Saturday, 30 July 2011

This Weekend's The Festival Of Lughnasa

Here in Corca Dhuibhne the first weekend in August is the beginning of the fourth season of the Celtic year. It’s called Lughnasa. The ancient Celts held huge festivals to mark the turning points between one season and the next. They believed that the edges of the fabric of time weakened at turning points in the calender, allowing powerful forces to seep through. And they saw communal gatherings as a way to tap into the energy of the universe, and promote health and prosperity in the months to come.  

The word Lughnasa comes from the name of the Celtic sun-god, Lugh, and his story’s one of the oldest myths there is. The Celts saw harvest-time as a battle between light and darkness which frees the crops from the earth and allows us to gather them. So they imagined the earth itself as a fertile goddess, and the sun as a god who becomes her husband. Their union was a symbol of balance, which promoted health. Each year at harvest time whole communities climbed to high places at Lughnasa. It was a festival that had deep religious significance. But it was also a seriously big party. Huge crowds, tents, music, bonfires, eating, drinking and dancing till dawn. There was horse-racing on beaches too; extended families met and hung out together; marriages were arranged; and animals were bought and sold.

Here in Corca Dhuibhne the party’s still going on.

In the local tradition the sun-god Lugh strode up Mount Brandon from the east each year, with flashing eyes and hair, and a golden spear, and defeated Crom Dubh, ‘the crooked, black one’. His victory’s still celebrated every year in the village of Cloghane, on the east side of Mount Brandon. When I was in Cloghane a couple of weeks ago the festival programme was being printed, musicians were rehearsing, and everyone was keeping an eye on the weather, hoping there’d be a good day for the annual climb up Mount Brandon. 

Rain or shine, they’ll be walking a route that’s been walked here at Lughnasa for well over two  thousand years.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Blasket Island Memories

This is a picture, taken from the end of the Dingle peninsula, of the Great Blasket Island. It's the largest of the small group of islands off the westernmost point of this westernmost peninsula in Ireland. The elegant, curving beach is called The White Strand.

People here don't talk of going 'out' to the island. They say they're going 'into' it. It's a form of words which suggests that a trip there isn't just another holiday stop-off. It's a voyage into the heart of something remarkable.   

The islands are uninhabited now; the last people who lived there moved to the mainland in the 1950s. Isolation and emigration just made their life unsustainable. Today, you can get to the island by ferry from Dún Chaoin pier. You reach the pier by walking down a steep, winding slipway. To your left, it clings to the cliff face.To your right, a low wall protects you from the long fall to the Atlantic ocean below. It's partly made of concrete, partly of jagged rocks. When you get to the bottom you'll see the remains of an even steeper path, climbing directly up the towering cliff beside you. There was a time when the fisherman here climbed that crumbling path with their catch crammed into baskets on their backs.

When you reach the island you step from the ferry onto another slipway, and climb an even steeper path to a high, grassy road that leads to an abandoned village. The half-ruined houses, built of field-stones, cluster together against the Atlantic wind. Some are built so closely against the hillside that their roofs were on a level with the stony green fields. 

Higher still, at the edge of a dizzying cliff, you can lie on cushions of sea-pink and look down on the white strand. The islanders used to dance there in the summer evenings. The last time I was there it was a windless day. The sun was blazing. The beach below me looked luminous and the ocean round the island was a dazzling silver sheet. On days like that it seems impossible to believe in long months of darkness and howling wind. But in winter the islanders lived a precarious life here, cut off from the mainland for weeks at a time. Often they were close to starvation. They lived closer than family and everything they had was shared.To make a living from the unpredictable ocean and their high, salty fields they had had no choice but to work together as a community.

At the beginning of the twentieth century some remarkable books came out of that community. Their own tradition of storytelling was an oral one. But, knowing their way of life was coming to an end, some islanders decided to write down their memories. They wrote in Irish, their native language, but their books have been translated into English, and some into German and French.

They wrote them, they said, 'because the like of us will not be here again.'

If you come to the Dingle Pensinsula you can visit the Blasket Island Centre on the mainland, in Dún Chaoin, and find out more. But before you take the ferry into the island, read the books.

They include An tOileánach (The Islandman) byTomás  Ó Criomhthain;  Peig by Peig Sayers; and Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A Growing) by Muiris Ó Suilleabháin.

The like of them will not be here again.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Irish Food Heaven in London

East St. Market on Saturday morning. It's a proper London market in a narrow, inner-city street. The pavement's lined with stalls. The road's crowded with shoppers. And the air's full of traders' shouts and loud Gospel music. Fruit and veg. pot plants and second-hand clothing. Watches. Barbie dolls. Salt fish and biscuits. Fresh flowers, cow's feet and cheap electric razors.  

On each side of the street, behind the market stalls, are shops. Furniture, stationary, boots and shoes and luggage. Fishmongers, phone shops and bolts of cloth for curtains. There's dragon fruit, coconuts, popcorn and watermelon. Sacks of rice and spices and Chinese herbal remedies. 

And then there's Dave's Family Butchers. Rashers and sausages and proper cuts of bacon ....

... but, hang on, Dave's isn't just a butcher's. It's more like a treasure-trove for nostalgic Irish emigrants. 

Remember Boland's Fig Rolls and Clonakilty Black Pudding? Galtee Cheese and Erin soups and Nash's Red Lemonade? Remember Old Time Irish Marmalade? And Silvermints? And real tea brack full of raisins, sultanas and mixed peel? Dave's got them.

But of course he has. The Granny was from Cork.   

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Rites Of Life

It was about eleven pm and I'd been sitting at my computer for hours. That's the point when you slump into bed with your mind still buzzing, and spend most of the night groping for a pencil to make notes about what you're still writing in your head. Or you do the sensible thing instead, and take a walk.

So, down Bermondsey St; through the tunnel under the railway, with its neon pink and purple lighting; and across Tooley St. Then follow the narrow conduit of running water that leads between the office blocks to the Thames.

And there's Tower Bridge, the Tower, and the lights bouncing off the river.

And there's this.

It's a beautiful, open-air photographic exhibition. If you're in London you have to see it. If you're not, there are other images from it at

And there's a book.

I went home and slept like a log. Next day I went back to see it again.
Now I have to get that book.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Fionn And The Seven Sandy Men

There was a hero called Fionn. He had a magic thumb.

Whenever Fionn needed to know things he put his thumb in his mouth and he bit it. 

And then he knew things.

One day Fionn was out in the woods. And a man came towards him.
“I’ve a wife”, said the young man. “And my wife has a baby girl,” he said.
“And one night,” he said, “a big hand came down the chimney and it stole the baby."

So Fionn put his thumb in his mouth.
And he bit it.
And  he knew where the baby was.

“It’s this way,” said Fionn, “the big hand belongs to a giant,” he said, “and the giant lives on an island. “
“Is it a big island?” said the young man.
“It is not,” said Fionn, “it’s a small island, and that’s where he’s taken your baby.”

“I’ll do my best to get her back for you,” said Fionn.  
“You couldn’t do more,” said the young man. “I’ll wait here for you.”

So Fionn walked away till he came to the seashore. 
And there were  seven men there, sitting on the sand.

“Who are you?” said Fionn, “and what do you do?”
“I’m a Shipwright”, said the first man,“I build ships”.
“I’m a Finder,” said the second man, “ I find things.”
“I’m a Climber”, said the third man, “ I climb things.”
“I’m a Thief”, said the fourth man, “I steal things.”
“I’m a Listener,” said the fifth man, 
“I can hear a whisper spoken
in a tall tower
on a high hill
at the other side of the world.”
“I’m a Marksman”, said the sixth  man,
“I can shoot an arrow through a needle.”

Then Fionn looked at the seventh man. “What do you do?” he said.
“ I’m a Gripper”, said the seventh man, “when I grip a thing I never let it go.”

“Will you cross the sea with me?” said Fionn.
“Why wouldn’t we?” said the seven men.
 And they all stood up and brushed the sand off their trousers.

Then the Shipwright made a ship.
And Fionn and the seven men got into it.
And the Finder pointed his finger.“That’s the way to go,” he said.
So they went that way.

At sunset they came to the giant’s island. The giant’s house was at the top of it.
“You’re first,” said Finn to the Climber.
So the Climber climbed up on the roof. The roof was made of eelskins, so it was slippy.
But he climbed it.

He looked down the chimney. Then he went back to the ship.
“The giant’s snoring below on a bed, “ said the Climber, “and the baby’s beside him in a cradle.”

Fionn looked at the Thief. “You’re next”, he said.
The Thief got onto the Climber's back. And the Climber climbed the roof again and the Theif went down the chimney. 
Then he stole the baby. And he brought her back to the ship.And they all set out to sea again.

Six of the men took two oars each. So twelve oars pulled the ship through the waves.
And the Listener sat at the back of the ship.

“Can you hear the giant?” said Fionn.
“I can,” said the Listener, “He’s still snoring”.

The six men kept rowing. And the Listener keep listening.

“Can you hear the giant now?” said Fionn.
“I can,” said the Listener, “He’s waking”.

The six men kept on rowing. And The Listener kept listening.

“Can you hear the giant now?” said Fionn.
“I can,” said the Listener,"he’s running across the waves,” he said. “He’s chasing us”.

“I think I can hear him myself now” said Fionn.

“You can, of course,” said the six men who were rowing. 
“You’d have to be deaf not to,” they said.

Because there was the giant, right behind them.
His big feet were turning the waves to foam. 
And his big hands were reaching  out for them.

“Give me an oar!” shouted the Listener. They gave him two.
So fourteen oars pulled the ship through the waves ...

... but the giant was still behind them ...

... so Fionn put his  thumb in his mouth  and he bit it ...

... and then he knew something.

“Marksman!” he shouted,
“What?” shouted the Marksman.
“Do you see that red spot on the giant’s hand?” said Fionn.
“I do not,” said the Marksman. “I’m too busy rowing.”
“Well, stop rowing,” said Fionn, "and take aim at that spot. There’s nothing can kill the giant,” he said, “ unless a marksman shoots an arrow through the red spot on his hand.”

“No bother to me,” said the Marksman, “can’t I shoot an arrow through the eye of a needle?”
“Haven’t I won prizes for it?” he said. “Only last week I was up at a county fair ...”

“WOULD YOU STOP THAT TALKING,” shouted the other six men.

“Oh, right, so”, said the Marksman.

He stood up in the ship with his bow in his hand. He aimed at the red spot on the giant’s hand.
And he shot an arrow straight through it.

The giant let out a roar. His head went down and his feet went up and he fell down dead behind them.
It was like a mountain falling into the sea.

A big wave washed up over the ship. They all fell back in a heap.
Then the ship rode on  through the falling wave and it sailed clear beyond it.

They all sat up and looked round them.

“ Where’s the baby?” said Fionn
“Was she washed overboard by the wave?” said the Shipwright.
“When we all fell down did we squash her?” said the Climber.
“Maybe she was”, said the Listener.
“Maybe we did,” said Fionn.

But they’d all forgotten the Gripper.
No trouble to him.
He had a tight grip on the baby.
Not a bother on her.

“We’ll go on home, so,” said Fionn, “and we’ll give her back to her daddy.”

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

OK, I've Lifted My Ban On The Word 'Relevant' ... *

As a writer with a lifetime of work in media ranging from books to digital product, I've no problem with the idea that libraries should provide access to new means of delivery. But since books have largely been the means of preserving and passing on our heritage of knowledge from the past, I think libraries have an equally valid function in actively fostering awareness of them. Recently I decided the word ‘relevant’ should be banned from all conversations about art or literature. But here goes anyway. I think fostering awareness of books may be one of the most relevant functions of public libraries today.

The argument that books are nothing but a delivery medium is simplistic. Books - like theatre, television, video games, radio plays - embody the creative input of those who combine to produce them. If you can’t see that, you’re missing the endless ways in which generations of authors, designers, illustrators and bookbinders have applied themselves to the fundamental, fascinating, question of reconciling form and content. Which is the shared preoccupation of all creative artists.

The point is that libraries will certainly survive. It's public libraries that are at risk; and free or subsidised borrowing. It's a matter of preserving choice. Otherwise we may find ourselves in a society in which the only people with opportunities to access books (as opposed to content) are those rich enough to buy them - and to buy suitable environments in which to read them in comfort and quiet.

* .... for this post only.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Voyage of St. Brendan

And they made their boat very light, with ribs and posts of wicker.

And they covered it with the hides of cattle, dyed reddish with oak-bark.

And they smeared all the seams of it.

And they took provisions for forty days, and butter for dressing the hides.

And they sailed into the sunset, across the western sea .

I'm A Dingle Dog ...

  ... famed for my hospitality