We arrive. Arrival is a big thing today. Ioanna has been sent off to collect Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Biddy Jenkinson from Cabinteely and given the purposely impossible task of getting two poets across the entirety of Dublin to Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s house in both good time and in good form, hurried but relaxed – the usual absurd impossibility that film people pass on to young people they think they can shout at. What the film people do not know in this case is that the two poets are punctual people, that they like each other and that they and Ioanna will busk their way through whatever the traffic throws at them, may enjoy the rush if there is one; and will arrive bouyant, unworried and unpressured. All this comes to pass. Ioanna is not congratulated on this but she is also not shouted at.
Once the arriving has been done, I sneak into the kitchen with the three poets so that we can talk about what we’re going to talk about for the camera. It has all been discussed before but so what? We are going to have conversations in this film and when we have sayings and statements and the like, they will be conversational – because they will have come from an actual conversation. On Howth Head I have not yet become stubborn about this but stubborness will start to set in soon.
We sit around the kitchen table. Conor Cruise O’Brien – a large intellectual presence in Ireland, formerly Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, now the biographer of Burke and skidding off to the Right at a political speed few Irish could manage in any direction whatsoever. Conor Cruise O’Brien is told to make the tea. He starts to make obedient moves.
We sit around the kitchen table and we talk around and about this and that. Outside the sun is doing wonderful things across the bay. Boats are ploughing white furrows, the Bailey lighthouse is standing there ready for its close-up, picturesqueness is bursting out all over, except in the kitchen. Murray is in the front and counting these missed opportunities and rushing to the kitchen every few minutes to list them for me. Are we ready? Usually we aren’t.
I enter the front room. The sun is still present but Murray’s best film opportunities seem to have past, he thinks. Seamus and Pee Wee are standing there saying nothing very visibly. The whole film room is yearning for the sunbeams we allowed to get away. And I don’t give a tinker’s curse. The three poets are ready; that’s the main thing.
The three poets are still moving conversationally from kitchen to corridor to front room. I look to see how uncomfortable the film has decided to make the room. I know it will be uncomfortable. Every art technology produces discomfort and difficulty. Recording studios are maybe even worse than film and I have never met a recording engineer who does not measure his ability by the discomfort he inflicts on the musician.
I exaggerate, but not to the point of telling lies. Anyway, the room is extra-lit, has become a theatrical space, an organised arrangement leading the eye towards the sofa, which is very lit up and Seamus, his camera, Conor and Pee Wee are focusing their all on it. The sofa looks as if its moment has come. The sofa is not alone.
Conor Cruise O’Brien, for - I must just say - it is he, strides over the floor, sits himself down on the sofa and faces the camera, full of rhetorical flourish.
The room halts. Conor Cruise O’Brien looks up. He notices.
- Ah! It’s not for me.
Exit Conor Cruise O’Brien.
We hear him entering the kitchen and doing some male stuff to the teabags. There will be tea after all apparently. Nobody will drink it and the teapot – a very reflective object - will do some mischief to the camera’s elegant demeanour. But who cares? The poets are ready.
I’m Irish; I try to remember this when dealing with Ireland. In other words, if I were still living there I would not be talking in theories or, if I were, I’d listen to myself uttering one and would be aware of its opposite lurking just behind it like a guardian angel.
One of the traps of this film is the fact that it will collide often with The Gaelic Tradition. The Gaelic Tradition is a Good Thing and the good-guy poets usually stand there like weathered trees just being themselves. Criticising their attitudes or even their behaviour is not done. People hug trees, they don’t have debates with them.
Every now and again, though, you can’t help noticing that you might not be entirely at ease in the company of some of our finest oaks. For instance, our script has, as a sort of signpost, Séan Ó Riordáin’s remark that ‘women are not poets; they are poetry’ - Ní file an bhean, ach filíocht.
You suspect that a great deal of tea-making would have to flow under the bridge before any one actual woman would be willing to become ‘poetry’.
Some of The Tradition is so peculiar about all this that you have to laugh, if and when you can manage it. As I mentioned hundreds of pages ago, one of the good things about the Irish we learned in school was that we did love poems written to men by women. I can’t imagine how it could have happened in the 1950’s except that the ones we did were from Douglas Hyde’s Love Songs Of Connacht, which is a Monument in Irish history and so monumental that very few people look properly at it to see what’s going on inside.
So, as I was saying, we were drilled in ‘Ógánaigh an Chúil Cheangailte’, a young woman’s poem of loss to a young man with ringlets who walked by her house without calling in. Mind you, I’m not saying that we fully understood the ringlets – though several mature Irishwomen quite liked my curls at the time (I was twelve – don’t worry!) – but we were authentically gobsmacked to find poems by women to men. The earth moved. It wasn’t orgasmic; but our emotional geography jumped a bit.
Years later I mentioned this in a proposal – modestly, I thought, because I though it was bloody obvious. Then a mighty professor from UCD phoned me and started to talk me round. Up-to-date research – on which he, obviously, was informed and I was not, and could not be – indicated that these womens’ love songs were not by women. How could they be? They were good. They were great. They were part of Gaelic Tradition. They couldn’t be the work of women. The thing of it is, you see, that when there was more than one poet in a family, the younger one would write as a woman.
Do you believe this? Could you? Could you believe in generations of the younger sons of poet families living their writing lives in a sort of poetic drag? Apparently believing this was easier for the UCD prof than just going ahead and believing that a women could write a masterpiece. I didn’t ask him if he had a daughter, which I think is the question. On the other hand, when you’re stuck with an academic fool, getting them off the phone will always feel like the most urgent thing in the world.
So, in the kitchen I had started out on the more or less commonsense feminist agenda. Fortunately, on account of feeling like the boy in the room, I tried it with extra added courtesy and this turned out to be all right, more or less. Rude, unmannerly and undeveloped feminism is the sort of clumsiness that men do, are known for and can be forgiven for. So we meandered to the sacred space in front of the camera and tossed out a remark or two to Nuala and we’re away on what turns out to be The Máire Mhac an tSaoí show, which is a very good show indeed but offering very few meaty supporting roles.
Nuala gets all this fine well, which is good going. I’m inclined to forget that Nuala knows her onions, is a goddess with feet of gold. She takes over a little, in a very supporting kind of a way. Biddy supports.
We waver around and we get down to brass tacks about women poets. The reason we reach the brass tacks is that we do it by way of the particulars. If you try theory with representatives of tradition, they will resist, as they should – as I should have remembered as an Irish person resistant to theories about Ireland.
The brass tacks turn out to be very well sharpened. I do a diplomatic version of the Foremothers question. This is toyed with as a merely verbal enquiry and the women get down to what it would have been like to be a woman who wrote poetry in Ireland. Now that it has become a question of direct experience Nuala and Máire Mhac an tSaoi are so close to the experience that no theory will get in the way.
Women poets were feared, they say. They had the power of the poet. They were women. Fierce powerful stuff. They could put horns on people.
So off we go. Mhac an tSaoi does her poem – very very well – and Biddy Jenkinson politely bides her time, rains on nobody’s parade and manages to show respect and incredulity at some of the wilder things that were said, and does it very well. We have a real conversation on film – about forty minutes of it. I’m very pleased. Eventually I will realise that real conversation is about the last thing films can cope with. I can’t see how people can get to say the best things they say without the rhythm section of conversation to get them there, on their feet and busking like mad. For the time being, though, we’re all right. Talking and talking is an Irish thing to do - official - and is expected. Maybe The Production would even be disappointed if some over-talking didn’t go on. Anyway, we’re doing it in Gaelic. Not that Gaelic is a language given to Blarney. That’s the unique contribution of Irish English.
We leave hoth and off we go into the depth of Dublin and the Irish Times office, where Pól Ó Muirí works and has agreed to read his Don Quixote poem. The office is on a little busy street that runs off Westmorland Street (Westmorland Street), a rat run for buses, a gathering place for traffic Gardaí and a place that inspires panic in The Production. Dubliners would just park and engage the rozzers in discursive conversational games about the film, the price of cameramen and the whereabouts of beautiful Gaelic poets.
The Production has already had the fear of God well knocked into it by the new Dublin traffic. So we stand around panicking outside the office while equipment is carried inside; we panic some more and stand there so that we can be told to panic a little more. We do. Then Ioanna is sent to drive an enormous bloody estate car double the size of anything she’s ever driven before round the corner to Temple Bar and told to park the thing in a car park, stay there with it, just in case, and wait until news of further panics reaches her.
We enter the Irish Times. It’s disappointing. The paper has just noticed its been losing money for quite a while and has started to sack people. There’s a list of leavers on the bulletin board. Pól is there, at a desk in a room of several dozen desks, each one with a computer, each one with a dreamy and fairly young man at it contemplating the screen and, you assume, doing something. Certainly none of them looks at us or at anything but their own screen.
Pól has realised that this won’t be fun, won’t get him fame and can’t buy him love. He’s nervous and is, after all, surrounded by dozens of young men who are ignoring us so steadfastly, they must be watching our every move. He does the poem and we’re very grateful because he didn’t really want to. It’s a favour.
We drive to Dun Laoghaire, where The Production has booked into the only kind of hotel that Dun Laoghaire has ever had – daft, gigantic, wind-swept, uncomfortable and inefficient. Ioanna and I deliver The Production and leave it to reap what it has sown. We go back to Stoneybatter to forget. This all happened on a Monday, by the way.
Tuesday was better. In Cabinteely the sun is shining. The world cup is on, Ireland is playing Iran or somebody important, and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s street runneth over with green, white and orange. The flags are the least of it. Inflatable mannikins have been inflated and hang out of many windows. It’s like Christmas in summer and, to us who have reached here by travelling through Belfast, the outburst of identity colours is disconcerting. You think it means everything. Then you realise it’s only football. It means nothing. It isn’t even football. It’s soccer, and we’re doing quite well just now and are showing we can do soccer, when we can be bothered; after all, it’s an English game that the English can beat hardly anybody at any more.
All the football stuff makes the suburbs look like the suburbs, the real suburbs. They can look a little blank unless you stay a while and pay suburban attention. Nuala’s house seems to be set back from the road. Even the address is a palimpsest. It seems to be ‘Little Meadows’, but it also seems to be on Pottery Road. Next tme you’re passing, look for Pottery Road but learn the morse code for SOS first.
The house, even when you find it, is hard to be sure of, even if you’ve been here before. It’s front door doesn’t face the front; the windows don’t seem to look out, or in, or anywhere. The house is pretending it isn’t in. Inside, Nuala is very in when she’s there. Cushions all over, kilims (or, as we say in Greek Edinburgh, kilimis), hangings, mufflings in deep strong colours. Nuala sees and hears and attends to the tiny significant signals that go on. Where we see nothing happening, she sees everything going on.
Radharc ó Chábán tSíle
Le hathrú an tsolais tosnaíonn na bruachbhaile ag geonáil.
I measc ne línte bána tithíochta foghraíonn fothram fo-chairr.
Éiríonn liathróidí caide idir chrainn ghúise na gcúlghairdín.
Lasann fuinneoga móra na seomraí sute le loinnir ghorm
The View from Cabinteely
A swivel-wing of light. The suburban drone
A car backfires in the next avenue.
In back yards footballs score direct hits
The picture-windows now have a blue glow
|(Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, The Astrakhan Cloak, Gallery Press, 1992, translation by Paul Muldoon)|
Mind you, one of the things going on in Cabinteely today is us. I have to drive the film car in and around Nuala’s house, demonstrating how you always get lost looking for Nuala. You do. I’ve made a small bibliography on the subject. I haven’t yet mentioned Walter Benjamin to The Production yet. I’ve put him in the script but there’s no sign that anybody has noticed it. Benjamin had this daft notion of the city as a place so rationally, so humanly constructed you could not easily get lost in it. If so, the suburbs should be the very last word in not getting lost. There’s nothing organic about them, they were born on a drawing board and obediently built in straight lines. But can a stranger understand them? Of course not. Is there any lost feeling more lost than finding yourself in the middle of somebody else’s suburb? There is not.
I used to get lost on the Road to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill by behaving rationally. She lives in Cabinteely and there’s a sign as you get more or less close to on the big road out of Dublin. It says ‘Cabinteely’. Only it leads, eventually, I suppose, to Blackrock, or someplace, or maybe to a mirage called ‘Cabinteely’ which is not Cabinteely. Eventually I sort of learned how to do it. You obey the signpost, your realise your mistake, you make a U-turn, you drive back past the esoteric signpost and take the turn that does not say ‘Cabinteely’. You follow your nose until you feel utterly lost. And there it is: Pottery Road, looking by now all familiar. On you go and you go too far until this mistake too feels familiar. You have gone past the house, as usual. But you are there. You get there by getting lost. So we have to act lost.
It takes even more time than really getting lost, you can never look lost unless you are, and the requirement of film driving – cameraman in the passenger seat with camera seemingly attached to his navel, him bent over it, the car required to move so slowly and smoothly that the whole thing feels more like nightmare guided gliding than like getting lost – makes the result look, I realise months later, like we are surfing the suburb in slow motion.
At least it looks on film as slow, almost, as it was. By the time we do the whole car performance it’s lunchtime. Nuala’s daughter has a boyfriend who must watch Ireland’s match with Iran. So the house must be cleared, the TV room – which is merely a room hiding a TV and no real TV Temple at all – must cease all this film nonsense and be available for the two hours of extreme tension, difficulty and doubt which will inevitably follow hard upon Ireland playing any country we are expected to beat. The expectation is based, we all know, on ignorance; the ignorance is based on distance; and we also realise that our ignorance has horribly familiar echoes to it.
We think of the Iranians as foreign, outside the family of people who play football like us. We listen to a dolt on RTÉ who expects, as usual, that the Iranians will lack discipline, team spirit and grit; will be suspect if you get stuck in; will have a goalkeeper who flaps at crosses; will be more skillful than we are but weaker when it comes to the crunch. In other words, Irish football behaves like English football, or like a dissident version but, as usual, not dissident enough.
We get out of Nuala’s house and take ourselves off to some pub or other in Cabinteely village. Cassandra has decided that we can book ourselves into a pub, hotel or somewhere-or-other while the match is going on. We are film people; we have money; we can get anything we can pay for. So Ioanna is sent off to locate an Irish lunch venue willing to take bookings on the one day of the century when no venue needs to take bookings; to book a table when the very idea of a table belongs to another universe entirely; to conjure up feature-film catering in the suburbs of County Dublin an hour or so in advance but capable of delivery when and how we want it.
Ioanna goes off and finds out what we and all of Ireland knew already: that the thing to do is to enter a pub and hope for the best. So we did. We saw the match – from various unsatisfactory angles – and sat on the edge of several inhuman stools and endured the sort of match we deserved: they were good, we were – as they say in England – ‘frustrating’. But we got ‘a result’. I forget what it was exactly but it did mean that Ireland were still in it and not out of it and that we would live to lose another day.
Iarradh orm tráth
léach a thabhairt ag ceann des na
scoilleanna samhraidh seo is dúirt
go ndéanfainn. Theastaigh
teidal uathu roimh ré.
OK, arsa mise, ag machnamh
ar rud eigin smeartáala
mar is dual d’fhile:
‘How the Irish Language Revived me!’
(Níor mhiste ‘after nearly shaggin’ killing me’
a chur leis, ach fág san).
Bhí mo leabaidh cóirithe . . .
ach gach aon fhocal dar tháinig asam
bhí boladh míofar éigin uaidh
is d’éiríos as.
Ar an lá dúrt leo ná raibh agam
ach dánta agus cúpla focal cúlra
ach bhí formhór dá raibh I láthair
gan Ghaeilge agus ní raibh aon
buíochas le Dia.
I was asked would I give a lecture
at one of the summer schools
and I said I would. They wanted
a working title beforehand.
OK, says I, trying to think
of something clever,
becoming a man of letters:
‘How the Irish Language revived Me!’
(‘after nearly shaggin’ killing me,’
I neglected to add, but we’ll come to that later).
I had made my bed . . .
only every word I wrote
stank to high heaven
and eventually I gave up.
When the big day arrived
I said all I had was poems
and a few words by way of explanation,
only most of those who turned up
had no irish and I had no translations,
thank God.- Michael Davitt, The Oomph of Quicksilver, Cork University Press, 2000. Translated by Michael Davitt and Louis de Paor
Then off to Bray, the Cúpla Focal bookshop. The cúpla focal (a couple of words) is the amount of Gaelic that Irish politicians are supposed to know. Usually the two words would be ‘a cairde’ (friends). Speeches would begin ‘A cairde, and – to continue in the langauge of the conqueror/oppressor.’ Now it’s a sort of urban mythical joke that Gaelic is playing back to itself. There’s a Cúpla Focal employment agency in Belfast - jobs where people can use their cúpla focal. You have to start somewhere and finding anywhere to start from used to be a problem.
The Cúpla Focal man comes from Sheffield and the bookshop looks like a bookshop. The only other Gaelic bookshop in Dublin is run by a subsidised organisation, looks like a storehouse for shrunken heads, doesn’t do window displays, treats callers the way Victorian matriarchs treated followers and inspects your purchases as if they said something secretly shaming about you. We had asked if we could film there – when we thought it was the only one – and they said well, yes, but; or maybe it was ‘but, maybe’. It was definitely one of the the less fragrant varieties of Irish no’s.
So we end up in Bray, almost the end of the railway line from Dublin before it runs into the Wicklow Mountains, a seaside resort town when we had resorts, big boarding houses all over, a promenade, some decay that’s now recovering itself. I used to think Neil Jordan came from Bray until it turned out he comes from several bits of Dublin and round-Dublin. But he did shoot ‘The Miracle’ here – Beverly d’Angelo almost looking like she could belong here.
Michael Davitt lived here. He was, in my very limited experience, the first poet to put words like ‘bruscar’ (the word for litter on rubbish bins in Ireland) in a poem. He was useful; he even had a good word to say about the Old Bastards. He wrote a very fine poem about Máirtín Ó Direáin, a very short poem, bristling with the kind of Ó Direáin energy that Davitt knew and could evoke.
He read at several Great Book openings and launchings, has a very fine poem in the Great Book itself, was important to Louis de Paor and to many others and he died just after our whole show got itself on the road.
Anyway, here we are. We have Nuala doing a completely reasonable but devasting piece about how Gaelic anthologies always have titles suggesting Eternity, Nature, Earth, Fire and Water.
Even the best of them do it. And if the contents contradict the title, nobody, at least in publishing, seems to mind. ‘Poems of the Dispossessed’ includes a fair few poems by possessors. ‘The Bright Wave’ has at least its fair share of very dark water. And so on.
English anthologies have their native peculiarities too, of course they have. But at least they’re called, every one of them, The New Poetry in some form or other. So why should they be forever new and we be stuck with the recurring past, the eternal, with poetry getting its feet wet, with poetry as verbal aromatherapy?
Nuala agrees with me, by the way. Anyway, we got this substantial grouse out of our system, left Bray to do what it was doing, dumped the film crew at its very grand, very draughty and very impossible Dun Laoighre hotel, took Nuala back to Cabinteely and scurried off to the unruly middle of Dublin. We have done the first leg of this journey. Interviews have been done, things that we wanted to be said have been said. A comforting number of emergencies have happened and been made to happen and here we are, still speaking to each other when required and ready for whatever happens next, which is Wednesday and Remco de Fouw, a day full of visuals and hardly any talking, full of strange photographic magic and challenge. A day on which you can more or less leave the visuals to it. It’ll be good for them. They’ll enjoy it. And so, from a distance, will I.
Remco de Fouw is well in the running for the handsomest man in Ireland. He certainly is the most statuesque, tall and very straight with a mighty head on which any Homeric helmet would be glad to sit.
He lives in a flat within an old country house of the English kind - grand, rambling and very becomingly decayed. The plumbing is grand and imperial. It rumbles. You wash your hands to plumbing sounds of titanic majesty under high ceilings by grand draughty windows that overlook gardens, colonies of outbuildings and docile horses. And you are not impressed. Grand houses in Ireland don’t seem to be in earnest about impressing you as Grand Houses should. There are no colonial trophies for a start, no pith helmets, no stuffed bears, hardly any serious taxidermy at all. Remco’s house has a collection of cobblers lasts arranged on the stairs of what is now the common stair, mostly small ones and they look very un-grand and about as fragile as bits of iron can ever look.
Remco seems to accept his surroundings as part of the normal, interesting chaos of Dublin. I can’t help seeing him as a bit Dutch and utterly Dublin. Ioanna, with whom I am counting the cobblers lasts and discussing whether we should hug the massive, ancient trees or not – Ioanna is, similarly, utterly Scottish and somewhat Greek with Irish tributaries here and there. I think there is something new about this kind of human being. It’s not a matter of mixtures, but of temperaments that operate like small federations. I haven’t explained this to Ioanna yet. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe she should explain it all to me.
Remco’s art is that of sort of parental observer. He neither indulges the world nor tries officiously to line it up for inspection. He sees it, worries about it and enjoys it and treasures glimpses of its inner self. His work for the Great Book is unique.
The only trouble with Remco is honesty. He doesn’t want to say ‘is mise an teanga’ because that wouldn’t be completely true (‘I think I’ll give it a miss.’) and he has to be convinced that our suggested way of filming his sea-photographing process does not amount to faking it.
It’s hard to show it at all without some artifice. He photographs water movement from underwater in the dark. Very filmic-sounding until you try to work out some way to film it.
He can do it only during the dark phase of the moon – Remco talks of ‘light pollution’ – when he uses a Remco-made set of tools to lower photographic paper underwater; he studies the movement and state of the water and, when he senses an interesting situation, he flashes a light and the image of that moment is imprinted on the paper. The result is a photograph of what the water is doing and often it looks amazing. Often enough it looks like nothing, according to Remco, and I presume this means he has nights in the dark and cold and comes back with nothing he can use. He is very patient about this. I suppose he wouldn’t be doing it in the first place if he wasn’t. But you can see that filming Remco in the utter dark would be very very complicated.
His studio is filled with water pictures that look both strange and also related to us, marks that no human would make but which all of us will understand and enjoy.
His Great Book piece is based on a Kevin McNeil sea poem and for it Remco moved from his usual rivers to the sea, adding a few more difficulties to the ones the rivers present, though the police seem to turn up at the rivers quite often and Remco has to set off hopefully into those therapeutic Irish copper conversations which is where the Socratic tradition has ended up in Ireland. The Guard stands there and tries to relax. You can tell because the usual Guard looks slightly inflated but now looks like he’s deflating at a slow-pumture rate and not entirely enjoying it. The trouble with Irish guards is that they are talkers policing a nation of talkers. For an English copper, things said to him by the Public are either to be taken down in evidence or merely the background noise humans make while you tell them to move along or go home or seriously consider diluting their present condition with a cup of tea and maybe considering sobriety as a way of life.
The Irish Guard is in a conversation with the rest of Ireland, like it or not. Responses are required. I remember a very fine exchange outside Monaghan town where the Guard was doing the usual meaningless border checkpoint in the usual Republic of Ireland way – no point to check at, just a Guard by the side of the road waiting for custom and for a conversation to please turn up.
I had come from working in London and over there the best way round the police business was to get over the whole Irish question by behaving even more Irish than they thought possible, then to mix this up with some middle-class reliabilities and wait while they added it all up and saw that it probably didn’t add up to terrorism, not even in Kilburn. One night we were stopped four times driving from Shepherd’s Bush to Willesden Green – a short journey even in London. There was me and four actors in a Kilburn Irish car – it moved when it had to but it looked as if it had already been scrapped, the gears changed like tectonic plates, it had London Irish Festival stickers all over it. The police had that sad philosophical look they get when the whole sadness of human criminality bears down hard upon them.
We do the paper work stuff, which is in order, but doesn’t seem to be enough. So we do extra-Blarney; they get the undisguised Irish message; so I mention Edinburgh – paleface territory; the conversation changes gear; I add some classical music stuff; they look sadly at the Kilburn car I’m driving, give up trying to put the whole thing together. I’ve managed to move into the acceptable-but-mad-Irish category.
So I arrive in Monaghan a little over prepared, think the situation calls for more talk even than usual and start explaining to the Guard about the lack of bad behaviour in Monaghan. But don’t worry - the Guard has done the like before. He shakes his head and off we go until we’ve reached the point where the Guard is promising to investigate shortages of bad behaviour and bring those responsible to book.
Remco, of Dutch parents, is an authentic Dubliner and knows just how to shake his head over his own apparent absurdities, how to half excuse himself, suggest he can’t quite help himself; and but sure what harm does it do in the end? He seems by now to be well known to Gardaí all along several coasts and many rivers. Soon enough they’ll be taking their flasks to him and discussing the tides and the fierce light pollution levels tonight.
Remco has, I think, given the idea of being known to the police a new meaning. The Guards seem impressed. We are quite impressed ourselves. The Great Book pays only a very modest fee - the word for very small fees always seems to be ‘modest’, which is odd because it really means ‘small’ and sometimes almost non existent, maybe even ‘skimpy’ and none of these words would suggest modesty in any other context.
It’s sometimes difficult to admire artists as much as you admire their work, but The Great Book seems to have produced almost nothing but good behaviour and the disinterested gifts of time and talent.
Today the filmers follow Remco to the shore and they reconstruct the whole Remco-on-the-shore business. Remco gets involved, allows that there can be some truth in a film set-up.
Ioanna and I slope off to Woddenbridge near Avoca where we find a large, architecturally insane country house-castle thing acting the part of a hotel and run by a Malasian family – a very extended one. There are garden-centre Venuses around the gardens, rickety Victorian plumbing, photos of Fianna Fáil politicians all over the walls of the restaurant – a strong feeling of the of east and west meeting and enjoying themselves a lot. We enjoy it. The food is great, the cultural complications outstanding and we’ve had a good day and Remco stays until the moon comes out.
We’re in Bullavogue because this is Joanne Breen’s place and we’re filming the women of The Bullavogue Textile Studio because she set it up and because, in its way, it shows how Irish women change things by simply changing them. I used to watch Mary Robinson do it while I was working inside Male Irish Kilburn. There are books about how she was elected. I thought she did it by having something honest to say about being President, which was unusual; then by doing simple things that everybody had forgotten about, like going around on Sundays and speaking near churches after Mass.
Once she was President she kept going around the country, telling the country about itself, making it wish it was better than it was and doing this at places where the real work was done – schools, nurseries, women’s groups. The Kilburn Irish Male knew he had to hate all this but didn’t know exactly how to do it. Mary Robinson had a much higher idea of what Ireland could and should be than most Kilburn males thought possible; and you couldn’t fault her for that, could you? You could not, so you had to find something else wrong with her.
The Kilburns never managed it and nobody else did either and even if they had managed it, the whole thing took such a long time, the country had already changed. It was too late.
The Bullavogues were like that. They had explicit battles that they had to fight explicitly but the symbolic battle about who they were and what they could do, that battle went on every day and I suspect was never mentioned explicitly because it couldn’t be mentioned. So on they went with the business of becoming and of changing things all around them.
I may be exaggerating because I saw it from a distance, saw the Bullavogue women as representing lots of other things going on all over Ireland, and for the better; and because Joanne Breen had died between our two visits to Bullavogue.
Anyway, there they were. They managed to behave like themselves despite us; organised to have a whole pub available that afternoon so that we could have a full womens’ chorus to roar ‘Is Mise an Teanga’ for the camera.
They did. We scampered off towards Poulmounty. Reiltín Murphy’s house was waiting for us, very prepared by Reiltín, though she seems more prepared for a proper conversation than for the kind of invasion that filming amounts to. She has a table with sandwiches, biscuits, all kinds of serious drink and, amazingly, several healthy drinks also. Who does she think we are? She expects us to sit down. There are too many of us. We stand around while we do the biscuits and the camera guys destroy the order of her studio and arrange a perch for her to be uncomfortable on while we do an interview.
Reiltín has become our representative calligrapher. Calligraphy is the greatest unifying element in the GB and the calligraphers effectively the artistic managers of the project. Reiltín has done more than twenty pieces, Frances Breen has done as many, so that between the two of them around half of the GB pieces have been through their hands.
Calligraphy? Well, forget about mere handwriting so uptight you can barely see the letters for the copperplace. This is calligraphy as they do it in Co Wexford:
This is a Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill poem (Fáilte Bhéal na Sionna don Iasc -The Shannon Welcomes the Fish) done by Frances Breen. I came across her first through her sister Joanne and made the usual assumptions – that the calligraphy just decorated the real art, that this was an elegant but ancillary practice.
Then I saw what Frances was doing on her own. She and Joanne were doing an exhibition on the ancient Banshenchas for us (Brendan Mulkere’s London Irish Festival). What the Dindshenchas does about places, the Banshenchas does about women. It doesn’t do it so thoroughly but we found it interesting that such a thing was there at all and that the two were part of the regular contents of the Great Books of Ancient Ireland.
The Breens did some pieces together and some on their own. And Frances’s were amazing. She would take a poem and calligraph something that was both a picture of the poem and an accurate, readable record of it – dream writing, very beautiful, unforgettable.
One reason I’m writing this is that I’ll never manage to say it to Frances. I’ve tried. When I do, Frances looks baffled, looks at me sideways, looks worried for me and, when all else fails, starts out on a Frances Breen explanation of the piece, an explanation that sounds as if the piece has nothing whatsoever to do with her; it just got itself born somehow. The ink did it, the pen, her teachers, her influences.
Much later we were at the opening of the Great Book is Abbeyleix – the Heywood Community School – and Coilín Murray was there to give a talk on his involvement in the Great Book. He spoke for maybe ten minutes. About nine of them were about Frances. She came to his house. She walked around, she paced, she cut pieces of wood, pared them, paced. He kept watching. She told him things about how they could get what sounded like an extra spatial dimension into the piece. She paced. They agreed. She took her pen, did what she does and there is the finished piece, complete with extra dimension. He said nothing else about the Great Book. For him, I think, The Great Book was Frances Breen.
This was not unusual. The Calligraphers were the Virgils of the Great Book, guiding lost artists through hell and purgatory where necessary. I thought too that the fact that most of them were working with the old Irish script was a uniquely useful and inherently radical starting point.
In school, years ago, this was the script we were taught for writing in Irish. All our books used it. I still cannot write Irish in any other script and I know of many grown-ups who can’t either. So we grew up typographically bilingual and I think, first that this helped an amazing generation of Irish calligraphers to be born; second that Irish calligraphy is exceptionally radical and altogether better than any other nation’s under the sun. So there!
Reiltín Murphy will have none of this, or hardly any. I called her a ‘whispering radical’ once on paper – it was an outline/application kind of thing and sometimes the only fun you can have with these bloody things is to describe people you like in ways that you hope will attract the money and also flatter them in puzzling ways. Reiltín was puzzled all right.
Reiltín did twenty-odd pieces for the Great Book - between her and Frances more than half of the book. I bet after you close the book the images that pass in front of your inner eye will be dominated by calligraphy. For a while you will dream in Gaelic scripts, the many shapes and forms the calligraphers have given them and the extraodinary way that mere lettering can convey such complex and interesting messages.
A pity Eric Gill wasn’t around to see it. Mind you, I’m writing this in Gill Sans – a typeface that seems to have survived even the computer and the postumous reputation of that old goat (he knew my father). Denis Brown, though, is here, in the Great Book and, I suppose, one principal reason why all this was able to happen as it did. Davy Hammond, when we met him way back on page twenty-something tried to explain to me how he was trying to understand the Book of Kells better by practicing its calligraphy with quills and Denis Brown’s book about it.
When the Great Book entered the bloodstream of the schools of Ireland it was the calligraphy that provided the bridge between the poems, the art and the children. Calligraphy, we decided, is the children’s art. The first public act of the schoolchild is to learn to sign your name. This signature represents you, the personal features of the handwriting are looked at as though they were the windows of your soul and maybe its prison. Giving children calligraphy - ways of making handwriting expressive of different things – did wonderful things. Giving them Reiltín or Frances did even more wonderful things.
Eventually the Leabhair Bheaga – the Wee Books - of Laois, West Cork, Ballyvourney, Monaghan and other places became the Leabhar Mór na nÓg, The Great Book of the Children. And that’s a thing not even The Book of Kells can claim.
Anyway, there is Reiltín in Poulmounty, invaded by Film and still smiling. We have a conversation while the camera is rolling, while film stock is being consumed, while precious time is being taken up with mere talk, conversation and other film inessentials. Because it is a conversation it lacks brief questions. I say something; Reiltín responds; I respond back; she replies – you know, that thing - that talking thing that people do together. There is some discomfort in the room. Eventually I realise that this kind of thing is not done on films – remarks to this effect were eventually made. However, giving a monkey’s does not occur to me – not yet. We proceed.
Reiltín had written a summary for us:
To begin with my ideas were precious, I expected to employ good calligraphy in some level of formality - legibility was a requirement. I expected to write with a pen on paper, I expected time for deep consideration and reworking. There was also the suggestion that all calligraphic work would be screen printed before artwork to avoid the horrors of writing on (and ruining) a one-off painting. I expected that the calligraphers would have an overview of the layout and design of the book as a whole. Luckily for the good of the book none of these things happened.
The meaning of each poem and its language and date took a second place - to the essential first consideration - that the page look well. Each poem was used in its entirity, or cut to ribbons, or reduced to a few words as the image dictated. It is this, that each page has been made to look well by its calligrapher, that gives a unity to the book for there were no rules adhered to. No strict page design grid to work within, no script requirement, no size of text to be used, no colours recommended. It is organic and it works.
The first page I worked on was lan Joyce's, in his workshop in Donegal, on September 11th 2001. Perhaps that world shaking event helped to rid me of a clinging timidness and a desire for good calligraphy. I had met the poet Cathal with Ian, he had read the poem to us (and had assured us we could do what we wanted with it) and lan was interested in the fact that my Irish is so rusty that all heard were the round sounds of Cathal's voice. lan already had an image on a litho stone and asked me to write fragments of the poem directly onto another litho stone. Necessarily backwards. I rebelled overnight. Then threw caution and 'good calligraphy' to the winds and took on instead 'appropriate writing'. It was done, rapidly after practise, with a beercan pen which Frances had recently introduced to me.
Next was Deirdre 0’Mahony's. She explained that hers would be a print of a body image and we agreed that an overall script would work well. She said she would send me a sheet with a body print on it to try writing on. But when it came the sheet was flannelette - a nasty calligraphic surface! Luckily we realised that the script could be written on paper. And so it was, very rapidly one hungover day, in the hopes of catching that afternoon's post to Dundee where Deirdre was producing her print (the rush was due to waiting for the proofread version, then realising we had to run without it). Deirdre had her own problems with her bag of stone dust confiscated at Shannon Airport by Security; she then had to make new stone dust in Dundee!
And she gave us summaries of the story of each of her pages – graceful, humane accounts of what must have sometimes been a very rocky road. Reiltín is a very decisive and straightforward person, with definite tastes and her own style. Her triumph in the Great Book was to serve all her artists and all her poems regardless and to stay true to herself. Tantrums were allowed to artists, delays to organisers, budgets to bosses. To the calligraphers was allowed almost nothing like this – just their hands on the rudders and minds of their own.
In 1990 I was beginning to programme the London Irish Arts Festival and I had notions about how to do theatre, music, literature - everybody in Ireland has. But I wondered about visual art and was told to go and see Joanne's work.
She was in one of her take-it-or-leave-it phases. Joanne looked at you the way she used to smoke those tobacco and paper constructions of hers - eyes not entirely open, a smile or a frown available, a filter of ironic interrogation gently colouring the talk. I was supposed to be seeing the work, but she interviewed me - and she didn't always need words. I tried to talk long enough for the work to appear. And eventually she pulled out something from under something else - Feth na Farrige. It was, as you know, wonderful.
We toured it all over the strange geography of the London Irish. It worked; and it worked as our programme had to work, from the inside. We saw lots of Irish art that seemed to ignore or deny the culture around it. We saw roomfuls of work with the terrible marks of art college competence written all over it, doctrines to justify it and CV's to fictionalise it, lacking nothing except the visual.
Joanne and Frances made beautiful work from a position apparently well within craftbased practice. It was new but it never said so. They reached beyond themselves together. Looking at their work you forgot that you were not supposed to react emotionally or intellectually to calligraphy or weaving. You just took it in like music. It was humane and lovely, you could live inside it. They made an amazing pair.
Joanne stayed with the rest of us in Brendan Mulkere's house in Willesden Green four men and a teapot, and Joanne. She was a vegetarian; you can probably guess what the rest of us were; result: eternal vegetable soup, an overworked teapot and a novel, organising female principle for a London Irish male-and-hopeless household. She was a manager of men. You could never be sure where she would be rolling her next cigarette and would threaten to vanish to highly English parts of London and into a world of twines, weavers and tiny shops she knew of. You found yourself driving her beyond the London Irish Pale, failing to find places but having to find them, because Joanne knew they existed. And there were always brothers and cousins and friends to lift those bags, to drive those cars and to turn up at dawn at Heathrow lest she cast her foot against a stone - independence, with advantages.
We took the exhibitions all over. She was good at it and useful, even to the extent of having, and remembering to bring, a supply of extra strong mints. Eventually we reached Lewis, and Malcolm MacLean. The Irish-Scottish world owes a lot to their life together, a world they described to each other and learned from each other. We - the four men and the teapot, and many many others - loved her and miss her and will miss her.
Let me try the Biddy Jenkinson question again. I’d like to say that she is one of the great poets. But that wouldn’t be the right way to say it. It would be true, but she wouldn’t like it. She hates pedestals, status and any kind of standing-still would cause misery and unrest.
The way she goes about things frustrates description and the whole pedestal project. She disappears around corners and vanishes into magic bottles only to appear again behind your elbow grinning and doing something else entirely, unselfconsciously and without a backward glance.
Other poets spend their careers weaving a manifesto of who they are and what they do, becoming a presence besides their poems, a figure. Biddy doesn’t have a career; her poems have.
Her biographers will have a terrible time but she doesn’t give a toss. I used to sympathise with biographers; I thought they were my representatives, finding out the things I’d like to know – the personal stuff, the sleeping with people, all the stuff outside the writing. Biddy’s readers are on their own, it’s just them and the poem.
I’d like a biography of the poems, the story of what happened when the poem and the reader meet. Maura Dooley read once on a London Irish Festival tour. It was Nottingham in the suburbs and organised by Robert Gent, a local high-up librarian who had fostered what you could only call a community who gathered, read and listened to poetry.
Maura read and I had to listen from where the tea was being made because I had to take her to the station to catch the last train to London. The ladies making the tea had dispatched the tea business in no time and we all sat on the floor and listened. It was unusual – backstage people usually do stage listening – all attitude, no attention. The ladies were all attention and very very still. Maura finished – an exceptionally beautiful reading of very musical poems. There was applause, we stood up.
Said one of the women, softly. Maura’s poems had had an adventure and Maura knew nothing about it. I tried to tell her on the way to the station but I’m sure it wasn’t like being there. Maybe writers never get to see what their work does because their presence cuts reactions off; or maybe that’s why the bookshops are not full of readings of writing you’d think should be carried home and read when you’re alone and concentrated.
I wouldn’t mind knowing more about the private life of poems. Christopher Whyte had this thought well before I had.
|Miann – CHRISTOPHER WHYTE|
Bu chaomh leam dealbhan a dhéanamh
Dh’fheumadh urras fhaighinn orra,
Rachad an call is am bristeadh
Cha bhiodh aca
Agus an déidh dúnadh an taigh-tasgaidh,
I wish I made pictures
And, if I did,
They would bear insurance,
They would get lost and injured
They will not repeat themselves
And once the museum closes
|(Christopher Whyte, An Aghaidh na Síorraidheachd, Polygon, 1991)|
Whatever else, Biddy’s poems are certainly having adventures and so are their readers.
With a bit of luck, people will have to give up trying to find who she really was and what she really did and get down to encountering who she really is and what she’s really doing – in the poems. The Biddy Jenkinson Summer School will be in trouble
When our film is eventually shown, Biddy is the person who surprises people the most. She makes several appearances. There’s always some ruffling going on but the biggest ruffle is when she explains that she refuses to be translated into English in Ireland. Most book people don’t make it to the end of the sentence; the idea of refusing translation stops them dead. Translation, it seems, is a sort of international hundred thousand welcomes, the offer you do not refuse.
Listening to the end of the sentence would have shown that what she calls her ‘small rude gesture’ is all about what happens in Ireland, where everybody should realise, but doesn’t yet, that you can’t transfer Gaelic into English without serious loss – and that the loss will be all the greater if you are unaware of it.
When the film was shown, we were often treated as the authors of the people in it as well as the film. People come up to me as if I were Biddy’s parent, somebody probably originally responsible for the basic delinquency of the woman, somebody in a position to be able to do something about her, and certainly in a position where I could be made to feel guilty about how she turned out. Doesn’t she understand? What’s wrong with us? Why doesn’t she like us? We mean well. Don’t we?
In among the big languages, there can never be anything wrong with translation. Translation is a bridge between peoples, it enables access. Thoughts fly from one language to another. Small languages reach new audiences. New audiences are a Good Thing. Access is a Very Good Thing. Do Gaelic poets want to address only people who speak Gaelic? People who understand the language in which the poems are written? Surely not!
Sometimes I think that people keep the ‘cultural’ part of themselves under the bed until after hours and weekends, for use only during the voluntary parts of their life, when the rules of freedom apply, where art flows from artists efortlessly. Then, other times, the same people seem to look at art as a part of the liberal economy, where producers had better have an eye to market forces.
This is what happens with Biddy. Of all the poets I know, she is the most disinterested writer. She does everything that can be done to offer the purest writing. But once it’s written she does no hard sell, no sell at all; she releases the poem on its way, unencumbered; she makes no demands on the reader; she offers simply the poem for its own sake and on its own terms.
And what happens? Bewilderment, distress and the beginnings of outrage. She has refused to implicate the reader in the curious career collaborations other writers are often locked into with thei