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Nashville Scene Irish Spirits

Book is biography, music set.

By Marc Stengel

MARCH 23, 1998:  A magic and yet thoroughly predictable Celtic symmetry infuses the collection of Irish melodies published in Nashville last fall by J.S. Sanders and Company. Dear Harp of My Country is at once biography and twin-CD record set. It is simultaneously a celebration in text of the crystal, lyric verse by Irish laureate Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and a lilting, dreamy rendition of voice and Irish harp by tenor-turned-biographer James W. Flannery and harpist Janet Harbison. Most intriguing of all, it is a subtly rousing expression of Irish destiny and determinism cloaked in honey-laced unsentimentality.

"More copies of the songs of Thomas Moore were sold in the United States from 1800 to 1850 than the sheet music of any other composer or lyricist," Flannery asserts. "So it just became a huge part of American popular music and, above all, had an influence on Stephen Foster. Today I propose that the ballad tradition is what most people consider the 'real' Irish music. But the ballad is actually far more English and Scottish than it is Irish. It's a 19th-century imposition. Don't get me wrong; I think it's a lot of fun. But one major difference between the bardic tradition and the ballad tradition is that the bardic addresses states of feeling--it's lyrical, not about simply telling stories."

It is certainly Flannery's intention to relate the story of Thomas Moore, now all but forgotten even amidst today's promiscuous Celtic resurgence. With unflinching gaze, this first-generation Irish-American examines the heartening ascent and heartbreaking demise of a patriotic voice that earned Irish enmity even as it charmed the English salons.

"In Moore's time," Flannery observes, "the overwhelming view of the Irish in England, as indeed it was in this country, was that they were barbarians--that they had no culture. There were caricatures in England and in this country throughout the 19th century of the Irish depicted with simian features. And then here you have a guy, Thomas Moore, who is an exquisite performer of exquisite songs, meaning both poetry and music. He's singing these songs in English drawing rooms, and these are songs that easily are as sophisticated as Schubert or Schumann, and they're coming out of a people that hitherto were simply thought of as barbaric, with no culture. Now that is a political statement through cultural means.

"For all the apparent sweetness," Flannery continues, "I think there was anger in Thomas Moore as well. Needless to say, I think there are songs of his that have absolutely nothing to do with anger. They are meditations upon various feelings, such as a lyric poem would do. But I also think some other of his songs display a huge anger. I don't see how you can read such lyrics as 'Avenging and bright fall the swift sword of Erin'--which was written the year the Prince Regent [to become George IV] betrayed him by not backing Catholic Emancipation--and the last line of that song, 'Revenge on a tyrant is sweetest of all!'... You can't know the context of that song and not sing it with anger."

The juxtaposition of sound and text in this book--which is but the first of four Irish/Celtic projects planned by Flannery and his publisher--yields unfamiliar rewards for the reader/listener. The grand, often grandiose Thomas Moore one hears interpreted by Flannery's tenor and Harbison's harp seems at first a very different spirit from the fervent nationalist described by Flannery's pen. When these disparate images superimpose themselves upon one's consciousness, however, an unexpected new dimension of meaning and experience unfolds into view, as if revealing itself gently to a drowsy third eye.

"This book is a bit like Thomas Moore himself," says Flannery. "I would hope that people might be intrigued by the music only to discover that, actually, his lyrics and this book are a cultural, even broadly philosophical statement. As for my own reaction to Moore's music, I'd have to say that I care as much if not more for the ideas. I guess that's the way I've come to interpret the bardic tradition.

"Now, I have some trouble with the word 'bard' as it's presently conceived. It's a word that once had some meaning, but it's now a sentimental word to many people. As originally understood, however, a bard is only a vessel, and Moore himself alludes to this in the song that titles this book, 'Dear Harp of My Country': 'It was but as the wind, passing heedlessly over,/And all the wild sweetness I waked was thy own!'

"It's interesting to note that when the Celts would go into battle, they had giant harps which they placed behind the hills, and the wind would blow through them for the sake of their haunting, frightening, otherworldly sound. And when the warrior Finn mac Cumaill was being questioned by a druid, the druid asked him what was the most beautiful music. 'Is it,' the druid asked, 'the waves of the sea crashing against the Cliffs of Moher? Is it the sound of the skylark rising over the Dingle Peninsula at dawn? Is it the sound of a butterfly hovering above daffodils on Aran Isle in the springtime?' 'No,' said mac Cumaill. 'Well, what is it then?' And mac Cumaill answered, 'It is the music of what happens.' That, you see, is the only answer you may expect from a culture that cherishes being over having."


The Raid, Randy Lee Eickhoff (Forge, 1997) It is a distinct and different pleasure to read myth in comparison with modern fiction. Personally, I liken it to an auditory experience. Indeed, there are words on the page and meanings behind the words; but the best mythical stories, no matter how artfully told, seem to unfold in random non sequiturs, as if heard in a dream.

Thus, it is in the midst of the appalling gore, prurient lust, and supernatural meddling that comprise Ireland's national warrior epic, Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), that the meaningless actually makes some kind of sense: "One evening while the Connacht army camped at Mag Clochair, the Stony Plain, two great stones flew at them, one from the east, the other from the west. They met in midair over the camp with a sound like a thunderclap and pieces fell from them like hail over the camp. The warriors ran back and forth, trying to avoid the stone fragments falling down upon them. Booming laughter and more stones followed their frantic running until, at last, they squatted upon their heels holding their shields over their heads like little children to guard themselves against the stones." How else to explain, in one fell swoop, the origin of a place name, the haplessness of us mere mortals, and the mischievous hilarity of god-heroes with too much time on their hands?

With the best literary intentions and the most contemporary fictional tools, novelist Randy Lee Eickhoff has tackled the ancient Tain and recycled it as The Raid. It is the story of Cuchulainn, a Celtic Achilles and the sole defender of the hallowed, ancient kingdom of Ulster against invaders from rival Connacht. As with the Iliad, the Tain (pronounced "toyn") centers upon an abduction--not of the fair Helen but of a creature even more desirable to these ancient Celts: Donn Cuailnge. This is the Brown (or Dun) Bull from the pastures of Cuailnge in the kingdom of Ulster, and it is a bull "so huge that 30 boys could ride on its back and so sexually potent that it could impregnate 50 heifers in a single day and those that did not calve on the following day would burst."

Connacht's "whore queen" Maeve, famed for a generous concupiscence of her own, simply must have this bull; and she will risk the domain of her husband, King Ailill, in the quest. But none dare protest, so rapt is their admiration for their "mistress's great, white breasts the size of melons as she leaned forward, bracing herself against the chariot rail." Indeed, her "charioteer covertly watched, hoping Maeve wouldn't notice the swelling between his legs."

Eickhoff embraces this material with a lively, lurid gusto. "This version of the Tain is not a literal translation," he avers. Acknowledging the manifold scraps, fragments, and recensions that make it difficult precisely to reconstruct the original thread of oral tradition, Eickhoff intends to contemporize. Moreover, he hints a personal dissatisfaction with previous editions of the epic, notably the 1902 edition of Cuchulain of Muirthemne by Lady Augusta Gregory: "Lady Gregory deliberately left out the sensual aspects that permeate the ancient Irish writings.... The modern reader, however, does not share the reticence of the Victorian reader, and for that purpose, this is a far more complete translation of 'The Raid.' "

Eickhoff certainly does not lack for erotic imagery with which to regale us; there are "Maeve's white thighs and butt," "the red-gold of her beard [glinting] invitingly," or the "heaving apples" of her daughter Finnabair's breasts. Nor does Cuchulainn lack for martial prowess of a most earthy sort. Having set himself single-handedly against overwhelming numbers of Connachtmen while his Ulster allies doze under a witch-cast spell, this mad-dog warrior known as the "Hound of Culann" routinely slays and dismembers his foes, then grinds to marrow their bones: "He stripped the youth bare with one swipe of his hand, then grasped him in his two hands beneath his rib cage and lifted him high, squeezing until the dung squirted from him in a dank stream and the ford grew foul from his droppings.... Yet he was the only one of all who challenged Cuchulainn...who escaped without having his head severed from his shoulders and mounted on a standing stone." Some luck.

For all of Eickhoff's giddy earthiness and fluid-smeared realism, The Raid is not "more complete" just because it is less "reticent" in its descriptions. His novelistic treatment of this patchwork, mythical, life-affirming, death-exulting tale is largely successful. It is marred, however, by a suspicion that Eickhoff has taken up a schoolboy dare to churn his story's "sensuality" into the thickest possible froth. This is not an observation borne of modesty or queasiness. Rather it is an acknowledgment of the book's failure to translate the full measure of magic and mysticism that tint the best tales of the Celts.

That such expressions of teasing mystery are possible is apparent in Thomas Kinsella's masterful 1969 translation titled, simply, The Tain. When King Ailill and the hero Fergus banter over a chess-like game they are playing, Ailill boasts, "I know all about queens and women/I lay first fault at women's/own sweet swellings and loving lust/valorous Fergus coming and going/with cattle bellowings and huge forces/all over Finnabair's rich places."

The subtle pun regarding Fergus' preferred haunts is clever and wry. Finnabair (an etymological prototype of the celebrated Guinevere) is both daughter to Maeve and Ailill, and the place name of a fair ridge amidst the lush grazes of Cuailnge. But Eickhoff banishes Finnabair from his "interpretation" of this same passage and so misses the point entirely: "Queens and women all like brave men's rods. The fault comes from their sweet swellings, like valiant Fergus, with his bellowings that brings [sic] loving lust to his groin, and lustful and deep-rod gorings of women all over Connacht's rich lands...."

So little do we actually possess of recorded or material history of the ancient Celts--be they Irish, Breton, Scots, Cornish, Manx, or Welsh--that their wild myths and vaporous dreams often serve as our only texts. Until we know more--if ever we can--a responsible conservancy depends upon preserving the mysteries and hidden significances of these farfetched tales. When a book like The Raid exults in a bravado explicitness, it tethers too many lofty images to the ground, and we lose the best of our perspectives.

The Dog-Eared Page

"Since freedom was an award made for surviving ordeals, it is perhaps not so surprising to discover that the seventeenth-century Dutch had a marked taste for disaster epics."--Simon Schama, from The Embarrassment of Riches An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Vintage Books, 1997)

"At a witch trial in 1593, the investigating lawyer (a married man) apparently discovered a clitoris for the first time; [he] identified it as a devil's teat, sure proof of the witch's guilt.... Not willing to conceal so strange a matter, [the gaoler] showed it to various bystanders. The bystanders had never seen anything like it. The witch was convicted."--Eve Ensler, from The Vagina Monologues (Villard, 1998)

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