Co. Wicklow and Dublin, City of Literature: “Saint Kevin and the Blackbird” and “Easter 1916”

I know that there isn’t much Ireland on this Ireland blog yet. There is a lot of backtracking to do; I’ve seen and done quite a lot since my arrival in Dublin. I’ve just returned to Ireland after having some travel-intensive time in Scotland and England, in which internet was spotty at best. However, I’m hopefully going to get caught up this week and will be sharing a lot of thoughts on this beautiful country and its connection to my writing. There have been days in which I kept a sort of travel log, detailing what I’d seen in diary format. Other days are a scattered collection of thoughts and observations, and other days are only poems.

The posts you can expect within the next few days are: 1) This post, covering my initial time in and around Dublin, 2) a post about my week in the more rural seclusion of Gleann na nGealt, Co. Kerry, and 3) one or two posts about my time in Scotland on the Isle of Skye and my Tolkien pilgrimage in Oxford, England. Right now, I’m in Doolin, Co. Clare, and will be off to the first of the Aran Isles tomorrow!

(For the record, the first thing I did in Dublin was watch Lady and the Tramp on Netflix.)

When I refer to friends in this blog, I’ll refer to them by their initials for privacy. When I refer to people I’ve met who run accommodation (Airbnb, hostels, B&B) who are available on the internet for you to look up, I’ll provide full names and links so that if you’re ever in Ireland, you can give your patronage to some wonderful people.

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Co. Wicklow: Glendalough and the Indian Sculpture Garden

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Roads are narrowed by overgrown hedges. Hills rise to the right and next, behind blooming ferns. The landscape is layered greens, dappled light, heather and stonework.

In Dublin, I’m lucky enough to be staying with a wonderful family that my sister put me in touch with. I’m driving with N, and we get lost looking for a sculpture garden that we’ll find  later, and make our way back to the glacial valley of Glendalough, Co. Wicklow.

It’s a bank holiday, so everyone is here. Locals who drive too fast, tourists who drive too slow. Deep pine forests surround the Lower and Upper lake in the light of late afternoon. We’re feeling sick and sleepy, and chips from the food stand in the parking lot are the only possible solution.

The first area we hike too is the waterfall lookout. There are so many people here, and yet it’s still peaceful. There’s a sense of reverence around us, of allowing people their space, their time, their moment. From the waterfall, we hike back down to the monastic settlement that this valley is known for.

The monastery was founded in the 6th century by St. Kevin, the hermit monk. The buildings that remain are only a small portion of what used to be here, and they date back to the 12th century. A dwelling place, cathedral, and campanile form a rough triangle with other low-walled ruins in between, and in that gap between structures, a cemetery fills the grass.

The headstones are new, old, ancient. One white printed stone dates back to 1991, and someone has left a fresh pot of flowers. There are Celtic crosses too old to stand and some collapse into each other, moss and grass bright against the stone. No word is discernible on these headstones, and some are no longer headstones—just flat slabs, utterly eroded by rainfall, tilted out of the ground or lying flat. I imagine the bones beneath are long gone.

A broken arch, mid-cathedral. A jagged window on the far walls. Tablets pressed against the walls, and you can see and touch where an engraving used to be. Above the tablets, the walls are full of empty and uneven clefts.

The inscription on the campanile tells us that in times of attack, the floors on the various levels could be shifted. N and I walk around the building, lying our hands flat on the stone, trying to figure out how. Maybe the mismatched stone, too large and flat, its cement conspicuous? Light breaks into the valley. The sun lowers.

We walk back to the car park. N and I talk about performance art. After seeing the monastic settlement, I’m left thinking about the quiet scene in a cell from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Saint Kevin and the Blackbird”.

Saint Kevin and the Blackbird

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.

The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside

His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff

As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands

and Lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,

Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?

Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?

Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?

Alone and mirrored clear in Love’s deep river,

‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely

For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird

And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

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Phone service in the car park means we can call the sculpture garden for better directions.

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Here we continue with our theme of coming across the unexpected. Visual surprises fill a small forest, and you never know what stage of the soul is lying around the corner. An odd inscription is paired with sculpture: a poet’s dream, odd words appearing out of nowhere in a forest. The Split Man, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Ferryman. Here, Nirvana is almost an anticlimax.

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Monkstown and Dublin City

Thought for the day: there is a worm called the lugworm that excretes sand in its own shape. The actual worm buries deep in the beach where only an oystercatcher’s bill can get at it.

On my first day in Dublin, I have the Irish Traditional Music Archive library to myself all day after wandering the Garden of Remembrance in the morning. I can make copies! In a sunlit corner, I pile up books on Irish song, language, and folklore. The transcriptions of traditional music are helpful because I can look up certain tunes that I’m trying to either learn, re-bow, or ornament, and the ornamentation is transcribed clearly, in a way true to the nature of the tune. There are transcriptions of specific recordings, which are also helpful, since I’m tune-learning from some of those recordings. I’m sketching the design of some old Celtic metalwork when they  finally kick me out.

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Tonight I watched the film “Michael Collins” with the Z family. A gritty film, detailing an even grittier history, from the Easter Rising of 1916 to Ireland’s independence. Starring Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, and Julia Roberts’s unstable Irish accent.

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Dublin is listed as an UNESCO City of Literature. On my second day in Dublin, my literary pilgrimage takes me to the Dublin Writer’s Museum, where I’m greeted by printed and handwritten lines:  “The Harp of Erin, freshly pealing” (Thomas David); “the young contending while the old surveyed” (Goldsmith). Folded drafts of prose and poetry and drama, personal typewriters, original bound copies of publications, posters for plays at the Abbey Theatre. Patrick Kavanagh’s death mask. Personal letters written to a brother or a sister or a friend, signed by the writer. I think briefly about the fact that handwritten letters are disappearing from the world. In the future, maybe the only letters left will be the ones here now, already in museums.

As I survey the glass displays and plaques, I come across a poem that I’m quite familiar with, made potent again in my mind after watching “Michael Collins” last night. The lines are famous for good reason: “All changed, changed utterly, / A terrible beauty is born” (Yeats). Some of the most famous lines in Irish literary history, encapsulating trauma and revolution at once, the cycle of destruction and rebirth.

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In Ireland they put brown bread in their ice cream and it’s phenomenal.

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At some point during my stay in Ireland, I’ll see the Book of Kells. But not today. There are better things to do than stand for hours in an endless line of tourists. It bothers me briefly that there is only one line. There should be a line for “writers/artists who have geeked out about the Book of Kells for years and have a literary and history and artistic investment in seeing it and can tell you all about it” and another line for “tourists who have heard that this is a cool old thing they should probably see” (I know that there are people in between these two extremes, but still…).

I wander and end up at the National Library, where there is a Yeats exhibition. I walk down into a dim room, where hundreds of manuscripts are spot-lit within glass and side rooms are wall-papered with newspapers from Yeats’s times. The audio from televised documentaries overlaps from all sides. Poems are read to me, over and over. Almost no one else is here.

Immediately, I notice that there are many, many handwritten drafts of poems here. “The Lake of Innisfree”, “Sailing to Byzantium”, “Easter 1916”, to name only a few. These are the works that introduced me to the historical events of Ireland as an undergraduate, and here they are, handwritten, crossed-out, with notes in the margins, slanting down along the page. Preserved so that future poets like me could imagine the moment of inspiration when words first come to mind.

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I end my time in Dublin with a visit to the local Comhaltas in Monkstown. There’s a concert of traditional music, followed by tea, alcohol, and sessions. I bring my fiddle along and spend the first half of the evening enjoying the concert. Three fiddles (all of whom sing as well throughout the night, one of whom also picks up a bodhran, one of whom dances), accordion, harp, concertina, pennywhistle, low flute, Uillean pipes, and the most mesmerizing dancers. Among the jigs and reels and medleys, the harpist plays “O’Carolan’s Welcome” while one fiddler tells us the history of Turlogh O’Carolan, and then everyone joins in the melody. Each instrument is highlighted and given a solo in turn. Even the dancers have their chance to create a rhythm using their feet only, with no melody involved.

After the concert, the band comes down to play in a session, in a low-roofed wooden room, in front of a fireplace. I play in my first session in Ireland and the band is incredibly welcoming, asking me to start up my favorite jigs and reels.

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I’ll end this blog post (incredibly long, they won’t be so long in the future) with Yeats.

Easter 1916
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

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