Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Circles, spirals, links and layers.

Last weekend, at the end of Ireland's Dingle peninsula, singers, musicians, students, teachers and locals, all gathered in Ballyferriter, a little village that gets taken over each spring by a dynamic school and festival of traditional Irish music.

Every year each available room in the village gets colonised - in the school, the pubs, the café, shops and the local museum. There are classes on a multitude of instruments, including the harp, fiddle, accordion, bodhrán, banjo and mandolin, pipes, flute, mouth organ and concertina. There’s set dancing and step dancing. And then, at night, there are concerts with lineups of traditional musicians that bring audiences from Europe and America as well as from all over Ireland.

As long as I’ve been coming to Corca Dhuibhne I’ve heard discussions about how changing customs are changing the way that traditional music’s shared. Now, when everything’s globally accessible and often shared through video and sound files, individual styles belonging to particular places can easily be lost. That's one reason why Niamh Ní Bhaoill and Brenndán Ó Beaglaoich, co-founders of the Ballyferriter Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh, established their Spring Music School several years ago. It’s about the genuine, native, West Kerry musical style. The emphasis is on the passing on of a living inheritance rooted in the language and landscape of the place.

Yet the same global accessibility which can threaten local musical traditions brings together musicians with shared cultural roots on a wider scale, practitioners in specific styles on different instruments who revel in reaching out and finding links between Ireland's inheritance and their own.

On Saturday in Ballyferriter the Gallician piper Anxo Lorenzo led a parade through the village and into the church, the only space large enough to accomodate the whole school of musicians playing together. Wrapped up in scarves and woolly hats, facing into a chilly wind blowing off the Atlantic Ocean, drummers in hi-vis jackets and tin whistle players in fingerless gloves crowded happily along the village street behind him. Inside, in pews, gathered around pillars, and standing on the altar steps, drums, fiddles, accordians, mouth organs, concertinas, guitars, harps, flutes, singers and pipers performed individually and together.

The heart of the music was Irish. But guest performers had arrived from Estonia, Sweden and Norway as well as from Galicia and Wales. And each evening guests, locals, students and teachers played and sang together in the pubs and the hotel bar, sharing, listening and teaching across nations and generations.

Last night, thinking about the cultural links between Ireland and the other countries represented at the Scoil Cheoil, I remembered that for centuries Dingle was the main embarkation point for pilgrims setting out on the long and hazardous journey from Ireland to Galicia, to the shrine of St. Iago de Compostela .

And then I remembered something else, about the shrine itself. Once there was a bishop in Galicia whose name was Priscillian. According to legend, his Christian teaching was full of echoes of pre-Christian Celtic beliefs, in which each element in the universe was linked by shared energy.

As a result, Priscillian was accused of heresy and executed in Rome, in 385AD. After his death his disciples are said to have brought his body back to Galicia. For centuries the site of his grave was unknown. But now it's thought that an early Christian burial discovered beneath the shrine in Santiago de Compostela may be evidence that the cult of the Celtic Christian bishop was supressed by concealing Priscillian's shrine under that of the Roman St. Iago, or James.

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the present church of St. James in Dingle's Main Street stands on the site of an early medieval one, built and dedicated in token of the generations of pilgrims who once set sail from Dingle harbour on their voyage to Santiago de Compostela.

Incidentally, that Celtic belief in a universe linked by shared energy was held in ancient Persia as well. And in medieval Europe it was expressed in the concept of the music of the spheres.

Circles, spirals, links and layers. I love them.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Who Needs St. Valentine?

I have nothing at all against St. Valentine. He's a perfectly good excuse for consuming chocolate. And, given that there appear to be at least eleven possible versions of him, he's a very typical Christian saint. 

Among the many legends about him is one which claims he was an early Christian priest, martyred for secretly marrying ancient Roman lovers. Another says he was a bishop who cured a pagan judge's daughter of blindess, converted the judge and baptised him, but later was stoned to death. Most of the stories make him Roman. But there's also a fairly convincing theory that both the saint and his cult of love were invented by the medieval English poet Chaucer, who also decided his feast day should be February 14th. 

Typical too, are the stories about Valentine's relics. Venerated bits of him turn up all over the place, a fact that's a bit embarrassing because his complete body's supposed to be enshrined in a cathedral in Birmingham, England. Oh, and in a Carmelite church in Dublin, Ireland. The Dublin remains were deposited as a gift from Pope Gregory XVI in 1836. The Birmingham ones were a gift from Pope Pius IX in 1847.  (Equally embarrassing and looks a bit like carelessness, but there you are.)

Despite all this dodginess, the presence of  St. Valentine's shrine in Dublin has led to repeated attempts over the years to sell him as Ireland's Patron Saint of Love. Which, given the rival shrine in England and the unfortunate number of skulls and toes and things scattered round Europe, seems pretty daft to me. Especially as we've already got our own Irish God of Love who, let's face it, beats eleven sprurious Roman St. Valentines into a cocked, chocolate mitre.

Just listen to this:
- He was a beautiful young man, with high looks, and his appearance was more beautiful than all beauty, and there were ornaments of gold on his dress; in his hand he held a silver harp with strings of red gold, and the sound of its strings was sweeter than all music under the sky; and over the harp were two birds that seemed to be playing on it.  -

His name is Aengus Óg, and in Irish mythology he's the son of the great Dagda Mór and the goddess Boann, famed for his championship of lovers. 

 - The birds, now, that used to be with Aengus were four of his kisses that turned into birds and that used to be coming about the young men of Ireland, and crying after them. "Come, come," two of them would say, and 'I go, I go," the other two would say, and it was hard to get free of them.-

Admittedly, he doesn't do chocolate but he's ours and he's seriously sexy. I think we should dump dodgy St. Valentine and have Aengus Óg's day instead.