“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.

 

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.

A Bram Stoker Trick—And Two Treats

About this time every year, articles about Bram Stoker appear, and I’d saved one just for curiosity’s sake (“Bram Stoker: 9 things you didn’t know about the ‘Dracula’ author” from the Christian Science Monitor):

  • Stoker was a sickly boy up to age seven.
  • He admired Walt Whitman and they later became friends.
  • During his lifetime, Stoker was not known as a novelist.
  • The famous book was once titled The Undead, and the Count Dracula character was originally called Count Wampyr.
  • The first adaptation of the story preceded Stoker’s book and there have been a lot of films since.
  • The name Dracula was inspired by the Dracul family.
  • Dracula was not the first vampire novel.
  • Stoker’s desk is for sale (or it was in 2012).

But then the article lost me with its cheat of a ninth factoid: Stoker is to blame for everything that followed (i.e., Twilight and more). Ehhh. Maybe.

Bram Stoker, ca. 1906. PD.

Bram Stoker, ca. 1906. PD.

So instead, have a look at this article from the Telegraph: “Bram Stoker: 10 facts about Dracula author.”

And for those of you intrigued by the Walt Whitman connection—I sure was—there’s this 2012 article from the National Endowment of the Humanities magazine, “When Bram Met Walt.” I recommend it to you.

Thus here you have a trick—and a couple treats. Enjoy!

 

Masterpiece Monitor

At my other blog a while back, we were talking about online research, and the astonishing things that are available online. And it seems Tristram Hunt’s position on the subject got more than one person’s dander up.

Writing in the New York Times, journalist James Gleick mentions Hunt’s snit, and says, “It’s a mistake to deprecate digital images just because they are suddenly everywhere, reproduced so effortlessly. We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them.”

A discussion of that statement is a whole other blog post, but for now you can read what Gleick thinks here. He says the old relics—like this copy of Magna Carta—are only talismans: “The real Magna Carta, the great charter of human rights and liberty, is available free online, where it is safely preserved. It cannot be lost or destroyed.” (To which I would add, sir, the real Magna Carta exists not on paper or online, but in our hearts.)

One of 4 known surviving 1215 exemplars of Magna Carta. (From Wikipedia; provided by the British Library.)

One of 4 known surviving 1215 exemplars of Magna Carta. (From Wikipedia; provided by the British Library.)

Want to know about some of the beautiful things you can see up close these days? Check these out:

I’m sure there’s more—so do let me know in the comments.