I’ve been trying to understand the artists by talking to them - when I say ‘artists’, I mean visual artists; when I say ‘visual’, I wish it were true. I feel I turn into a different person with each one. They all know how to do the talking-to-promotors gig, have done it before – they are all some version of famous/well-known/respected and some of them have given up describing what they do in anything other than artspeak.
I was in the middle of one today, on the phone, and noticed that I couldn’t listen to what the artist was saying. I was attending to the words. One by one, they made sense. From a distance, the way they sounded was fine, a steady highbrow rumble. But in between, where the meaning should have been, I couldn’t take hold of anything. I managed by intruding and trying to extract a few out and out facts. Afterwards I had the factual worked out and, besides that, had a few single words on paper - strays, wisps of impressions of ideas.
They list technical things as though these should convey something emotional about the work, something about what looking at it will be like. It doesn’t. I can see that within the arist’s own practice a choice between watercolour, ink or charcol will mean a lot. To me – outside that practice – it suggests only the work of other artists, whose work in those materials I can remember. I used to wonder why exhibition catalogues always had essays by critics and why artists are hardly ever willing to have a go with words like Delacroix. I suppose he did it only in private, in his diaries, and expected Baudelaire to step up and do the public speaking, the articles. I think we may have forced a silence on artists
Something similar is having an effect on the GB. Artists prefer to be inspired or interested in a general sort of way – nothing too verbally clear and certainly nothing to do with narrative. One wonderful poem by Eibhlín Ní Murchú has been left out because no artist took it up. It told a whole story - just a few verses but also drama, characters, attitudes, conflict and resolution. It was a narrative, and we don’t do narrative painting any more, if anyone ever really did.
Áine Ní Ghlinn’s poem Tú Féin is Mé Féin about the atmosphere of child abuse has artists running away in herds, so the ‘herding cats’ comparison probably won’t work so well in future.
Could you have a Raft of the Medusa these days? Only as an installation I suppose. I have nothing against installations mind you; Bernadette Cotter did one that we’ve been lusting after for a while – a map of Ireland made of the envelopes of emigrant letters home (another Dinshenchas). But we can’t have it. It was installed and eventually taken down; it had its day and now the best you can do is photographs and memories and, if you’re lucky, Bernadette Cotter’s own description of it. I try to talk her husband into having a sensible conversation with the woman about permanence, about being sensible, about keeping her works available for films that may be loitering in the area. I have my usual luck with the partners of artists. Maybe I don’t deserve any.
Anyway, I recovered – I think – from all this and talked to Steve Dilworth, sculptor, English, living on Harris. He’s doing a text by Micheál Ó Conghaile, An Charraig (The Rock), words so rocky that you feel quite geological yourself just by reading them. Dilworth can tell a story - about the rocks round his house, the feel of them, the size, weight and shape of them and how he perceives them and how they enter his work, how he’s trying to grind them down for ink, how he’s making a print that’s as big and rocky as a print can be, how he’s using the notion to get his artist daughter going faster than daughters usually feel like going when instructed by their fathers. And I understood. And was relieved. And I may have forgotten to congratulate myself, so I’m doing it here.
Same with Particia Looby, who just says what’s on her mind, no airs. She does a bit of regular teaching in Fethard, Co Tipperary, has a weekend market stall, has what sounds on the phone like a talking dog and is full of fluster because she hasn’t talked to her poet Marie Mhac an tSaoi yet. She has interesting ideas for her poem piece and can talk about them without wrapping them up in interview-speak.
I am, incidentally, trying - when I remember - not to think visually, or not too visually. I’m not the visions guy. Murray does that. When I think I’m thinking visually, the vulgarity of what I think is amazing - even to me. Patricia Looby really shouldn’t have mentioned her market stall though I’m glad she did. I now see her, whom I have never seen, behind a visually imagined stall, crying at the very top of her Tipperay voice a list of visual art wares never visualised before in Ireland - un-realists, unimpressionists, carnipsionists, abstract supressionists, inaction paintings, dog portraits.
In my head, Davy Hammond is still standing there beside the most Irish lepreachaun in Ireland and Patricia Looby is re-inventing Petticoat Lane in Fethard. We had better make this bloody film and exorcise my visual demons.
I have plenty. In Gort a Hork we walked through a car boot sale. They had a brass piece in the shape of a map of Australia and a relief in the middle about a quarter the size of this imagined sub continent - Ayers Rock. Visually, Ireland can be the most surprising place in the world but you have to look carefully, the subtleties are so blatant; you get used to them. In fact, I think Ireland has grown accostumed to a visual culture that’s more like a flea market than anything else.
I looked at the poems again today as a whole, or tried, and realised that many of the choices, by the Irish in particular, were made as a kind of salute to Scotland and many others with an idea of what might be interesting to visual artists. The idea of the Book being canonical has hovered over it from the beginning. I think it will be received as an anthology and some of the poems are far too fragile for this. Many of them merely moan on about the death of the language and do their level best to contradict most of what the film is about, which is the way Gaelic poets are now living in the contemporary world and re-inventing the language and its inherited forms. But I still think I’m right. But so what? Collect a hundred poems in English and there will be a fair amount of fragility, incompetence and all the hundred and forty shades of boredom, won’t there?
We, too, started off with something like the anthology idea in mind - an account of where we are and how we got there. We are heading towards the out-and-out contemporary. We thought we were doing this, but probably weren’t. Now we are. I hope. No dead poets. Or maybe one or two, provided the work is alive in the heads of the living.
I’ve been on the phone for days arranging Ireland. Murray and I going and this time it’s serous. Cassandra says it is or, rather, doesn’t say it isn’t. We are expected to come back with something more than the higher gossip, something useful and usable in the film.
There has to be a programme, a schedule. There always is; but this one will be shown to people, will be a promissary note on work owed to the film. So I try to work out who to meet, why, and what flm currency we hope to bring home with us. I try to put enough of a draft script together to guide the trip and try to remember that in Ireland the way the crows fly is of no help to travellers. This is difficult to do while the phone is sitting there promising conversations, complications, intrigues.
I tried the human bits first. I phoned Máire Mhac an tSaoi and had a civilised conversation - the only kind she has, I think. She does even the uncivilised stuff in a manner so civilised that you blame yourself not only for doing what uncivilised things you may perhaps once have done but, mostly, for being as uncivilised as she makes you feel. She’s a nice woman as well as a real poet and I enjoy talking to her, when she makes me feel civilised, which she also does, in a rationed, limited-edition sort of way.
She remembers the GB but does not remember - definitely not - ever being told that artists were involved, though she likes the idea of having her poem ‘illustrated’. She uses the word naturally, gliding with the walk of a queen straight through one of the glass walls of the GB project - that artists are not, and would never, illustrate. They are ‘reacting to’, ‘responding to’ - non serviant. We agree to meet: she agrees, we ask.
I phone Patricia Looby again - Mhac an tSaoi’s artist - dogs in the background, cats in the house, ideas runnning around like wild children. She has ideas, based on Egyptian grave paintings. Now the question of what the poem is about is becoming complicated. It has a tiny story - a classroom, the word ‘Muse’ comes up, teacher offers to explain, a beautiful little girl with not a thought in her head insists on answering: a muse is a woman with no clothes on; somebody - Eoghan Rua - laughs.
I thought it was about the idea of a muse, and a very good, knotty, joke. It is. But. The little girl is exactly described - high forehead, no fringe, well-spaced eyes, white teeth with an organised gap, rosy cheeks, golden-yellow hair, blue eyes, neat eyebrows, a mouth like strawberries - the ancient Irish idea of beauty, as described in the long tradition of Aisling (Dream/Vision) poems.
The artist reads and thinks not of the laundry list of detail, succulently done in the poem, oppressive to follow in a picture. She thinks of archetypal ideas of beauty in general, ancient ideas, Egypt. And - according to witnesses - paints a picture closely related to her own looks - dark and maybe a little bit wild.
The artist phones the poet, the poet is shocked that her golden-yellow girl is coming out as a dark Tipperary-Egyptian self and non-self portrait. She asks about the artist’s education; how much Irish does she know? This is one of the interesting Irish questions. It’s the answers you have to be careful of. Almost everybody educated in Ireland has some Irish but very few people have the amount they say they have - they are almost all wildly exaggerating up or down. Patricia Looby is a down-ian so she says she knows no Irish, none whatsoever - went to school, learned nothing, forgot everything; don’t ask.
Mac an tSaoi can’t believe, does believe, thinks she shouldn’t, but manages, in the end, to believe it after all, incredulously - ‘How could she?’ Mac an tSaoi blames the artist’s lack of Irish, though the English translation has just as much - and has it accurately - about the yellow hair and the rest of it . Turns out that the Eoghan Rua is Eoghan Rua O Suilleabháin, Kerry Gaelic poet and a great composer of Aislings - dream vision poems where the poet sees Ireland as the kind of beautiful woman who never resembles the neighbourhood girls. And he - Eoghan Rua - gets fairly explicit for 18th century Ireland about what other peoples’ songs call her ‘charms’ (arms included sometimes) and the way they peep out at him and the way he peeps in at them. So there we were, all thinking that Eoghan Rua in the poem was a juvenile male scamp in the classroom when we should have recognised Ó Suilleabháin from the words being used. Or Mac an tSaoi thinks we should.
I don’t agree with her - there are problems in the Gaelic world with the lack of explanations and the feeling that if you don’t already know you shouldn’t be asking. People used to talking to themselves can forget how to explain; and a poem should be its own explanation. I think this will be a general problem with the GB. Artists will grab one or two things from a poem and make something from them. None of the GB artists I have spoken to have shown any interest in, or acknowleged any responsibility for, poems as a whole or even for the entire meanings of a poem. They are not even willing to be impressionist - impressionism is about whole impressions. A notion or two is their limit - most of them.
Jake Harvey, though, is talking about the shape and structure of the ancient poem he is doing - The Lough Laigh Blackbird poem - but hardly anybody else that I know of is considering structure. You can see why Harvey is. It’s a tiny poem; like many of the medieval lyrics it says something completely in a tiny space. John Hewitt tanslated it as a Haiku and translating it seems to have become a rite of passage for the Northern Ireland poets. Harvey sounds as if he’s measuring away, hammering down posts, surveying the poem’s tiny patch and its steel geometry. I can’t imagine what his piece will look like but it’s the sort of poem that makes you see things
Int én bec
ro léic feit
do rinn guip
ós Loch Laíg
lon do chraíb
Besides a reluctance to attend to the way poems work in time and with their own kinds of structures, there is an honest difficulty with narrative and lots of the poems are complete stories. Sometimes I think that these grand projects can only happen if the collaborators thoroughly, systematically but fruitfully misunderstand each other.
David Quinn has made his painting – he’s a painter who really paints. Having survived an information famine on all GB matters, he gets pages and pages and pages. David perks up. People like to get letters, specially people who have done the Jane Austin thing and sent off a few of their own. Unfortunately, as they say in West Cork, all the pages, every one, is all about how to ship your art to where the GB wants it to go. It’s like expecting a love letter and getting a bill.
The GB is not behaving at all amorously with its collaborators, though some of them are getting very friendly with each other. Biddy Jenkinson seems to have formed a little group of artists who are working on her nominations and on her own poem. The Breens are running a sort of safe house in Ferns and artists in cars, artists in trucks, artists in lorries and artists in difficulties have arrived, stayed longer than planned and left, calligraphed into the ground by Frances Breen – Irish Art’s Iron Woman in the Velvet Manners.
Biddy Jenkinson and I have been on the email again. Email may have worn itself out as the lazy way to get things apparently done but it still has a much faster metabolism than letters. Biddy and I have been making free with the concepts in an uncomposed and fluent way that letters would not have managed for us - too many second thoughts in letters.
Biddy Jenkinson’s poems have the spontaneity of someone who knows an awful lot. The spontaneity is so beguiling that you forget about the knowledge. There she is, singing and dancing on a sixpence, and you think she’s not watching you like a hawk in her spare time. She forgot about being a hawk - emails, fast as the crow thinks it flies - and found herself assuming that she was going to be in our film and that she doesn’t like being in films and that she hates interviews because she can’t be doing with personal questions. Suddenly yesterday she did a PS ‘confessing’, as she said, that she ‘may not be the right person for the film’. Of course, I did do something scary with the placenames and Mis, so it’s my fault. But she is one of the right people and I hope she will find it impossible to go back on all those emails - spontaneity writ on stone, surely? We’re going to visit her in Ireland and we’re going to be irresistible. Murray is just great in drawingrooms.
Geraldine O’Reilly, who is ill, was filling me in today about her and Biddy Jenkinson and her Mis poem. The poem mentions yew trees. O’Reilly does yews. Her friend Eileen Ferguson in Co Monaghan lives on the Castle Leslie estate where they have a set of 16th century yew trees. And Jenkinson has planted a set of yews in her Co Wicklow garden. The garden is laid out on the patterns of ancient Irish literature. There is something to do with Bruion Chaiorean and the yews, laid out so that Suibhne Gheilt and Mis can hop from one to the other - lopsidedly, as ancient Irish lunatics do. Here is a whole little system of artistic connections. If Yeats or AE were around, things would be happening, talk would be happening, articles would be writing themselves, manifestos would be a constant threat. Count your blessings; there aren’t all that many.
I’ve been ringing Reiltín Murphy for days, no answer neither morning noon nor night. I started to develop paternal worries about somebody I’ve never met and who may be older than me. But she is an artist, so we are all apt to take the paternal position. I get afraid of ringing, pestering, interrupting her work. I know that all the calligraphers have growing mountains of work to do. Artist deadlines have been stretching themselves since the beginning and artists have been using them to the full, so a day or so before the full and final deadline they ship their piece off to their calligrapher, assuming more or less that their calligrapher belongs only to them. Calligraphers like Reiltin have now a collection of pieces to do, each for a different artist, every one purposefully unique, all to be finished in days. So you ring up calligraphers carefully, you don’t let the phone ring too often and you don’t leave a message - messages are demanding things.
I got her in the end and she’s a nice strong Wexford woman and not in need of paternal volunteers. I heard from Joanne Breen that Reiltín was keeping a diary, like me. Turns out she isn’t. There probably was a conversation and somebody said ‘I could write a book’ of what fun we all had on the GB. Should have known. But it does sound as if she has stories and I hope we’ll hear them.
Not this Irish trip, though. We’ll spend two weeks whirling round Ireland trying to keep up with my permanantly optimistic forecasts of how far you can get on Irish roads by drawing straight lines on maps. I keep sending Murray itineraries and inviting him to feel the width. And he does - what else can a fellow do?
We are – it’s almost the same conversation - trying to get down to the draft script. I’ve done the draft, I want him to agree and disagree and for us to hammer out an agreed script and for this to be the basis of our talks with people from now on.
Murray is, I think, still treating this as an observational piece, filming the Gaelic world the way David Attenborough films badgers - you lie in wait; they do what they do; then you cut, paste and comment. The poets I’ve been talking to won’t wear this one, most of them and, if they eventually decide to, they’ll sure as hell complain about it afterwards.
We try to have the script conversation in the Fruitmarket Gallery, full of art butterflies - armour-plated, female, eastern (Scottish) - and attitude; and of people who think they might be supposed to know you and hope you have heard of them. We were there because Canongate got ill and couldn’t meet us again today - third cancelled Cannongate meeting this week: 2-1 to them and very little time to equalise.
There’s only the weekend between us and Ireland. Almost everything is arranged that can be arranged. There are certainly no more phone calls to be made and hardly anything going on that could give you the impression that you are working; and waiting certainly doesn’t make you feel important or even involved. So we’ll spend this three days of thinking time failing to think.
But a man can act, can’t he? And why are women allowed to do all the shopping and then all the complaining about it? And I wouldn’t mind only. So I went off to do my own version of shopping slavery and to take pleasure in it. I can’t go home - can I? - unburdened? We used to have this wee Dublin guy in London who would never say much, except that when he was going home he would go on and on about not arriving with one arm longer than the other. How do I equalise my arms? Edinburgh Rock and Highland Fudge.
Incidentally, where do you think you go these days to find proletarian gifts? - unhealthy stuff that the working classes used to die of and the rest of us would now like to enjoy in our very post modern recreational way? Sweet shops? Seen one lately? Heard any good rhetorical questions recently? Well, I found rock and fudge at the Museum of Scotland, packaged out of its mind. The posh restaurant on the roof serves, for a price (£8.99), fish and chips and ‘pureed peas’. When will ‘mushy’ jump over the wall and join the retro-garde?
The silence of Canongate continues. You couldn’t call it 3-1 yet, but they are defending very well.
Cassandra has been sighted. By others. Tried to explain the script to somebody today. Sounded like pureed peas. Luckily the meetings are over.
Cassandra, invisibly, phones, chuckles a bit, says she’ll see us in Ireland, perhaps.
Monday 5th November 2001 - to Ireland
We’re going on what they used to call land and sea route - drive to Cairnryan, boat to Larne, road to Dublin with a Monaghan interlude. I have considered possible routes, and they are legion. Several are complicated and interesting, two are comparatively straightforward. I decide that we should start with a no-panic route. I can’t face the boring straightforward one, and decide on the enigmatically straightforward one - the old road to Kilmarnock, then the old road to Ayr and beyond, roads that always know where they are going and look like it and show you. I forgot that modern roads look like they know what they’re doing, assume you don’t and keep on reassuring you that The North is up there along with other abstractions. The old roads never mention The North or The South, just the next town and the one after that and have none of the brutal authority which we award to whatever authority is in charge of the victims of geography.
We start off and I start to see the line of the old roads through Murray’s eyes, who hasn’t worked out the route, hopes I have, but can’t help looking for evidence that we know where we’re going. I can sense him failing to find it. As Murray’s doubts develop, I get, as usual, interested in all my old friends - the war memorials in every one of the old mining towns; signs of eccentric Irish settlement - Pat O’Hara Quality Cars in Overtown; Hurlford, which sounds like a Scotticised version of Dublin (Baile Atha Cliath – the town of the hurdle ford); Motherwell (Mary’s Well or Tobar Mháire, as in Tobermorie). We pass the regiment of anoracked, unillusioned women of the Central Belt and all the wounds of industrial Scotland. On the way we meet Crossragruel Abbey, in which Walter Kennedy, a 16th century poet with a walk-on part in the GB, had an interest; Souter Johnny’s Cottage; Girvan at 9.30am. What more could a man want?
What Murray wants are some assurances that we are going in the right direction and some certainty of a fairly punctual arrival, it turns out. Fortunately one turned up as we purred along by Cairnryan - it’s a smooth little place and hardly more than a line of houses along the shore. So we relaxed and steeled ourselves to deal with the extravagant courtliness of the P&O’s at the port. I had spent the past three hours worrying Murray by nattering about towns and the like when all he wanted to know was: are we there yet? Eventually, we are.
Once we landed, of course, I felt free again to pursue the discredited policies of the morning and so we go the scenic route through Carrickfergus – so that Murray can think about Louis MacNiece as a child seeing The Titanic setting off (he may not want to, but I want him to) - and off round Belfast and beyond Armagh and into Monaghan so that Murray could see the little town of Caledon – in the gathering dark - and so that he could take my word for all the other Scotch settlements roundabout - Scotshouses, Scotstown and the rest. In the meantime – we can find Castle Leslie with its rumoured row of 16th century yew trees and Eileen Ferguson, a GB artist doing An Bunnán Buí by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna, a historical local reprobate poet, can’t we?
Now, when it’s dark in Monaghan, it’s dark and when it rains it rains and when it’s dark and rainy you can scarcely see where you’re going, never mind where you’re supposed to be going, and no local is foolish enough to make themselves available for wet weather questioning. So we move in circles, have to ring Eileen Ferguson to confirm it’s the right circle and then have to follow directions that assume the existence of light.
A bhonnáin bhuí, is é mo chrá do luí
is do chnámha críon tar éis a gcreim,
is chan díobháil bídh ach easpa dí
d’fág tú ‘do luí ar chúl do chinn;
is measa liom féin ná scrios na Traí
thú bheith sínte ar leacaibh lom,
is nach ndearna tú díth ná dolaidh is tír
is narbh fhearr leat fíon ná uisce poill.
The yellow bittern that never broke out
In a drinking bout, might as well have drunk;
His bones are thrown on a naked stone
Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.
O yellow bittern! I pity your lot,
Though they say that a sot like myself is cursed –
I was sober for a while, but I’ll drink and be wise
For I fear I would die in the end of thirst.
- Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna, translated by Thomas MacDonagh
Eileen and her husband and two children live in an estate house, lots of space, outhouses, barns, damp and the lack of reliable heat. He describes in loving detail a pot-bellied stove you can get in Edinburgh for £90 and which will soon be his to heat the very cold, large and almost windowless roof studio where he paints seascapes and large subtle studies of lake and stream water. She works downstairs in a small white, tall studio and works out colours and textures, at the moment studying samples of very old wood - some bog oak and bits of the floors of historic buildings.
We wonder about the working spaces that artists make and how uncomfortable and cold some studios look. Are the artists as cold and uncomfortabe as their studios? I think it’s not the lack of money that causes this. I know writers without money but their squalor is usually comfortable, at least for them; and some who will arrange their own squalor at some expense. Maybe artists need something physically bracing - they have to move or freeze, like Cathal Buí himself maybe. Eileen’s GB picture is cool and bright like her studio, beautifully glanbuí. We never got it or her into the film because we went for the living poets and Cathal Buí had to go.
Anyway, getting out of Monaghan is easier than reaching any particular part of it and we scurried off to Dublin, Murray to the United Arts Club, where gentlemen with artistic weaknesses congregate, me to Stoneybatter – very central North Dublin, where they have different weaknesses.
Getting to Wexford always takes an uncertain amount of time. I realise - of course I do - that this is because some parts of Co. Wexford are further away than others no matter where you start from. Also that starting from here may not be the best way. However, knowing this does not stop me thinking that Wexford should be a dot on the map and that things would be easier if it just stopped wobbling about. And then there is the whole question of Wicklow.
So we start off too early and get to Ferns with time to see the cathedral and the abbey ruins before Bullavogue, where we even have time to visit the Father Murphy Centre, dedicated to a hero of the 1798 rebellion, full of old farm implements and not in the slightest interested in telling the story it was built to tell or any other story either. As we accumulate some film scar tissue, we can’t help noticing the imperfections of others, particularly when it comes to saying what you mean - and the task of meaning something in the first place.
We walk sadly away like somebody in a song, but they don’t even have a half-decent shop - they have baseball caps, green with ‘Ireland’ on them; keyrings, fudge. Walking sadly away from this kind of an insult is an achievement. I often suspect Ireland of trying to sell its soul but the asking price often seems to be unneccessarily cheap.
Up the road is Joanne Breen with her weavers - Bullavogue Textile Studio, a group of women who came together to make a community tapestry and liked it so much they established the group as an enterprise, raised money, studied, started to run the group as a business and are starting to take over their own lives as well. At least that’s what the establishment is afraid of - parish council, priest, the kind of men you’d hope foot and mouth would deal with for you; except that they’ve been putting their feet in their mouths so long you’d might as well be dealing with a talking bunion.
Nobody minded the women weaving - in their spare time, like - nice to see a woman busy with her hands. Nobody minded them raising money. But spending it with a purpose, proposing to spend it on renovating the disused and imminently derilict National School, using it to weave in a thorough and business-like way, using it to weave beautiful things? And to sell them? For money? Well now, it all goes to show where using your hands can lead to - using your mind for instance. The parish couldn’t bring itself to let them have the school, even though they were saving it, restoring it and using it to produce employment and even though nobody else wanted it or had the foggiest what to do with it – the parish had to be shamed into it and now the place shines, is full of Swedish looms, wools, tapestries, drawings and working women. The Father Murphy Centre of course were not able to consider selling the beautiful and original local craft that the women make - their half-empty and embarassing shop could not be drawing attention to another local attraction, to their competition. Ireland is changing and losing things all right, but not always the right things.
We have a great time with the Wexfords. I’ve met them before - English Anna, who is organising Ireland without Ireland being any the wiser but definitely much the better; Pauline, who asks the wordless questions; Christine, who lives with a family who walk mostly on stilts; and Anne, whose name is Thackaberry and who enjoys behaving as though nothing unusual has happened, though it usually has. We get to caress some bog oak and to see some of the work in progress of the Breens - Frances and Joanne. We meet some Breen males as they stride through the Breen kitchen - swift, careless men of the sort WB recommended but would not, I think, have recognised. We recognise them, feel sluggish and careful, and leave.
It’s getting too dark to hunt for bits of Tipperary, but we do it anyway, as sensibly as possible, through the big towns - Enniscorthy, Waterford, even Clonmel. Finding Fethard is not that difficult, finding you way round it is the usual - don’t bother asking for the street, ask for the person. Nobody cares where Kerry Street is, everybody knows and cares where Patricia Looby lives.
Pat Looby is in her tiny house. It used to be a shop, low ceilings, tiny rooms, winding stair, mysterious yard, two cats, a visiting dog and Pat, a generous roaring woman who would, you expect, be ruling over an enormous studio space - high, wide and white. She makes some large enough objects. She shows us one the size of an inherited dresser, and some very nice small paintings. We can’t understand how she does it - the only apparent work room is one-person size, so long as you don’t turn round too fast.
She has a terrible cold, has been unable to teach that day but is able to expostulate stories, theories, notions at us with some speed and great force, explaining as she goes that she is not really on form, is under the weather, that she had hoped to give us a real performance.
We go over the Mhac an tSaoi story. Looby has recovered a little, at least enough to get sensible about her picture. She shows us how she did her best - blonded the hair, added a few teeth, ruined the picture; and how she went back to the original - dark and beautiful enough for anybody. We encouraged, produced a few paragraphs about the Parnassian Mhac an tSaoi, some theory about narrative poems and their difficulties for artists, with anecdotal evidence.
We left, as we had to - had to get back to Dublin in the dark, up in the morning, leaving her thinking she had failed the audition, I think. She hadn’t of course.
Moladh Binn Edair
Aoibhin bheith ar a mullach
We are nervous about Máire Mhac an tSaoi, about things that cannot be our fault. But explaining how you are not at fault is a guilty thing to do, isn’t it? It certainly makes you feel guilty, sound guilty, look guilty. So we make an effort to get there early, a really big effort, making outselves more nervous, getting there too early, having to wait and getting even more nervous.
We walk around a bit in the wind. This is Howth Head, which you could say dominates Dublin Bay, expect that Irish mountains don’t do domination. The house nestles as hill houses should and you’d have to know it was there to be sure of finding it. We are sure of nothing at all. We can’t even work out which end of the house is which. Getting in to Irish houses is fine if you know where the kitchen is. But, usually, to know this you’d have to have been there before; and then you’d know where to go and you wouldn’t really need to know about the kitchen; you’d just go there. With many Irish houses, the back door – the kitchen door – is the door. We know this but, as usual, the layout likes to tease you a little with a sniff of a real Front Door here and there.
We spend, as you can see, some time on this business. We do find the back – and principal – door. But we do not presume. We walk round the front. And there is a front door. It’s a very front door indeed. Maybe nobody else has done this for years and years, but we feel that we have to do the front door business, just to show that we can.
We knock. Mhac an tSaoi is on the phone in the hall. We can see her – front doors have that facility sometimes. We can see Conor Cruise O’Brien drinking coffee in the front room and not answering the door. He continues not answering the door throughout a fairly long phone conversation, a high wind outside and excellent visibility. The view is great, mind you - Howth Summit and the whole of Dublin Bay at our feet and when you consider - and we were being given the time to do this - entering the Presence windswept and cold is not such a bad idea, so long as she notices.
She doesn’t. She gestures us round the back, we go in the kitchen door, get sat down and offered a cup of ‘instant coffee’. Being offered coffee so precisely described is a strange experience. If she had offered coffee and produced instant we would have noticed nothing. The offer of instant, and only instant, makes us feel we have been assessed and found wanting - wrong jacket again. We accept - next time we’ll bring our own - and sit down. She sits down. There is very little of the merry chatter here that these encounters usually have to start with. But Máire Mhac an tSaoi is no merry chatterer.
We decide on an orderly exposition, the occupation of neutral ground and a high literary tone. We start. She also starts. We stop.
- My anger has past.
She announces. We abandon orderly exposition. She explains that she is willing to regard Particia’s painting as permissible, a different approach. We feel forgiven - not to blame but still forgiven. But to be forgiven is to be in the wrong.
We proceed, ask about the new Belfast Gaeltacht, Gearóid MacLochlainn and the way they are using Irish. She doesn’t mind, if that’s the way they want to spend their spare time. It’s like an enthusiasm for Esperanto, she says. Irish is Irish; there are authoritative sources, there is a right way and a wrong way; people merely making the language do what they want it to do may be interesting to them but it isn’t real Irish, which there is such a thing as. We are gobsmacked, have been gobsmacked. Can you treat ‘gobsmacked’ as a transitive verb? If you do it, you can do it. Language has a life of its own. Whether we have a life of our own seems less certain. We leave.
Later Louis de Paor tells me that Mhac an tSaoi is important, not only as a poet but also as a representative of the conserving tendency. Louis thinks this tendency always loses, and he’s right; but he thinks we should use the conservers for all they’re worth while we still have them. We need the china shop as well as the bull.