Biddy Jenkinson has a house in the Wicklow Mountains and has sent a whole page of directions. This involves roads called by their proper names - the Glenmalure Road, for example, a name every sensible roadside drunk would recognise - because it’s the road that gets you to Glenmalure - but which maps are snooty about. Biddy will never be employed by the Ordnance Survey:
Stay on this road. Gilspear or Uí Chuala (mod. Sugarloaf Mt.) will be on your left. You will climb the ‘long hill’ and cross ‘Calary Bog’ and come to the village of Roundwood.
Well, when somebody sends you this kind of instruction, you obey. When you get to the bits you don’t understand, you obey ignorantly, clumsily and hope for the best. How about this:
Take this track to its end. Black gates on the right hand side. Track and gate will be marked with balloons.
Do you question the existence, or nature, of the balloons? Not with this poet you don’t. Anyway, we found the balloons - she puts them out when people are coming, a very welcoming thing when you realise that they’re really for you. And she had food ready to cook for us, which she did, told us to sit, talk and wait. We want, more or less, to do a meeting but she doesn’t do meetings, doesn’t do careers, doesn’t do publicity, she just does poetry and expects, I think, very little - except the poetry, which is not a word you should use with ‘except’. Eventually somebody will write ‘The Quest for Biddy Jenkinson’ and they don’t stand a chance. Read what she wrote. It’s enough, much more than.
There was too much to talk about for us to manage an orderly conversation. We want her to voice the ancient poems and open them up for us because of all the poets she is the one most intimately involved with them. While we tell her this, she retreats, cooks and puts our descriptions through a sieve, we feel. We leave with the feeling that we have said hardly anything, hoping that what we did say hasn’t driven her out of the film. On the other hand, she didn’t say she was leaving the film; though she didn’t say she was staying either. We say nothing and will keep on saying it, hope she does too and intend to arrive on her doorstep with camera crew someday soon.
As we leave, she shows us her developing garden, a yew on each side of the path, one each for Suibhne and for Mis and a line of them that will run up and down the mountain and she tells us the idea for an entire plan that she sees and we try to imagine. There’s a tree named for Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, one for Louis de Paor and there will be one for Máire Mhac an tSaoi soon. We would walk through all this but she looks at our contemptible, indoor artsperson shoes and saves us from ourselves.
Was that a meeting?
We leave and walk around the central bit of Glendaloch - I’m getting Murray into as many bits of ancient Ireland as I can without any idea of why I’m doing it except that ancient Ireland never lets you down, as modern Ireland often seems about to do. I’ve know visitors who knew all about Joyce and Yeats and the others, knew all about Irish Literature, idolised it and still couldn’t believe Ireland is a civilised country with a history even greater than the sum of its rebellions and its greviances. Then they go to the National Museum on Kildare Street, take a look at the gold collars and come out convinced and converted: Ireland is, after all, a civilisation. Myself, I think the way people talk at Stoneybatter bus stops is civilisation - people with hardly a worthwhile collar to their name.
Back to Dublin. Murray is staying in a club in Fitzwilliam Street and they seem to have a supply of new Irish gentlemen for him to meet every night.
It’s interesting the way we are now partially inside and outside the goings-on of Gaelic. The matter of Belfast Irish, of demotic and literary speech is, of course, just another instance of the bickering that always goes on, particularly in small nations - like Greece and Ireland - and in larger but edgy nations like France - when they feel their language, and their identity, needs protection.
When we meet the problem it is treated like a family secret which can hardly be spoken about in front of us. We feel slightly offended because we know something about all this; and puzzled because, if you consider the Gaelic situation alongside all the others, you think more interesting thoughts than if you imagine the Gaelic difficulty to be unique and beyond learning from others.
Of course, we are making a film. We treat the people we meet as collaborators, or we try, but sensible people will presumably treat film people with care or at least use a fairly long spoon at supper. No use saying that I’m not a film person - temporarily, I am. It’s complicated. Probably it always was, though I was trying to dissolve it in an attempt at simplicity.
One of the sub-literary conceits of our time is that everybody gets lost looking for Cabinteely and lost and confused looking for Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill within it. We are going to use this idea in the film and I want to demonstrate to Murray how you always get lost. But how do you do this unless you know also how not to get lost?
I’ve been here before but. I know. I will explain to Murray how to get lost by not getting us lost. But, as I have always done before, I can’t resist the signpost that says ‘Cabinteely’. Wrong again. Mind you, I’m getting quicker at taking the wrong turn, recognising it, finding the right one. Murray is not quite sure I’m not staging the getting-lost procedure specially for him.
Nuala is there, as usual, enfolded in kilims, Turkish cushions and suburban bardic grandeur. She likes Gearóid Maclochlainn, doesn’t see the problem, has written an introduction to his new book. I should be encouraged by her successful and, I suppose, lifelong simplicity achievements. She is, of course, a sophisticated and aware woman but when it comes to literary theory and literary politics she just goes ahead and does them. And there she is.
We come away satisfied, full of news and possibilities. She even sang us a song - An Giolla Gruama from the Goodman MS - and we agreed to send her a recording of the tune for a new song to be made – she’s been writing words for Goodman tunes for a while. It started as a London Irish idea, with Brendan Mulkere’s attachment with Gol na mBan San Ár, a long Goodman piece involving battle music, three caoineadh’s and wake music – terrifying, heartbreaking music. We had adventures. This is not the place to tell you about them; but watch out for Nuala’s songs. Eventually they will appear.
The 8th Dwarf?
Nuala knew a man who worked for James Joyce when he opened his Volta cinema in Dublin. Joyce left, the man stayed and continued to run Dublin cinemas for years and years.
Eventually, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs comes to Dublin and plays for 35 days. Every day of the 35, for the afternoon show, Eamonn de Valera, Taoiseach of the Irish Free State turns up and watches the whole film. Then he goes back to work – he’s writing The Irish Constitution.
Nuala thinks that the Constitution should be read as a gloss on the Seven Dwarf philosophy and we can all see Dopey, Lazy, Bashful and Grumpy as citizens of a de Valera utopia in which nothing happens. How about Doc? Do the dwarfs go in for manly pleasures? Are they in the GAA? How about Snow White? Does she dance at the crossroads? I’ll have to ask Nuala.
You will be fed up by this time of hearing about our finding our way and not finding our way, so I’ll just say that Rathfarnham is a rambling kind of suburb and that nobody seems sure where it’s going or why. We found Remco De Fouw on top of a hill that has no right being in Rathfarnham but is, in a creaking country house kind of mansion - aching joints, asthmatic plumbing, barns, outhouses and a peacock. And Remco - from Dublin, of Dutch parents - a tall, statuesque, burnished, grown-up-looking being. What does ‘statuesque’ mean these days? Nothing to do with statues any more. De Fouw would have looked great in Renaissance armour, his head was made for a helmet, but his brain would probably have cooked itself away inside anything of the sort.
He’s doing a Kevin MacNeill poem. Water is involved and he shows how he prepares, contains and submerges paper under sea water, this time off the Cork coast, stays with it for hours in the darkness and eventually pounces photographically. When it works it produces extraordinary water patterns on the paper. Sometimes it doesn’t, but he’s as patient as he looks and can give you a patient list of the good things about spending night hours by the sea for uncertain results. Very satisfactory, particularly for me, because Remco can talk process and the more incomprehensible it becomes to me, the more satisfactory it must be for Murray, who must have been suffering a filmic famine - this is the first filmic conversation we have had on the trip. The painters don’t seem to want to talk about process - the process is up to them - but the up-to-date guys do. I look forward to Murray practising water patience in the dark, in an ocean near you, soon.
Into Galway. We’re looking for Louis de Paor, a poet who gives directions, which I mention because I seem to think poets don’t, and shouldn’t, be trusted when they do, don’t I? Well I’ve now thought about it, and I don’t. Poets are exactly the people who give, and should be giving, directions. Chesterton said that if the story about Shakespeare holding the horses is true, it shouldn’t surprise us. Shakespeare would hold the horses; could be trusted, would be the main man to trust with a practical task – because of being a writer, not in spite of. Poets are exactly the people you can trust to give directions, and to realise what that involves and to tackle the actual, rather than the imagined, task.
Irish anecdotalists will dispute your choice of starting point; school secretaries will fax you a map - all evasions. Poets tell you what to do and when to do it. Poets know about Ariadne and Hansel and Grethel. There was Biddy Jenkinson changing a landscape for rudderless visitors. Here was Louis de Paor guiding us through Galway in the most helpful way of all - by telling us very little but telling that little in terms that make sense to the geographical grope of the hopeless traveller. Get to the University, he said, it’s a large thing, find Riverside House, speak to passers-by. We did. The only thing that foxed us was the bit that even scientists, cartographers, postmen, hawkers and peelers would recognise as straight information - the address.
Riverside House? Is it not suggestive? Does it not resonate round that car park in your brain where corporate communications and the publicly related part of public relations land? Of course it does. It must. Riverside House? Corporate, on at least four floors of square feet, of workspace, of gestural office politics, of retail opportunity, of prestige, of development translated into the speak that dare not name its price.
We should have known that every town has its vulgarities, but that particular one is not Galway’s. The main bit of University is an attempt at draughty boarding-school Gothic, but Riverside House, to which the indicated speaking native brought us, is a mere house, receptionist-free, an academic squat, full of unconsidered rooms, books here and there, young men making uncybernetic gestures at computers, and the accidental air of a place where something could happen, snug offices with energy, utterly neglected stuff like kitchens, toilets and the like.
Louis de Paor had happened there, recently, is round the corner, and will appear in a minute. Oh yeah? Then he does, moving like somebody who moves frequently and well, red hair in organised disarray. He reorganises the young man, takes us to the refectory and makes us talk, while he smiles. When we get down to it he does tell us things. He was a student in Cork. One day Sean O Tuama ended his lecture by saying that, by the way, he assumed that they all knew that the greaest living Gaelic poet was reading in town that night.
He just mentioned it as he left the room. Just mentioned it? Wouldn’t you have loved to be there, in the days when just mentioning things stood a chance? And in Cork, where they have great difficulty believing even in the possible, except maybe for hurlers and professors.
Do thriall sé an ní dodhéanta
formhór gach Domhnach ar an bpáirc,
is úaireanta rith leis.
He tried the unheard-of
On the pitch every Sunday;
and sometimes he did it.
O Tuama was a barrel-chested-looking Corkman and he wrote, as you see, about Christy Ring the hurler - hurling miracles were, apparently believed in Cork, and by men. Amazing. We used to think they were so good at hurling because of their complete lack of an appropriate sense of humour. We (Dublin) could only beat them at Gaelic football, but football is a humorous game which we played in a sneaky urban and ironic spirit that no Corkonian would consider.
Anyway, de Paor goes along that evening and hears Sorley MacLean. What he notices is not what Scotland now notices in MacLean – he notices the politics, the anger, the awareness of the whole world. He notices because all that was what, he says, poets in Irish were told to ‘leave outside the door’; and this suggests connections between life and poetry that Ireland lacked and which have yet to be fully explored.
I am interested in this as another lie that our geography tells. Gaelic people are rural, back of beyonders - every map shows it, and that which a map shows, it thereby proves, doesn’t it? But if you get a chance to listen to people from the Scottish Gaeltacht, you realise that community’s picture of the world includes as much of the world as ships can reach. It doesn’t include much detail on Edinburgh but is quite anecdotal about Pireas, familiar with Bilbao. In Irish poems Valparaiso may be mentioned more often than Dublin. The Scots Gaelic poets joined the British Army - they had to - went to war, knew the desert and Monte Cassino and had to think about Europe and the world in ways that Irish Gaelic poets had to leave, as De Paor said, outside the door.
We leave Galway in good condition. It’s early. We drive north towards The Neale for David Quinn but we are off first on a non-GB jaunt to Cong, where they made The Quiet Man - John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, a self-inflicted wound, or a John Ford-inflicted one, another emmigrant with tears in his eyes, sand in his brain and arithmetic in his heart. Except that we enjoy our wounds and Cong has dedicated itself for the past 50 years or so to being a Quiet Man shrine.
Old bastards? Imagine John Wayne being presented to you at the age of about twelve or so as - for a start - Irish. It happened to me; and I blame my mother – because she was to blame. Also as a woman-beating, woman-dragging, overwhelming, irrestible hunk and the darling of the women of Ireland, which he was in this film. My mother still watches The Quiet Man, repeatedly and with pleasure. Before the Celtic Tiger, other beasts roamed the fields.
Murray says that when the first rushes arrived back in Hollywood, there were alarmed phone calls back to Cong: the green was too green, very much too green; the cameraman must be drunk, something incompetent and Irish-influenced must be going on. It turned out that the green on the film stock was exactly as it is in reality. So they come to Ireland in search of the forty shades of green; they get it and then they can’t believe it. There are very good reasons to be afraid of film people.
We eat in a pub decorated with Quiet Man stuff, walk round the streets pitted with reminders of it - a pub, the Quiet Man cottage, ads for Quiet Man cottages, tours, experiences, tapes, everything. There’s a junk shop with a pub sign over it though it’s not a pub, but it was a pub in the film and so the sign stays. On our way out we stagger past a pub called, sullenly, stubbornly, Crompton’s. Fifty years of being Crompton’s must have been hard but they’re still there. There’s a medieval abbey and the sound of a lovely stream, but it’s hard to get John Wayne out of your head; and that was in the dark.
We find David Quinn. Directions involved spotting a cowshed with a perspex roof - at night in Mayo all the cowsheds might as well be perspex as anything else. David was as alert as David always is. There are now four children but the latest has failed, as all its predecessors have failed, to produce normal levels of confusion and chaos in the Quinn household, or to make its parents achieve proper parental degrees of uptightness and rigour.
We checked up on the set – it may be the Quinn house but it’s our set by now - we discovered gold here and staked our claim – a painted Mrs Quinn on the wall, ringed by fairylights, painted on a sort of pallet - gapped, parallel boards. This picture, and some of the other minimalist apparitions in the house, have been in our film outlines from the beginning. The Quinns think the fairy lights are holding out - way beyond their normal span - just so they can be in the film.
David’s exhibitions have always sold out completely, so he never has many in the house; he lives a life orphaned from his own work. He talked about what he paints and how, and about his understanding of this very particular part of Mayo, how he deals with it and the pride some locals take in his work. He is a painter; he won’t be doing installations, concepts, happenings. He is on a journey that the old guys would have understood. Other artists we have met may be on a path too, but their paths were not as clear to us as his. Sympathy comes in to it, of course; but still, we recognised something interesting and important going on.
He told us of an extraordinary commission. A couple who have bought some of his pictures had three miscarriages and have commissioned him to paint a picture to mark this somehow - a brave thing for them to do but maybe even a braver thing for him to accept.
We hear this in the middle of the whole GB commissioning vacuum, trumpets being incompetently blown all over about importance and significance. Someday there may be a story about David’s commission, a picture for people to live with in the shadow of the deaths of children.
Saturday 10th – MURRAY IN ANCIENT IRELAND II
We sleep, by the skin of our teeth, in Kesh outside Enniskillen in an enormous hotel full of Country and Western and hordes sitting and not dancing, and leave early for Boa Island to see the Janus stone figure – part of my continuing Ancient Ireland Policy. Sometimes the way the ancient is just left there in the fields for the farmers to work around can tease new thoughts out of Scotsmen – Murray has the usual intelligent man’s complex relationship with the National Trust, its pot pourri philosophy, its illiterate architectural sense and its usually ex-army-officer staff.
Anyway, the country around Enniskillen is full of mysterious and wonderful stuff and the Janus stares at you, as you can see, even out of photographs; and you can’t even think of the questions the thing might be enigmatically refusing to answer for you.
We found it, under an assumed name - it’s in Caldragh Graveyard but the guide books don’t like giving the personal details of their monuments in public. Having done the location bit, we found it surrounded by farmers with shotguns, dogs and enigmatic manners. Murray began a potential conversation about shotguns. Began with a question, as one is supposed to do.
- Is that a whatever-the-hell under you arm and almost cocked?
Eventually they decided not to shoot us and even advised us how not to get shot by accident. After this, Murray was all set to spend the next few days imagining ways to film this extraordinary carving. You get a better class of gossip with Murray. It ages well, perhaps because it has already aged. If we were Gaelic poets I expect we would lay claim to talk that was gossip before the death of Christ.
We have reorganised our schedule because Rita Duffy is doing something at the Divis Flats, a name we all know without necessarily knowing anything else, though there have been documentaries, though we have seen them, though we have been amazed. I confidently told Katy that the British Army have a base on the top floors but was still surprised when it turned out to be true. I once had a meeting with the head of the primary school in Divis Street and still remember the extraordinary diligence of his politeness, so intense that I could not believe it was intended for me. I think of it as the gentleness of people who have lived among the violent. There was an ex-IRA man in Willesden Green who had it. He could barely manage to raise his voice to ordinary levels. He almost whispered.
Stadfadsa feasta – is gar liom éag gan mhoill
Ó treascradh dragain Leamhan, Léin is Laoi;
Rachad ‘na bhfasc le searc na laoch don chill,
Na flatha fá raibh mo shean roimh éag do Chríost.
I’ll make an end – dying now becomes me
Now the dragons of Leamhan, Leinn and Laoi are gone
In the grave with this cherished chief I’ll join those kings
My people served before the death of Christ.
- Aogán Ó Rathaille – Cabhair Ní Ghairfead
We really like this riff:
And there is an old beggar wandering in his pride –
His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified.
- Yeats, The Curse of Cromwell
I used to wonder if we were as entitled to it, and to notions of our own antiquity, as we liked to think. But one day my father was loitering in Co Wicklow and the local, fairly-Anglo, landowner passed by, exchanged some landlordly and informal nothings with the locals, putting them at their ease, avoiding patronage so explicitly as to be utterly patronising and passing on his lordly way. The locals stand there grinding their teeth as silently as they know how and, as the lord reaches a distance not completely out of earshot, one of them says:
- You’re only minding it
We expected a community arts thing - the usual - all about ‘access’, participation, people being encouraged to mess around and congratulate themselves frequently. I should have known that Rita Duffy doesn’t mess about and is a great discourager of messing about in others. She had told us she was trying to talk to all the inhabitants, so I assumed that some pantomime horse of an idea would strut its hour and fall over backwards; and frontwards; that lots of dabbling would occur. Not at all. Duffy is an artist; she does the art. She’s a human being so she talks to others and is capable of listening. She has painted window-sized portraits of Divis people on linen, some words, some letters.
When we go, we see one whole face of the block of flats lit up. Every window has a painted linen blind - portraits, letters, words. Down one side we read ‘Draw the Blinds’. We stand there and work out how to look at it. You can’t read it like a picture; it isn’t a design, though it has pictures and is designed. We receive it as a welcome and as a statement - Divis welcomes us and gently establishes that a series of lives is being lived. They do it, not by daubing statements or claiming status, but by participating, by collaborating with a great Belfast artist and enabling her to say things about them.
It was an old-fashioned dialogue, we found out from Rita afterwards. She had to do a few portraits and the locals had to nose around them and see ‘if they were any good’. They were, they were agreed to be good, so queues started forming. On the night, we were outside with more camera crews than you’d think even Belfast could afford and the Divises were almost all inside celebrating - sandwiches, serious meat and liquids including brandy - the arts folk on the outside like us, puzzling over strategies of legibility, the Divis folk inside enjoying the doing of it. A man with a camera asked us what we thought of it, poor guy.
You could draw morals about art, community art and many related issues from all this, so I won’t bother. But there is one thing I think arts councils and arts manufacturers would miss - the direction and talent of a real artist. Most people still expect artists to be good at art. Some of them still are.
Breag are one of those hot ticket phenomenons. More people want to hear them than ever have. Gearóid MacLochlainn plays in the band and when I first heard about them I had very vulgar thoughts about how they would light up our film just by being there and being exotic. They play Caribbean influenced music with their own Gaelic words. It’s very appetising, we all feel it’s exciting, a gesture full of gorgeous, multiple and fruitful meanings. I even think we should ask them to do the music for the whole film. So, when Gearóid says he can get us in to a semi-private BBC filming session, we feel even more excited and even slightly included in the phenomenon.
We walk each other into the mud - two hours round the cottage we’re staying in, partially recover, and off to Morrison’s, past the very educated-looking bouncers and upstairs. Breag have two black guys - a South African and a Jamaican - both married to Belfast women and carrying themselves with no more or less exoticism than they would in London. The band behave like a bunch of folkies. They wander. They drink. They chat. They take great care to do everything and anything rather than show any particular interest in, or nervousness of, the session.
Eventually they play, very unanimously, except for the sax player who has gone somewhere and not returned. The thing that made the idea of the music thoughtlessly appealing makes it, in the flesh, monotonous to us. You can’t go on repeating the same gesture. Of course they are not gesturing, or repeating. But my superficial interest in them as a type makes it seem so to me. I have disappointed myself.
Mind you, at least we went to hear them and experienced what they do. We didn’t leave it at the casting-from-pictures stage. And that, I realise, is what we were doing. We’re not exactly researching - we did that at home; we’re testing, at least a little, our partly instinctive assessments of people and material. We aren’t really auditioning but we are testing; and what we are testing, without fully admitting it, is our own sense of who people are and what they should, would and could do in this film.
After testing, we don’t exchange decisions. I supposed we might sound off after each encounter, get vociferous, make definite decisions but we don’t. We talk round whatever has just happened. A set of agreed reactions emerges. Sounds like an anarchist exercise. I think this happens because we get engaged in the conversations - or the listening, as with Bréag. These are not meetings with a seller and a buyer. In fact we have, I think, put ourselves in the seller position if there is one, rather than the buyer position a film would usually occupy. I hope so and assume this is encouraging to the people we talk to. And Breag are very good and must be, as well, a great refreshment to the Belfasts. But we were hoping for something more Irish traditional being Ska-ed.
We go to Rita Duffy’s house, where seats at the kitchen table are sold out. A bunch - of two - young women assistants and Rita are telling each other the stories of the Divis project. You could tell what a thing it was from the fact that they are enjoying the telling itself and that they want to do it. They were telling each other what all of them already know. But you have to tell these things again to enjoy them properly, and tell them together and often. The good things happen, but maybe not often enough. There will be other tellings. Whether Rita will be there will always be another thing. By tomorrow, she will be making other stories happen.
On this visit, we manage to say roughly what we want to do with her work before she combs her hair and bundles us off to her studio, to lunch and to see Mary McCracken’s house and to pursue her inside track on linen suppliers, woollen supplies, tweed, the building trade in Co Fermanagh. Duffy is not content with doing everything. She tries to improve us as well.
I have mentioned the Derry-Donegal border before - can’t help it. Borders are a sort of itch we have to scratch and this one is really a sort of skipping rope, there only for the fun of jumping over it. However some things are very different depending on which side you are. All our appointments have been made in the usual way - you simply make an appointment and turn up. Donegal, though, has conceptually anticipated the mobile phone. You make Donegal appointments and supply regular bulletins of your progress towards the appointment. Ideally both parties would approach the appointment by circling each other, talking on mobiles and in mobilese - ‘I’m leaving Letterkenny, I’m taking the wrong turn at Falcarragh, I’m having doubts about Gortahork’.
We did none of this so, naturally, Ian Joyce took off on a walk as long as the afternoon, leaving nobody quite sure of exactly where he was, an au-pair in the house with little English and no memory of the code you need to use the phone. Amazing how effectively you can vanish in small places.
So we spoke to Cathal Ó Searcaigh, which was the main reason for coming anyway. The road, described as being the only road turns out to be the usual multiple-choice meander, the tricolour in the garden turns out to be a Tibetan prayer mat, the poet inside the Gaeltacht turns out to be not only the man in colourful clothes we know but also a man about to go to Nepal, where he goes every winter, avoiding Christmas and the need to find presents for his friends - ‘who have everything anyway’. He has an adopted son there in his 20’s, has inspired a group of friends to speak some Irish to him, is funding some local education and has just done some serious mountain climbing with the Irish Everest team. He has a CD of the Theodorakis/Ritsos ‘Romiosini’ on the player and a room full of well-maintained kilimis - all their geometry intact, their lines lined up, colours brilliant.
Ó Searcaigh has the kind of projected voice I associate with elemental men from rural Ireland. It must be ancestral because Ó Searcaigh has not spent much of his life wrestling rocks from the recalcitrant earth and has written more about pleasure than most Donegal writers put together have experienced or considered possible.
We talk about Nepal, about Yianni Ritsos, and about who the hell we all are. Murray mentions Hallaig, the Sorley MacLean film that his wife Barbara produced and gets Ó Searcaigh’s immediate vote. Most of our meetings with the experienced ones begin with some general chatter to establish status and competence. With Ó Searcaigh it’s not like that at all. He talks as though he expects every encounter to earn its keep in his real life, to yield some pleasure or learning. He expects to get things from talk and puts things in generously. We almost manage to get going about Maria Callas but remember that we have brought things to say and had better say them.
We say them. He listens. The real artists we meet can listen and know when and how to do it. At the stage we’re at, nobody answers back, nobody actively questions what we will do or how, though we invite them to. They think this will be a matter of the usual gig - a wasted morning, a crew whose competence is assumed but not apparent, time spent, nothing happening, little said, nobody feeling the best has been done. We say we are going to do more, and be more demanding. Nobody believes us, but why should they?
It’s getting late. We’ll try Derry for food. It can’t be as closed as it was last time. It is. We end up where we were months ago, opposite Maiden City Taxis, eating in the semi-dark of the post-modern eating shop getting more baffled but less and less hungry.
We don’t get lost on the way back, but look bewildered in Maghera and get rescued by a diligent old couple on the razzle who lead us out of town and speed back to the good time they were pursuing when they noticed us.
The meetings are petering out - one a day scheduled - and we are beginning to feel we should be doing more, though there is at the moment no more to be done. Today we are off to see Pól Ó Muirí at Athagallon and that’s all. We had left spaces for more if artists were around and willing and near a telephone, but none of them seem to be.
Athagallon is near Lurgan, apparently. It’s really near Lough Neagh and when you get anywhere near it, the Lough is the boss. The roads do what the water has allowed and taught them to do and no large road has attempted anything anywhere near. You travel through a sequence of villages along a road that always looks newly muddied. The signposts pay due attention to little places as well as the big, Lurgan is only one among many.
So there was little doubt where Athagallon was but very little sign of where it began or ended. We almost missed it but did find a vegetable shop who knew that Lagan Close was hiding behind Parknasilla Road. And who were we looking for? Paul Murray. Keep the Ó Muirí to yourself. The writer. The poet. The journalist. Murray. We waited. The woman wasn’t being nosey; she hated not to know everybody in the town and hated even more not being able to help. After a minute, trying to remember Mrs Murray I think, she got it. ‘Go you down to your right’ she said ‘and turn left’. Worth the detour.
Pól Ó Muirí’s Lagan Close is a new appendix to a piece of weeping pebbledashery that is shedding its substance next door. It wears its bricks with pride, its lawns are still on their best behaviour. Pól hears us coming, as he would - we are the only moving outside flesh on the estate - you see how even milkmen made hay with wild oats in the silent suburbs. We’re in the country, but you don’t need an urbs - a suburb is a suburb no metter where you put it.
Pól is looking after two sick children - there’s a cold about; I’ve got it and so have they. He talks and talks, regulates children, makes tea, provides superior chocolate biscuits and tells us all about it, the first unprovoked talker we’ve met. He’s the Irish Language editor of the Irish Times, spends two days a week in Dublin doing this and the rest being as relaxed as possible about the business of being a poet, though being a poet should not involve business, he says. We talk of the careers of poets we know, careers that involve the status of poet but not always the practice. If you achieve the status, you get employed to read, to workshop, to attend, to be there, hardly ever to write.
Pól Ó Muirí thinks that poems come out when they want to (‘a poem is like a fart’ - Dinos Christianopoulos), they don’t happen all that often and you may as well get a job, live a life, join the rest of the human race instead of waiting in the poetic waiting room and giving interviews. If he were English you would probably begin to recognise the view. But he is Irish, writes mostly in Irish and when he speaks to his children, speaks in Irish and is the opposite of a fanatic, but using Irish like this needs dedication. To find a sane man so dedicated is, we decide, wonderful; but it takes a while to work it out. We have been consorting with vividly passionate people and quieter versions of passion are easily missed.
He says so much, we leave feeling we haven’t said all we should. Maybe it’s the suburbs. We haven’t been in one for a while. We bugger off to Belfast, dismiss an exhibition or two at The Ormeau Baths Gallery, go home to the cottage early, watch a Bond film on TV – Pierce Brosnan, The World is Too Much - fail even to get interested in, come near to understanding or even proving the existence of, the plot, give up, shake heads, go to bed.
Thursday 15th November
We’re at the stage - with people we’ve met before and been in touch with - where we’ve got nothing to say, nothing new, and where the relationship needs some filming to occur. It’s like that with Gearóid MacLochlainn, or I think it is. We meet him at the Falls Road Culturlann and tell him that we are sticking to our original diagnosis, filming in the spring. Any questions? No.
I am a gorilla
Tá mé an-mhór
I like to eat bananas
Nuair atá an aimsir fuar.
- Macaronic poem from Laois by Demi Ryan of Camross National School
We stick with the conversation and learn some more. He passes on Diarmaid Ó Muirithe’s book on macaronic songs and some interesting stuff about Maire Mhac an tSaoi’s definite views about language and people. What she did to Pat Looby is what she does to most people. A grand lady, she grinds her heel on the prostrate intellects of the merely urban and contemporary and her walk is the walk of a queen. I wonder how this fits into Pól Ó Muirí’s picture of a poet’s career, but I suppose poetry too has monsters under every stone. Only human.
MacLochlainn is pursuing a career, mostly as a poet and this is seen in parts of the local environment as inappropriate poet behaviour. This is typical of what is going on now. We seem to react more to the career than the work. I’ve heard hardly anybody criticise, for example, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s work, but I’ve heard grumbles all over about her fame, her earnings, her professorships, her hair.
In fact I have heard hardly any criticism of poems. It’s not done. When people have a go at each other in the poetry world what they aim at is the tone, the persona, the approach, the career. You’d think they were discussing an advertising strategy; the poetry is the washing powder and all washing powder is only washing powder after all, but every powder aspires to its own style, and the style comes from its advertising. I suppose this means that the actual poetry is not being attended to much, at least not by critics.
Anyway, MacLochlainn is building a career and more power to his elbow. He isn’t telling any lies, he isn’t writing lazy or dishonest poetry. Every jealous poet wants other poets to live like Kafka, with Kafka’s postumous career, but they will not be intending to behave like that themselves; they will, as Murray says, be stepping backwards into the limelight, accidentally available for a success they would kill their grannies for, so long as they could do it and get famous without other poets finding out.
Murray is off home today, has meetings tomorrow and a black-tie affair with architects to deal with. We wander round Belfast for a while, thinking we should be doing something, unable to think of any relevant something. I’m off to meet some citizens of Randalstown and Toome and Antrim Town and Cregan. Maybe for at least a whole weekend we won’t be thinking about the film.
Keeping a diary - this sort-of diary - helps. I’ve never done it before during a project. I suppose I shouldn’t need it as a reminder of what happened - if something is interesting or important enough I should remember it anyway; but writing about it does put it to bed for a while so that now, after nearly two weeks on the road, my head is not still busy dealing with things said, claims made, relationships heading this way and that. The diary decides, or the act of writing it does, and it does calm a person down to know that the diary is there, walking five paces behind, tidying up, remembering, calming down. Which means it’s a certain kind of diary. I don’t think it has any anger in it, for example - the anger gets washed away in the writing - or outrage. I must look out for some anger and outrage and try and get them in. We’re due to do Scotland soon. So far the telephoned Scots have been very calm and un-outraged. We’ll see.
Thursday 22 November
Back two days in Edinburgh and trying to tackle the business of thinking about the Scots - who to see, how to organise a circuit of visits, and trying to write up the diary of the Irish trip, only partly written on the road - events, no details. It’s more fun to deal with the recent past than to plan the immediate future, whose immediacy is failing to make much impression on me yet. But there is the telephone, a demanding medium but it sure as hell wakes you up and almost convinces you that the future will happen after all.
Dundee – The Centre for the Visual Arts - has 30-40 completed works by now, out of 100, and they hope for more soon. Paul Harrison is organising things there, has a North of England voice with the usual built-in scepticism but none of the actual sceptical stuff. He hopes for the best.
Malcolm MacLean calls in. He was passing; he was in Edinburgh; he was later than promised, left later than he should have. He is again hungry but this is winter, we have food. He has been talking to Canongate. The meeting was going well - poems in place, translations, biographies. Then they discussed the artwork. Paul Harrison says 40 or so are in, out of 100. Canongate say this is terrible and that they cannot meet the June publication date. Malcolm instructs Paul in how to read the progress chart that Paul has prepared – a question of vocabulary, apparently. ‘In progress’ means finished but elsewhere, potentially. ‘Lost in Tipperary’ means ‘about to appear in Dundee.’
Malcolm interprets Canongate ultimatums as an anxiety, an eagerness to produce a book of the hightest possible quality. He is considering various escapes - changing the Midsummer Day launch to later; sticking to it but describing it as a sort of preview, since the work will be split beween six islands, and having the full launch later in one larger venue. But no larger venue has been secured and galleries have longer lead-in periods than anybody else and the prospect of securing anywhere with only six months to go is, I think, remote.
We continue, we have to. We have been trying to get round Scotland for ages to talk, as we did in Ireland. But we keep getting manouvered on to later dates until by now we have our backs up against Christmas and, even more peculiarly, it seems that we will finally make it to Lewis just in time for the winter solstice, the very darkest time in a very dark country, and this to investigate filming. Reminds me of Cyril Connolly’s fantasy division of the artistic year - in winter you hide away and write; cushioned by cosy winter feelings, protected from temptation by the glowing darkness, you secrete masterpieces and drink cocoa. It’s not only wishful, it’s not quite thinking. I think visiting in the dark, in the country, has been helpful. You come in cold, windswept, a little lost, muddied. How could even poets refuse you a little pity and some temporary friendship? We won’t be able to get by on presents of Edinburgh rock this time I suppose. Soda bread?
Wednesday 5 December
Went to Dundee with Murray, real research. They have about 40 completed pieces and they have patience. Paul Harrison, a healthy, un-aged, fit and dexterous print-maker, has been dealing with work that has come in, some of it weak, halt and lame and he has made it whole.
The problems include fine work with difficulties; a delicate, sculpured piece of metal hanging on to the paper by piercing it, turn it over and you see protruding needles; an enormous gaudy daub done in portrait format though everything else will be landscape; lettering that has to be re-cut and positioned. As well as mopping up, he is doing work on other people’s work that you’d have to call creative, if you were allowed. But you’re not. Paul has not been designated a creative in this project, he’s the guy what gets the blame. The creatives are out there getting creatively hazy, missing the slithering deadlines, developing no interest whatsoever in the matter of finished work. I suppose there’s not much encouragement for them to do this - it involves thinking of calligraphy, typography and the numerous technologies involved - Paul is in there and doing it all for some of them.
He puts up with us, helps, shows us everything, gives us the images on a CD. I’d call him a great guy if that didn’t sound ridiculously tame.
Before this we met Will MacLean in his house. He’s in effect the visual editor of the Great Book and is a very mild-mannered man. I remember him in GB meetings, how he shrank away from the authority the room would often have liked to award him. He continues mild in Tayport but he thinks strong and definite thoughts, you just have to wait, talk on and separate the mild manner from the strong content. The house is full of sea things - boat paintings, a book about the North Pole by a Dane, from the library of a sea captain who was given it by Robert Flaherty - the Nanouk of the North and Man of Aran man - and exchanged for a print in Tayport’s book shop.
Murray and he were boys in Inverness simultaneously. I almost said ‘together’, but apparently what they did ‘together’ was go to a dancing class and I don’t get the impression that ‘together’ and ‘dancing’ had much to do with each other for either of the lads. Sounds like the world of James Kennaway, a world almost unreachable now. In fact, one of Murray’s first jobs was in Aranmore in Co Wicklow on the film of Kennaway’s Country Dance but stories about this all seem to be about Micheál MacLiammóir, a massive presence but also as utterly Irish as only the natives of Willesden Green can be.
Anyway, we have the coffee, see some work, say not much and take off for Dundee over the water. I don’t think you could have a meeting with MacLean, not of the kind we have been having. He would probably attend, say little, go away; eventually a sense would emerge not of a decision taken but of a tendency establishing itself.
In Dundee Contemporary Arts he gradualises us round the place, his exhibition, his colleagues, his students. Osmosis is going on. We see a film he made - computer generated cod-like objects float gradually round sea shapes, patterns form, a formal scheme is established. We feel like that - floating through a fluent element, everything happening so gently you notice nothing happening, eventually you find that something has.
We floated for a while, with pleasure, with no collisions, no friction, perfect learning. We were in a special place at a special time. It took me two whole days of worrying about what is right with the place to work out that they have no paranoia. And no need of any either. Even the building is non-paranoid. You walk by the offices on the way to a gallery, you sit in the eating and drinking place with grannies, trendies, exhibitionist young women with open laptops and, at a good-times table, the staff. We take some of this for granted but, in Dundee, we always count the grannies. Every contemporary arts centre needs grannies, Dundee is the only one that has them. The first time I went, the grannies came with attached little-girl grandchildren. This time the four visible grannies had abandoned chaperones and chaperoning and taken up Lunch.
Can’t last, you might think. But we also met Babs McCool, of the visual arts research centre and a person very resistant to casual weather. She is a well-informed and very experienced innocent: she still, even these days, expects work to be done well, honestly and expects art to shine. It isn’t really surprising to find the DCA has people like this, except that it’s always suprsising, anywhere.
Will MacLean mentions, by the way, how he learned to stop worrying and love calligraphers. He does his index fingers into a cross - calligraphers were the un-dead, fragrant bloodsucking decorators. Now he’s met Frances Breen, an accidental calligrapher, an artist who happens to approach art through lettering.
We shouldn’t be surprised. It’s a book project. The calligraphers know about books, work with words, have worked out the basics. Many of the pieces we see in Dundee are really calligraphy with appended bits of semi-detachable art. Where there are bold and beautiful gestures, they have often been made by calligraphers. The GB should have been managed by them. At several points they must have been the only ones who knew what was going on and who could do something about it.
We’ve been trying to meet the calligraphers and haven’t managed even one yet. I’ve known Frances Breen for years and talked to Reiltín Murphy on the phone. But no meetings lately - they’re all too busy. I guess artists, having missed a long series of receding deadlines, have been reacting to the absolutely ultimate one by ignoring the fact that the calligraphers too have to do their work before the deadline, so each calligrapher has around twenty pieces arriving more or less on the deadline and for completion by an immoveable yesterday.
Thursday 16 December, 2001
I’m arranging our trip to Lewis, Harris and Skye. Feels more like being arranged. A funding person phones and has views about this. He has seen an outline of the Irish half of our outline, thinks that is all there is, thinks we have far too many Irish people in the Irish half and starts gritting his teeth and making arm-twisting remarks about fair representation for the Scots. Further, he thinks he can, implicitly, tell us who to see. The film, he says, will need to fulfill the terms of its Scottish grant by having Scots in it.
Of course there are going to be Scots; and of course the Irish part of the script will be about Ireland but it’s difficult to explain this to somebody who should have noticed it for himself and who will be embarassed to be told. Once he gritted his teeth we were well beyond the reach of orderly exposition and gentlemen’s agreements.
So I have to thank him for his suggestions. However, being told, however implicitly, that we’ll have to have certain particular people in - because they’re there - feels wrong and I now feel rebellious. The advantage, though, with starting off polite is that you can intensify the politeness until you get so polite the other person realises your are cheesed off – the only convincing reason for being extra-polite these days.
We’re seeing Steve Dilworth and of course The Funder does not disagree with this, has no problem with it, no problem whatsoever. Absolutely. However. Dilworth is English. Lives on Harris and his work is more intimately involved with the place than anybody else’s I know.
This project is supposed to be about the contemporary, about Gaelic now. But this is not the first time we have met this unconsidered definition of the ‘Gaelic World’, meaning the Gaeltacht, meaning native speakers. We end the phone call politely. I’m still being more polite than he is; but then he’s probably having problems with de-gritting his teeth.
We take off in mid-winter, in the deep Scottish midwinter and we are pleased, very pleased – mostly with ourselves (you have to start somewhere). Only those with serious business to do would be doing it now; we are doing it now, so our business must be at least real. We are intent - we feel intent, we hope we don’t look it - intent on doing the Gaeltacht in three days and scurry back home before Scotland has a chance to close, or be closed down, the snow gates shut and the arts world withdraws into excuses until the children have to go back to school. We have feelings of efficient dispatch and a good deal of warm glow - unusual combination, a puritan orgasm, tight lips and hot flush and both justified. We listen to the weather forecast with attention and some complacency. We would prefer the weather to behave as the weather should: authentically wintry, coldly spectacular, potentially - but not actually - threatening.
And it is: intimations of frost potential, fragments of fog that never join themselves up, sporadic half-hearted rain and lots and lots of dark. Very satisfactory, especially when Scotland is doing its favourite trick and doing the dark and the light together.
This was Edinburgh-Inverness. As you get towards Inverness, though, the shine wears off the dark and we have to find our way from the centre of town - on a map we have - to a suburb, through something that must be on a map of its own though not on any map we have. We’re early. Murray grew up here and what he doesn’t know he has an educated instinct for. What he thinks is there, is there, somewhere. The hotel we’re looking for is there too - lit up, empty, uncosy. Inside, it’s like a manse with musak - post-teenybop and just loud enough to cross the maximum irritation threshold. If it was louder, you could complain or petition; if it was softer you almost wouldn’t know what was driving you mad.
Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh, for it is he we have come to meet, chose to meet here though he lives round the corner, just round the corner and I suppose he wants to keep us at arm’s length for a while among the the violently perfunctory Christmas decorations and the fundamentalist chairs.
Tha mi beag, agus is toil leam na rudean beaga:
An síol adhlaict’ a sgoltas an cabhsair;
An t-sileag uisg’ a chaitheas a’ chlach;
A’ ghainmhein mhín a thiodhlaiceas am biorramaid;
A’ chiad eun a chuireas fáilt’ air a’ ghréin;
An dúthaich bheag, an cánan beag;
Facal na fírinn as truime na ‘n Domhan.
I am small, and I like small things:
The buried seed that splits the sidewalk;
The water-drop that devours the stone;
The grain of sand that enters the pyramid;
The first bord that welcomes the sun;
The little country, the little language;
The word of truth that is heavier than the World
From A’ Mheanbhchuileag (The Midge)
MacFhionlaigh is a very definite writer and a very modest man. He tells us, as a simple explanation, the things that orthodox Gaels of the blood would hold against him - born in Dumbarton, not a native speaker, not living in the Gaeltacht, not working in any way towards a writing career, just writing. He teaches art in a secondary school and lives in Inverness, the hypothetical capital of the Highlands, a town that offers him no conversational day-to-day Gaelic, that is proposing itself as the European Capital of Culture for 2008 on the basis of a little basket of suggestions that includes Madonna’s 40th birthday concert, a ‘leg’ of the Tour de France, the largest ever clan gathering and a ‘Tiger Woods Highland Golf Challenge’. In the meantime, Colloden down the road, now ‘managed’ by the National Trust, has not a word of Gaelic anywhere in its new Visitor Centre.
The Gaels I know of in Edinburgh live in a very non-Gaelic town but they still talk it, perform it and to some extent live in it. MacFhionnlaigh sends Gaelic out but gets little back. He must sometimes feel it’s an idiolect.
We are reading Ronald Black’s ‘An Tuil’ anthology. It has an introduction, notes and translations that are witty, full of attitude and appetite, written by an eager and informed reader, the kind that poets need - as likely to hate as to love but capable of both. The country should be full of them but of course it isn’t. Even poetry in English lacks robust readers. I remember when Desmond Fennell had a go at Seamus Heaney in a pamphlet - ‘Why Seamus is No. 1’ and how good it was that, instead of waiting for His Master’s Voice, we all felt it was now all right to read actively, argue, disagree, wake up, participate. Heaney’s work lost nothing - how could it? - and all enjoyed it much more afterwards.
In the ‘Gaelic world’, as far as I have seen it, poetry is just there. You accept it. The culture will come to a decision, eventually, on its value. In the meantime we all just walk past it like a war memorial, decorate it in wreaths now and again, clean it, tell the children about it. Disappointing, and a kind of emotional starvation for poets.
I think MacFhionnlaigh would enjoy the odd spell on the soap box now and again if he could only get used to it. And I assume that the greatness of great poets has been encouraged by at least the sense of an audience, a readership. What else is the evolutionary reason for the extraordinary professional jealousy of (some?) poets?
MacFhionnlaigh gets really warmed-up only when we are all leaving and walking across the freezing car park. He starts to tell us about a medieval poem on the river Leven that he would have liked to have in the Leabhar Mór, about coming from around there, about this and that. But it’s cold and we have a castle to find where Murray has friends and where they have offered us a bed for the night. We’ll speak to him later.
We get lost, we ring up, get lost again, ring up, find out where we are. We can’t be lost if we know where we are, but still can’t find where we should be going to, a compounded version of being lost. But nobody stays lost for ever. We find the castle and it is a castle, find Murray’s friend, who is a friend - Gerald Laing the sculptor, eat his food, sleep in his beds, Murray does a meeting on a project, we breakfast, we leave, we don’t realise how grateful we are until afterwards. Hospitality is a demanding art.
We don’t miss the boat and we live comfortably on it for the two and a half hours to Stornaway, as does everybody else - no trippers here, just practical travellers going home. We land, do the hotel and molest Malcolm Maclean’s staff for a while, then off to see some Gaels with Malcolm along as a token that we might be in the running for the benefit of the doubt.
If I lived here, I would find it hard to believe that out there, someplace, is a world full of people. My father used to tell me of Samuel Butler’s dialogue between two babies in the womb comparing the evidence for life after birth, for which there was, when you looked around you in the womb, none.
We have our first traditional conversation. It starts with the weather and this is fine with us because the light has been doing magical things since we landed - golden and frozen light sharing the space, deep brown bog, brilliantly mirroring water, feeling like neither day nor night, but suspended. The place seems to be waiting, but not waiting for us.
So does John Murray’s house, suburban looking like all the Lewis houses - garage, glass doors, geometric garden, obedient grass. You never think you can get away with anything in front of a suburban house. It watches you but won’t look you in the eye. We get tea, the nest of tables is opened, we sit scattered on massive furniture that’s been banished to the extremities of the large living room. We lean forward and aim our conversation towards distant targets.
Sé an prós tathán coincréadm clocha saoirsinne an tsaoil, agus é chó garbh, míthaitneamhach leis an tsaol féin.
Prose is the concrete base, the mason’s cornerstone of life; and it is as rough and unpleasant as life itself.
Máirtín Ó Cadhain – Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreacha
John Murray gives us the results of his close study of the sun’s winter path - horizontally from exactly there - very low on the left - to exactly there - very low on the right - from one side of the livingroom window to the other, not far but very very consistent. Cutting what they call ‘peats’ is next and John tells us that his first sexual experience was putting his hand into a piece of soft bog. He cocks his wrist and suggests textures, feel, squelchy receptiveness.
How come the only men who have ever said anything tactile and real to me about sex are from Lewis? Finlay MacLeod once looked at a map of Delphi on our Edinburgh wall and said it looked ‘like a fanny’. And it does -