Knocknarae, Or Thoughts on Time and the Irish Sisyphus (A Hitchhiker’s Guide)


Knocknarae as seen from Sligo.


“UP THE MOUNTAIN ye were?” the woman said to me.  I tried to look at her from the passenger seat, though my glasses were bedazzled with raindrops.

“Picked a day for it, too,” I said, and she laughed, and clicked her tongue.  She was in her mid-seventies, wearing a corded cream wool sweater and speaking to me in that rough thicket of an Irish country accent that I encountered anytime I left the main towns and met a sexa- or septuagenarian.  “My name is Aidan Ryan, by the way,” I said – appropriate, it seemed, now that I’d been soaking her upholstery for a few minutes.  “Oh, not many Ryans here,” she said.  And that was all I got out of her.  I never learned my driver’s name.

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Jack B. Yeats at the Model Gallery

Few people get to see the work of Jack Butler Yeats in a collection as large and well-selected as the one currently on display at the Model gallery in Sligo.

The collection, up 31 May 30 September, intentionally coincides with the Fleadh Cheoil: all the works were selected to demonstrate “music as a key device in his painting.”

His use of horses and circus figures as subjects suggests an interest shared with Picasso, at least in his Rose Period, but continental artist Yeats most resembles is Oskar Kokoschka.  Though his early works draw on pastoral themes and subjects, he showing an early but muted Expressionist influence, his work after 1920 soars, using new colors and subjects and daring to swell up off the canvas like frozen oil flames.  The strokes become so thick at times that Yeats is not so much shaping color as working matter into the shapes of colors, as he moves from representational Expressionism to emotional Expressionism.


Johnny Patterson Singing ‘Bridget Donoghue,’ (The Singing Clown), 1928


The paintings show an Ireland dynamic and set to music made physical on Yeats’ canvasses; and his later work takes the gallery-goer into World War II and the unsettled times around it – turbulent canvases dark with detail eluding definition, cut by sharp flashes of light.  Visitors to Sligo in the next month and a half shouldn’t leave town without seeing this.



[You can find more Jack Yeats pictures in my Sligo Flickr gallery here.]

The Music of Sligo

Unfortunately you won’t see video of the Fleadh Cheoil bands here, as my wanderings will take me to Dortmund just as that festival kicks off, but in the days leading up to the festival, the town has buzzed and hummed and generally jigged to the beat of bodrhans.  Here I have clips of some of the best music I’ve heard over the last two weeks -and many of these acts will be performing and competing in the festival from 10-17 Aug.

My first taste of trad came Monday night at The Harp Tavern, where a veteran guitarist led two teenage apprentices on fiddle and concertina.  He played reels and jigs, but Danny Boy was the one I had to record.

The Swagman’s Pub was a bit of a shock after The Harp.  I didn’t know that trad mixed so well with funk – nor with mindbending jazz chords and Hungarian motifs I’d more expect to find in Bartok or Mahler.  The Crackheads were cracking – here’s two snippets of two tunes.

My Yeatsian compatriot Brian Devaney holds a session at The Furey’s Pub every Sunday with his band The Out of Towners.  On 3 Aug. I thought the place was filled to capacity.  But after I fought my way to a spot by the door, where I thought I’d be able to film the band, I watched a dozen, two dozen, two score more file past and warp time and space to fit.  The Out of Towners are a funky foursome, drawing heavily on American blues and folk, with bodhran, steel and acoustic guitar, harmonica, cajon, and electric hurler, a bizarre and sometimes ornate instrument that one of the players handcrafts from hurling sticks.  Their soulful folk-blues interpretations made Beatles songs suddenly new, and their originals were startling, fresh, and funky.  But I loved their Bob Dylan covers best, and was moved close to reverie by Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Subterranean Homesick Blues, and One More Cup of Coffee.

The following afternoon the Yeats Memorial Building hosted a pre-Fleadh Fleadh with Daithi Gormley, Cian Kearins, and Caoimhe Kearins.  Sligo residents have been watching the trio win Fleadh competitions since they were pre-teens, and they hope to win again this year across several categories.  They played reels, jigs, and tunes from the turn of a few centuries.  Cian’s flute playing was particularly adept, while Daithi, a music scholar working toward a Masters, played some of the deftest whispering, barking, and humming accordion I’ve heard.  I was most captured when hearing Caoimhe’s singing – she has a lovely spring-pure lightly nasal lilting, and practices a level of subtle control I’ve never heard live before.  (Below is a video of her singing on her last North American tour.)

Some of my favorite music, though, came from the events surrounding the release of Joan McBreen’s The Mountain Ash of Connemara CD.  I’ve already talked about Glen Austin’s stirring new scores and the talents of the ConTempo Quartet, but I didn’t manage to catch those on film.  The a capella tenor performances, though, were unforgettable.

That said, the music that most surprised me was Katie Cassidy’s bluesy cover of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun.

Launch of Michael Longley’s The Stairwell

There was a thud and a fizz and white foam sprayed all over the crowd around the wine table.  There was no champagne to mark the launch of “32 County Poet” Michael Longley’s tenth collection, The Stairwell – this was a toppled two-litre of 7UP – but the accident was in the spirit of cork-popping and it set the tone for the rest of the night.

With Yeats Society President Damien Brennan as Master of Ceremonies of the 7pm reception, things were bound to get bubbly.  He began by acknowledging Michael’s wife Edna Longley, who that morning had delivered a lecture at the Hawk’s Well on Yeats, Joyce, and the 1890s.

“Can you imagine the bedtime thoughts they have together?” he asked.  And I suppose we couldn’t help but wonder.

Brennan also referenced Postscript, Saturday night’s tribute to Seamus Heaney, at which Longley spoke.  Brennan was hardly the first to note, then, that Heaney was born in 1939, the Year William Butler Yeats died, at the age of 74.  Heaney died in 2013, also at the age of 74.  Last week, Longley turned 75.

“You’ve made it past the post,” he told Longley, to shocked and not-so-shocked guffaws.

Brennan’s is always an interesting act to follow, but Longley earned more laughs.  He told about his father, about meeting the British Queen, and about “Lauren Bacall, who had a walk-on role in my fantasies.”  (Perhaps he was thinking about the unforgettable line from To Have and Have not?)

Though he has made it past Brennan’s “post,” Longley didn’t seem to be counting.  His new poems in The Stairwell dwell on death – his own and the deaths of close friends and relatives – but they aren’t “last words.”

“The next poem is what matters,” he said.  “It’s the only thing that matters.”


At 8pm, at the Methodist Church, summer school Assistant Director Matthew Campbell re-introduced Michael Longley with a selection from his new book – the one phrase that makes any new volume of poetry worth the price of admission.

Bone shapes out of our gloomy womb-tangle,” Campbell recited, a line from “The Feet,” a poem about Longley’s late twin brother Peter, dedicated to Peter’s widow Catherine.  “An experience that has found its words,” he called it – something Longley’s been giving the poem-reading public with regularity for the past fifty years.

Many of the poems were somber and elegiac (though Longley asserted that elegies were balanced by “birth poems”), but not matter the subject, the laughs didn’t stop.

Longley read a poem “For my granddaughter, Amelia, who’s 11 … No, it’s on page 11 … She’s only one … Where would I be without you, Edna?”

He read through a brisk selection of poems from The Stairwell as well as three unpublished poems,
“only a few weeks old.”

“A lot of my poems are short.  I think most poems are too long, really,” he said later, in his dry, clipped deliver, something like a Belfast Dumbledore.  “ I have a one-line poem,” he said, and read it.  “They’re making a movie adaptation.”

Longley, like Yeats, has a mixed poetic, political, and familial heritage, both Irish and Anglo, sometimes both, often neither.  Longley claimed Yeats as the greatest English-language poet after Shakespeare, and of course had to qualify this: “He could be so foolish and silly, and that moves me too.  A great man making a fool of himself.”

“It’s amazing writing poems at 75 … and feeling that I’m only beginning, you know,” Longley told his audience as he began to wrap up.

After fierce applause for what could have been Longley’s final poem, Campbell took the podium and coaxed him into an encore – not a task, given the crowd, and given the poet.

“I forgot a poem,” Longley said, and after the applause died down, he began again.

Three readings and a CD release

The consumption of poetry and music in this town proceeds at a pace so rapid that the upcoming Fleadh Cheoil, the world’s biggest trad music festival, seems an impossibility – surely, there can’t be any more to do.  But residents of Sligo expect the population to double from 10-17 August, with fiddles and pipes on every corner, bridge, and balcony.

The Gallery Press Reading


Ciaran Carson delivers his lines like a Puritan preacher at the puplit. Just, you know, a likeable version.

On Wednesday I attended one in a series of Tread Softly Festival readings at the Methodist Church on Wine Street.  This one featured Andrew Jamison, Ciaran Barry, and Ciaran Carson, three of the most widely read poets from Ireland’s premiere poetry publisher, The Gallery Press.  There to kick things off was poet, editor, translator, and Gallery Press founder Peter Fallon who first brought up Jamison.

The specificity of Jamison’s images was what first struck me – his poems at times approached lists (albeit beautiful lists).  “Let’s face the music, go back to the ballroom,” he says in a poem about Chekhov’s Olga Mikhailovna, trading in the cliche for an original image; “everyone will wonder where we’ve been.”  The poem is as much about his enchantment with Chekhov’s character as it is with Chekhov’s short stories themselves.  (A story, Jamison said in an aside, is like a dram of whiskey; a novel, like a pint of Guinness.  And poetry?  He left that metaphor for us to spin.)

In “Amen,” composed of memories of his grandmother, he says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us.”  The omission haunts us; we can’t help but hear the ghosts of the words he left out.  The meaning of the rote phrase is thrown open: deliver us from evil, deliver us from good, deliver us from knowledge and remembering and not remembering and responsibility.  Deliver us.

After a week in a seminar with Professor Herbet Tucker (of the University of Virginia) my ears were attuned to Jamison’s prosody.  His careful consciousness here, his subtle rhymes, refreshed my senses dulled from a life lived in the land of the free verse.

Ciaran Barry then performed, a contemporary of Jamison’s though with three volumes already published; he spoke with a slight tremulance in the back of his throat, like a priest incanting a prayer the power of which fears him, or a potter holding a bowl delicate from the fire.

His poems were more surreal and less concrete than Jamison’s, suited to his style of recitation (which, I suppose, might hearken to W. B. Yeats’ famous BBC readings).  His themes were predominantly historical, and he explored them with understated humor, muted pathos, and sensitivity.  “Electrocuting An Elephant,” the true surreal story of Thomas Edison testing his new electrocution device and camera, ended unforgettably: with “One eye open that I wish I could close.”

Finally the eldest poet, Ciaran Carson, closed the night.  Rather, though, it was an opening and a closing: he began and ended his reading with tunes on his tin pipe, strange old melodies that took the audience, for a time, into a new dimension of aural and emotional understanding.  Carson read original poems and a series of poems he had translated from French.

“Do we not wander the byways of language?  I don’t know what it means but it sounds great,” he said, and sent us off into the night, down other byways of language and thought and – most essentially – sound.

Joan McBreen’s The Mountain Ash of Connemara CD release and reception


Joan McBreen holds up the eponymous Mountain Ash for her audience at the Sligo Wine Street Methodist Church.

I’ve been lucky enough to call Joan McBreen – esteemed Irish poet, daughter of Sligo, and veteran of the Yeats school for some thirty years – my seminar classmate for the past week.  On Thursday she released The Mountain Ash of Connemara, a CD of selected work set to new arrangements by Glen Austin, and performed by the RTE ConTempo Quartet, and the launch was one of the most moving of the moments that have arrested me since I landed in Ireland.  The string quartet’s masterful interpretation of Austin’s scores had what the Irish call “the true drop,” something distilled from the natural elements on which Joan draws in her poetry into a elixir.  We hung on every unexpected pluck of the strings – we soared on new melodies suddenly familiar.

One thing was obvious at the 6pm reception in the Glasshouse Hotel: Joan McBreen has many, many friends.  Two tenors sang a cappella lays of soldiers and lost love; one of the tenors recited a bawdy poem; Yeats Society President Damien Brennan and Summer School Assistant Director Matthew Campbell gave speeches – and all the while Joan went around passing out sprigs of Mountain Ash.  I wore one like a green and orange pocket square.  There were reels and jigs; there was abundant wine; and spontaneous recitations of Yeats and Heaney and McBreen’s own poetry popped and crackled in different pockets and booths throughout the evening.

When the party was winding down, Joan approached the booth with all the youngest Yeatsians.  “You’re all students, you don’t have any money,” she said as she passed out copies of her new CD.

Sinéad Morrissey

Stiff-arming a creeping cold and stifling a cough, Sinéad Morrissey opened a copy of Parallax, her fifth collection of poetry, which won her the T.S. Eliot Prize this past January – but she didn’t look down.  Instead she recited a poem from memory, reciting in her measured, mousey, forward-moving voice.

“If the rain could be translated into words, Little You, and Little Me, Little You, and Little Me, would be the closest thing to meaning you could catch,” she said, her eyes never breaking from her audience.

Sinéad told bizarre and engrossing tales of her childhood in Belfast, and of moments in time beyond her own life appropriated for her artistic “thesis” of parallax: the first jigsaw puzzle, made in 1766; David Nivens riding an elevator to heaven.  She brought us to the Belfast Communist party’s annual Christmas Bazaar, and gave us nail-shaped pencils for Maggie Thatcher’s coffin.