Monday, 31 October 2011

It's Samhain - Happy New Year!

For the pagan Celts, the year began in winter, not spring. Their world-view celebrated dark times, recognising that life itself comes from darkness and a dormant seed.

The Celt's name for the first season of their year was Samhain, which is still the Irish language word for November. The festival that began their year was Oíche Shamhna. Samhain Night. It still goes by the same name here in Corca Dhuibhne. 

When Christianity came to Ireland the Celts' Oíche Shamhna became Halloween, the Christian feast of All Souls. But for thousands of years, throughout Ireland, it's been celebrated with rituals older than Christianity - bonfires, candles stuck in turnip heads, and masked visits to the neighbours.

Modern trick or treating is an echo of the ancient Celtic belief that on Oíche Shamhna the spirits of the dead returned to the homes they'd once lived in. People believed that - provided the living recognised and respected their ancestors' presence - the dead would protect them. So each year the dead were welcomed with food, fires, music and dancing. That way they they wouldn't get offended. And get nasty.

And each year, in every neighbourhood, young men, wearing masks, went from one house to another acting out the annual ritual of threat and appeasement, fear and trust.

When I first went to London I remember being astonished when people said Halloween was an import from America. It may have returned to England from America fairly recently. But it's rooted in Europe's Celtic heritage...

... though, having said that, I remember my own first Halloween mask was a cardboard Micky Mouse.

I wore it with a black polo-neck and tights, white gloves, and a long tail made of wool stiffened with wire from a straightened-out coat-hanger. Then my mother made me add a dark-grey duffel coat, with the hood up. Which definitely spoiled the effect.

On the other hand, I liked the sinister way my black tail showed under my coat when I turned away from the neighbours' doors with my pockets full of apples and monkey-nuts. I was a mouse that you wouldn't risk offending.

Then, back home, we'd sit by the fire drinking tea, eating brack, and cracking monkey-nuts with our teeth. None of which was easy to do through a Micky Mouse mask.

Masked kids knocking on the door and music playing are still part of Oíche Shamhna here in Ireland. 

Yesterday  I bought monkey-nuts at the post office. This morning I made a brack, dark with brown sugar and packed with the slow-release energy of raisins, currants and sultanas. Tonight we'll eat them by the fire, drinking strong tea and chucking nut-shells into the flames.

An open fire's not the most efficient, or cost-effective, system. But gnarled branches of fuchsia burn well when the sap's dried out of them. And the ash-trees throw down rotten branches for kindling. And, for thousands of years, living flames have been images of life itself. 

I remember our neighbour, Jack, coming into the house here one November day, and stretching his hand to the turf fire. It was chilly outside and the flames had burnt low. So I threw another sod on it. We watched red fire curl round black turf as the new sod took life from the old ones. The flames began to crackle and burn yellow. Then Jack said what we both were thinking ...

... 'you'd like to be looking at it'.

And the flames leapt up, releasing new life from the dark turf, compacted of fragrant herbs and ancient flowers.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Traditional Irish Art of Hospitality

When I first began to divide my life between two places it was like living in two different worlds. 
Corca Dhuibhne with its huge expanses of mountain, sea and sky, its ancient cultural heritage, musical language, and rooted, rural community. 
And Bermondsey with its edgy, multicultural vibe, crowded streets, sense of drive, and spectacular architectural statements. 

Moving from one to the other increases your awareness of each. Which is kind of the point.

One of the joys of London life is walking away from my computer screen, wandering down to the Thames and using the Tate Modern as a coffee shop. Stunning building. Great shop selling acid green pens and intensely desirable pencil sharpeners. A shimmering bridge across the river, framing a view of St. Paul's...

... oh, and the art in the actual art gallery.

Tacita Dean's current exhibition, FILM, consists of 11minutes of 35mm film, endlessly playing on a vast, slender screen that hangs in the airy silence of the darkened Turbine Hall. 

I saw it last week.

Framed by the punched holes of the film stock they were shot on, the images drift and fall from ceiling to floor. Sometimes the screen's a stream of moving shapes and neon colours, hard lines and fluid curves. Sometimes it's transparent, and the grey wall behind it suddenly rears up into darkness, like a cliff seen through spray.Then the colours come back, and rich, organic images of mushrooms and flowers.

Sometimes the sharp, black shadows of people wandering through the huge emptiness of the hall spring up and became part of the movie. The work becomes simultaneously public and personal. People's cameras and phones click and flash in the darkness, recording the moment.  And the circular cascade of  images streams on....

... while, outside, on the far side of the river, there's another huge, airy, public space where communal experience enhances personal awareness. For hundreds of years, under its jade-green dome, people have prayed among priceless artworks to a god born in a stable...

... but, as I'm writing this, St. Paul's Cathedral's closed to the public. In the last couple of weeks I've watched the peaceful growth of the protest camp in the square outside it. I've listened to the arguments for and against its presence there. And I've kept asking myself what I think.

Yesterday I came back to Corca Dhuibhne. And now I think I have my answer. 

People here have always lived and worked as a community. Whatever each person had was there to be shared. It's a system based on pooled resources, in which everyone can call on their neighbours for help when times get hard. 

Hospitality's so highly-valued here it's practised like an art. Or maybe a religion. There are ritual greetings and responses. Ways of asking and receiving. And an ancient belief that the stranger at your door could be god wandering the earth. So everyone's door was always open here, even to strangers. 

As a result, private and public space were almost indistinguishable. And - as a result of that - good manners area vital part of what makes the system work. You may have the right to sit by your neighbour's hearth when you choose to. But you also have the responsibility not to ask or take too much.

Basically, sharing's an inherited tradition. But it's bad manners to ask your neighbour for more than he can give.

I respect and admire the vision and commitment of the protesters outside St. Paul's. I think they chose the right place to gather and draw attention to their concerns. I believe the Cathedral was right to receive them hospitably. And I recognise the moral dilemma that confronts the Cathedral authorities as a result. 'Health and safety issues' made them close the cathedral to the public. It's been re-opened now, but the moral dilemma remains. Unwilling to align himself with increasing pressure to remove the protestors by force, the canon chancellor's resigned. Determined to draw attention to their concerns, the protesters still refuse to go.

Everything I've heard and read suggests that the people camped out at St. Paul's are looking for a fairer system, based on shared resources and mutual respect. That's a system worth fighting for. And the longer I live in Corca Dhuibhne, the more I realise that good manners are the crucial element that'll make it work.

So, that's my answer. I believe in protest and public debate. I believe that public spaces should be used to raise personal awareness. 

But I think the protesters outside St. Paul's Cathedral should say thanks now, and go home.

By doing so they wouldn't just be demonstrating for a better way of doing things. They'd be demonstrating how it might work.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

There's a Cattle Mart in Dingle Today

Rover, Jack and Spot stump through mud, loading the cows. Then Jack drives off with the cattle. And the dogs get on with their work on the farm.

Spot has two brindled pups and a black one. They're curled up squeaking in a corner of the woodshed. She's made herself a nest on the mud floor, with her back to the stone walls and straw pushed round the pups to keep them warm. When she's not up working in the fields she's in there feeding them. 

Otherwise she's just fighting to keep her strength up.

Rover's not allowed in the woodshed...

... but when he's not working in the fields he's guarding the doorway. His thin wolf's face checks out each passing car. With his nose on his paws, he keeps one eye on the hens. 
There's a fox up on the mountain.

Me, I'm writing this at my computer with a roaring fire at my back and a cup of tea at my elbow. Wilf's in the next room, practising Schumann on the piano. No mud. No demanding kids. No hens to mind, or foxes to fear, or need to balance the price of beef against silage. 

But artists are workers too, you know. Our trade takes effort ...
... and years of dedicated practice.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Echoes of Lugh In The Last Month of Lughnasa

If you turn right outside our gate and walk down past Jack Flaherty's farm you'll join a pilgrims' way called The Saint's Road. Its name in Irish is Cosán na Naomh. Its one of the oldest pilgrimage routes in Ireland. And people walk it still.

The Saint's Road runs from a staring point in Ventry to the top of Mount Brandon, Corca Dhuibhne's holy mountain. The mountain got its present name from the Christian saint, Brendan, whose voyage from Ireland to America was one of the great legends of medieval Europe.

But, long before the days of Brendan and the medieval monks, Mount Brandon must have had other names. Because other, pagan, pilgrims walked the same route and climbed its slopes, thousands of years before Christ was born in Bethelhem.

Memories of those other, older pilgrims still survive here in folklore. They prayed to the ancient Celtic sun-god, Lugh. And echoes of their world-view still resonate in rites that are held on Brandon every year.

Lugh is the god of the harvest, whose season, Lughnasa, ends with the month of October. Over the years and in different places there've been different versions of his story. Here in Corca Dhuibhne, he strides up Mount Brandon from the east, with flashing eyes and hair, and a golden spear. And in an epic battle that spirals on each year to eternity, he defeats Crom Dubh, 'the crooked dark one', releases the harvest from the earth, and gives it to the people.

Each year Lugh's victory's still celebrated here in Corca Dhuibhne, when local people climb the mountain from the east, light fires, have picnics and play music. And, though the mountain's now called after Brendan, the season's still Lughnasa, and the day of the festival's still called Crom Dubh's Sunday.

In the middles ages, Christian storytellers made Lugh into Brendan, and Crom Dubh into a pagan chieftain, whom the saint killed or converted. As time passed, the older beliefs were supressed by the new religion. On Mount Brandon, the pilgrim route's now marked by white stone crosses.

But last week a Dingle man, called Colm Banbury, was guiding two tourists along Cosán na Naomh when he found another, older symbol. Low to the ground, carved on a rock slab, he saw a perfect spiral.

Like a coiled snake carved in stone, patched with lichen, half-hidden by heather and furze.

It's the first example of Megalithic Art of this kind found in Kerry.

And it's an image of the ancient Celts' vision of eternity.