McCann’s still on this side of the Atlantic, but with his very Irish sensibilities intact.

I recognized every bit of the present-day Dublin he describes in the last half of the book. (History is important: “So polite and poised, a southern accent laced with some London, all our troubles in one voice.”) The language, the writing, is exquisite. The details break your heart; tension builds subtly. And you really have to read to the very last lines for the payoff, which is an unexpected act of human grace in eight perfect sentences that took me utterly by surprise and left me stunned and weeping. Two days later I tried to tell a friend about it, tried to read aloud those last eight gorgeous lines, and cried again.

“We seldom know what echo our actions will find,” McCann writes, “but our stories will almost certainly outlast us.” This story was enormously satisfying. Brilliant, in fact. It filled me up. My favorite book in 2013.

* I was way off my yearly average of 40–45, but my health wasn’t good and I spent a lot of time sleeping rather than reading.

The Great Irish Lit Wallow

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

What is it about the Irish? That they are a nation of storytellers seems to be borne out the minute you get in a cab in Dublin (though it probably helps that you have an American accent), but the fact is, whether it’s a pub culture that encourages the art of the story well told, a history of political strife retold and retold in oral histories, a well-established cultural mythology, or something else entirely, you know many Irish writers because you read them in school: William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett …*

But there are others you should know about.

I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Ireland, and I believe with all my heart that one way to understand a country or a culture** is to read its literature.*** So a couple years ago I wandered around Dublin from bookstore to bookstore with a list in my hand, bought a bunch of books, and proceeded to read many of them in 2013–14.

The Gathering / Anne Enright
Langrishe, Go Down / Aidan Higgins
Good Behaviour / Molly Keane
TransAtlantic / Colum McCann
The Land of Spices / Kate O’Brien
After the Rising / Orna Ross
The Spinning Heart / Donal Ryan
The Blackwater Lightship / Colm Tóibín

Here’s a brief look at them:

The Gathering
A grown woman, Veronica, attends the wake of her beloved brother Liam (who has committed suicide) and reflects on her family’s troubled history to make sense of the present. Enright reviews Dublin life in the 1920s through the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s as well as the current present, casting an acid eye on how Catholicism affected men, women (Veronica’s mother experienced nineteen pregnancies, and it broke her body and mind), and families in those decades.

Daddy grew up in the west—he always knew the right thing to do. He had beautiful manners. Which, if you ask me, was mostly a question of saying nothing, to anyone, ever. ‘Hello, are you well’, ‘Goodbye now, take care’, the whole human business had to be ritualized. ‘I’m sorry for your trouble’, ‘Put that money away now’, ‘That’s a lovely bit of ham’, ‘It is your noble call’. It bored me to tears, actually: all that control.

I’ve experienced enough of Dubliners to have recognized what I know in the rhythm of Enright’s dialogue. The last thirty pages are just stunning, and very satisfying. There’s a good reason this book won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. (I transcribed this bit from page 42 of a paperback published in 2008 by Vintage–Random House UK.)

Langrishe, Go Down
In the late 1930s, three reclusive middle-aged spinster sisters live on their run-down family estate in Ireland. I’ve been reading a lot of lit from this period between the two wars; the Celtic Tiger is not even a gleam in anyone’s eye, and life is just plain hard. Enter a pompous German graduate student who rents lodging from the women—and one of the sisters embarks on a passionate affair with him, until she realizes he cares nothing for her.

The first chapter was a lovely read but then it was so, so bleak, so sad, grim. In addition, the novel—which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1967 and was turned into a movie with screenplay by Harold Pinter. Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize–winner!—is just difficult: experimental literature that was probably over my head (or, perhaps, simply read at the wrong time). I wanted to love it but I just couldn’t.

Good Behaviour
By the time I got to Good Behaviour, I was in the middle of deadlines and not taking a lot of time to make notes, but I’ll tell you this: it’s set in the 1920s among the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy—which is to say the formerly wealthy Protestants of English heritage who had once been overlords. The New York Review of Books said:

After the treaty, some stormed out shouting at the receding Wicklow Hills. Those who stayed on resorted to irony; for centuries they had been a caste in decline on a poor island-within-an-island in Britain’s oldest colony. They stuck to their wild passions for huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, the turf, drink, and, above all, genealogy, as the damp rose in their fine but decaying houses. Debts and mortgages gathered around them, but they had long settled for not knowing history socially except when it presented itself in the form of family trees (sometimes done in tapestry) going back to the Normans, the Elizabethans, or even to Charlemagne. The snobbery approached, as Stendhal would have said, the Sublime.

This, then, is a book of manners, particularly about the concern for good ones, in the face of horrible, unspeakable events. It is hilarious. Also sad, and made me a little squeamish at times—which, as far as I’m concerned, is the mark of a great book. Published in 1981, Good Behaviour was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize.

TransAtlantic
I’ve written about Colum McCann’s fabulous book already, so I’ll direct you there.

The Land of Spices
Published in 1941 but set in 1905–1914 Limerick, this novel by one of Ireland’s most famous writers is considered a classic. The action happens almost completely within the walls of a girls’ convent school, with two protagonists—the Mother Superior and a young student. This may not sound like much, but the characters draw you in quickly and then in the last quarter of the book—bam! bam!—it punches you right in the gut, twice. It’s an allegory, really, of the “new” Ireland—the Republic—rising up and leaving the old attitudes (particularly about women) behind.

In the story, a girl of sixteen, a scholar from an impoverished family, has won a scholarship to enter college. Her grandmother, who has been supporting the family, doesn’t believe in the “education of women” and announces that the girl will decline the prize. The confrontation between this woman and the Mother Superior at the convent school is worth the price of the book. It’s not my normal fare, but I seriously loved it.

After the Rising (originally published by Penguin Ireland as Lover’s Hollow)
The Irish Civil War—which followed the war of independence from England that established the Irish Free State—is also called the War of the Brothers, because families were horribly and tragically divided, some supporting the Republicans (who wanted to be completely free from England) and some supporting the Free Staters. The Irishman tells me that—less than a hundred years later—feelings about this war are still very raw. (And in fact, I asked him so many questions he soon mailed me a history book.)

The story—set in a small village in County Wexford—bounces between present and past; the cover copy tells us …

When Jo Devereux returns to Ireland after an absence of twenty years, the last person she expects to meet at her mother’s funeral is Rory O’Donovan. The bitter conflict between her family and his, full of secrets and silences, was the one constant of Jo’s childhood. … [She] … embarks on a quest, uncovering astonishing truths about her mother and grandmother and women’s role in the conflict known as “The War of The Brothers”, the Irish Civil War of 1922. And also about a killing with consequences that have ricocheted through four generations.

I was completely caught up in both stories, and went on to read the second book of this series, Before the Fall. Once projected to be a trilogy—and my copy of Before the Fall reflects that plan—it now appears the author has moved on to other projects.

The Spinning Heart
Donal Ryan is the youngest author in this company, and has written only two novels to date. The Spinning Heart … was gorgeous, just gorgeous. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, it won the Irish Book Awards Book of the Year and the Guardian First Book Prize, and, yes, it definitely deserved to be in that company.

Set in an Irish village just after the economic crisis hit in late 2008, the book is twenty-one short narratives by different characters affected by the collapse of a local building contractor’s firm. Oh, it’s stunning, really different and special because of that. It seems as if they’re each just telling their own story but as you turn the pages you realize there is a complete story arc developing, and it packs a wallop. The setting is contemporary, so the dialogue is modern, and these were voices I recognized, voices I’ve heard.

The Blackwater Lightship
Helen, a school principal in suburban Dublin, has a husband, two sons, and a brother, Declan, with whom she is close. Now Declan is dying of AIDS, and he asks Helen to break the news to their mother and grandmother, from whom they are both estranged.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, this novel hits all the notes: family, friendship, forgiveness. It’s an interesting comparison to The Land of Spices in this scene of a grandmother and nuns:

“Oh, the nuns loved her,” her grandmother went on, “and when she was in her final year … they called us in, and they had never looked up or down at us before, oh they were very grand, the nuns, a French order. And Mother Emmanuelle, the grandest of them all, told me that she believed Lily had a vocation. I smiled at her and said that would be the happiest thing for us. It was all smiles until I got out to the car and I said to your grandfather that I was going to pray to God to stop Lily entering the convent.”

“And did you not want her to be a nun?” Paul asked.

“Lily? Our beautiful daughter? Have all her hair cut off? And a veil and draughty old convent and only doddery old nuns for company? I did not! And I lay awake every night thinking about how to stop her.”

Over the Christmas holidays Lily (Helen’s mother) is sent to the next town to visit with her worldly cousins who taught her about boys and the latest fashions. And that was that:

… “So she went back to [school], and … we were called in before we took her home for Easter, and we were told that she was becoming a bad example to the other girls, and she had changed completely. Oh, I said to Mother Emmanuelle, I said, we haven’t noticed any change. It must be something in the convent, I said. Oh, she gave me a look, and I looked back at her. And she knew she’d met her match. And that’s how we stopped Lily becoming a nun.”

This scene (transcribed by me from pages 150–51 of a 1999 Picador paperback) made me laugh out loud. Tóibín is very, very good with dialogue: I can hear the Irish cadence here without even trying. And though reviewers have tended to like others of Tóibín’s books better, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

During the period of my Irish Lit Wallow, I also read Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and Nora Webster, both of which were fabulous.

***

Am I finished? Nah—I still have a few more to read: James Plunkett’s Strumpet City; Tóibín’s The Master; McCann’s Let the Great World Spin; Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer (a followup to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors); and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (and also her memoir, Country Girl). And I’ll be trolling Dublin bookstores again this June, so no doubt I’ll add to the list.

If you haven’t read outside  your usual haunts, give Irish lit a try. And if you have, please tell me about your favorite title!

* Four Irish writers have won Nobel Prizes for Literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Seamus Heaney.
** Does this mean I will never commit a cultural faux pas on my visits to Ireland? No. You can take the girl out of the States but you can’t take the States out of the girl. Though one does try.
*** For a more complete list of the Irish lit I’ve read in the last few years, go here.

Reading Around and About Ireland

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

Good reads. 🙂 Notice that foreword … by Dermot Healy!

I took a vacation in Ireland last year, accompanied by my sister, her daughter, and my good friend Margaret. Margaret and I are both book lovers, so as you might guess, more than a few volumes were purchased (and more than a few nerves were atwitter as we considered the weight limit for our luggage). We even had the experience of purchasing the same obscure book (High Shelves & Long Counters: Stories of Irish Shops by Heike Thiele and Winifred McNulty*) independently of one another, which just goes to show why we are friends.

Now, of course, we’re working our way through our purchases; we’ve both recently finished at least one each.

I searched specifically for Dermot Healy’s novel Long Time, No See on the trip. Roddy Doyle calls Healy “Ireland’s finest living novelist” (he’s also published five volumes of poetry), and that’s no small compliment. I thoroughly enjoyed the book—about a boy at loose ends after graduating from high school—although it’s not what you would call an easy read. It’s unconventional and very much in the spirit of other unconventional Irish writers like Flann O’Brien and, yes, James Joyce. It has a very tight POV, which has stream of consciousness written all over it. There’s lots of dialogue, lots of Irish humor too—and I could hear and see every moment of it.

Here are two reviews—the Guardian’s is by Annie Proulx and the other is from the Miami Herald—for American readers. The cover you’ll see on the American edition is interesting and lovely, like something published in the 1950s, but it seems misleading: the story is set in 2006, smack-dab in the Celtic Tiger years. The cover on my Irish edition has a photo of a skinny Irish boy next to the quintessential stone fence, facing into those strong seaside winds—it’s a perfect representation of the events in the novel. Don’t let that vintage American cover throw you off.

On the opposite end of that literary spectrum are the memoirs of the Blasket Islanders, one of which Margaret purchased when we were at the Blasket Centre on the Dingle Peninsula. Here’s what she had to say about it a few days ago:

I finished reading Twenty Years A-Growing this afternoon, the memoir of Muiris O Súileabháin’s (Maurice O’Sullivan, 1904–1950) youth on the Great Blasket Island, off the Dingle Peninsula and the southwestern coast of Ireland. I sometimes judge a book by whether I am truly sorry to finish it, and if I felt inclined to read portions of it aloud to whoever would listen. It was all that, and though translated from Gaelic, it could nearly be sung, the language is so fine. No doubt life on the island was not all humming bees, dancing to the fiddle, and hauling in fish to fill the curraghs to the gunwales, but we can forgive the author for focusing on what he loved most. Sadly, the island is no longer inhabited. Highly recommended.

That pretty much says everything that needs to be said, no? And remember, these Blasket memoirs have been in print since their publication (Twenty Years A-Growing in 1933); that’s a long time and quite a recommendation.

I like to travel, and I believe reading the literature of a country enhances one’s travel experience. Or you can simply do a little armchair traveling. I’ve done a lot of that too (thank you, Frances Mayes). Have you read a book that really gave you a taste of another country? I’d love to hear about it.

* And with a foreword by Dermot Healy!

May the Blessing of the Rain Be on You

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

Before I visited Ireland the first time, I had the impression (as many do) it rains a lot there. (I packed a raincoat.) Here’s what the Irish Meteorological Service says: “In fact, two out of three hourly observations will not report any measurable rainfall.”

That sounds good. But consider this: “The average number of wet days (days with more than 1mm [3/100 inch] of rain) ranges from about 150 days a year along the east and south-east coasts, to about 225 days a year in parts of the west.” Well. That threshold for what constitutes a wet day is pretty low. And if you do the math, you’ll see 41 percent of the days in the east are wet while it’s wet 61 percent in the west.

So it’s no wonder, then, the Irish have a lot of slang for rain.

My favorite is soft, as in a soft day, which is characterized by a soft rain, which is actually more like mist. (Hence the soft.) A soft day is cloudy and sometimes the wet is a little more drizzle than mist. You might hear a day described as a grand soft day, which is, as best I can tell, no actual rain, just an elevated humidity.

Here are some other wet-weather words (and here’s a chart to help you decipher their relation to size and number of drops):

• Misht: mist with a country accent
• Drizzle: a little heaver than a soft rain, not quite a light rain
• Mizzle: very fine drops, but definitely raining
• Mildering: a light rain, regional version
• Light rain: looks soft, but don’t be fooled; it’ll ruin your hairdo
• Drop of rain: not enough to worry about, but take an umbrella
• Shower: enough rain to know you’ve been rained on
• Sun shower: raining while it’s sunny; watch for rainbows
• Wet rain: yes, they’re teasing you
• Pissing rain: hard vertical rain (not as much wind as lashing rain); an annoyance
• Lashing rain: diagonal, hard rain (due to wind)
• Driving rain: too much wind involved; stay inside or you’ll get soaked
• Heavy rain: you’ll want rain gear
• Teeming rain: heavy rain
• Raining cats and dogs: a heavy rain; careful, you might walk into a poodle
• Spate: a sudden, strong rain, out of nowhere
• Heavens opened: a spate of rain
• Downpour: a heavy rain
• Bucketing rain: you’re instantly soaked, like someone threw a bucket of water at you
• Sheets of rain: like buckets only steadier; walls of rain coming down
• Torrential rain: unrelenting; seriously, stay home
• Almost biblical: can’t get much worse

The real test, though, is the Gaelic. I found this list here, which post is also somewhat amusing for the dueling linguists:

• biadh an tsic (“food for rain”): rain in frosty weather
• brádán báistí: light rain
• braon: the dripping of the rain
• cith agus dealán: sunshine with showers
• ceóbhrán: light drizzle, mist
• durach mor: a big shower
• focíth fearthainne: occasional rain showers
• frás: shower
• fuarbháisteach earraigh: a cold spring downpour
• lá frasaidheacht: a showery day
• greadadh báistí: heavy (pelting) (driving) rain
• plimp fearthainne: a sudden downpour of rain
• síorbháisteach: a continuous downpouring of rain
• scáth báistí (“rain shield”): umbrella
• smurán: a shower
• stoirm ceatha: breeze before a shower
• stoirm shíobhta bháistí: a driving rainstorm
• taom fearthainne: a bucketing down of rain

You’re on your own for pronunciation, so if I were you’d I’d stick to the English. 🙂 And pack a light raincoat. You may need it!

“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.

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.