The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Posts from — February 2008

The Fate of Irish Writers

yeats_house1.jpgThe poet William Butler Yeats, perhaps the greatest poet of the last century, lived in the tower house he refurbished for his wife George not far from Gort at the edge of the Burren. Like many important monuments in the west of Ireland, it is also a source of grass for cattle and a repository for trash. The visitor steps around cow pies and a pile of refuse along the river when seeing the poet’s famous home and wonders what is in the minds of the Galway County Council for not maintaining it properly. Lady Gregory’s grounds at Coole Park are better kept, because the Irish government have made a park out of it. Still her house was allowed to fall into ruin and only the foundation remains. lady_gregorys_stables.jpgThe distance between Yeats’ castle and Coole Park is a few miles and I could visualize Yeats making the journey on horseback to eat, drink, talk, and wander among the grounds with his friends. Luckily, words are more rugged than buildings, and Yeats will very likely survive as long as English is spoken as a language.

For my dad, whom I love with all my heart, I transcribe these famous lines and put them here for him to read:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing…

February 24, 2008   1 Comment


top_of_cappanawalla.jpgToday I managed to get lost again on top of Cappawalla. It was just me, the mud, rocks, manure, and the cattle wandering around on the mountain. I did get sympathetic grunts from the cows and a neigh or two from a herd of horses. The problem was that I set off a half an hour before the group, and went up a cattle trail without knowing I was supposed to go straight. Of course, the real path wasn’t marked. You had to know where it was. I suppose, this is the story of my life. But I hate being part of a group, where you always seem to experience things secondhand, jockeying with individuals constantly trying to find their place in the pecking order. Everything is so much more vivid and intense when you experience it on your own. The price you pay is getting lost now and then, but I’ve always found that it’s well worth the cost.

February 22, 2008   Comments Off on Lost


Tomorrow Gordon is taking us on a nine-mile hike across the local mountain, called Cappanawalla, along the route I tried to find last week. It is supposed to be a sunny day of 50 degrees, so I’m looking forward to it.

Drew, one of the students here who is working with a local farmer, said that the tails of the sheep are tied so they wither and fall off, and when they do, the foxes come to eat them from the ground, running among the herd as if they’re old friends. sheep.jpgThe sea gulls also have a strange relationship with the sheep. At times, they’ll swoop down en masse and walk among them eating something from the shorn ground. Maybe it’s coincidence. I don’t know. The farmer’s son where I live, who is perhaps all of ten years old, wears wellies and strides through the fields with a stick exactly like his father, counting the sheep each day. When he passes by the house, I flash him the peace sign, which he ignores. Sometimes a football will fly over the stone fence and land in the field, and one of the players from the local team will hop through the gap and retrieve it.

In County Clare, it is so insanely green it makes you want to scream.

February 21, 2008   1 Comment

A Couple of Clarifications

It turns out that the annual Ballyvaughan music festival is entirely due to kismet. It started when some Irish musicians invited their Welsh friends to play one weekend several years ago and it’s grown from there.

Also, there is more than one Martello tower along the Bay. The British built them to repel a potential invasion from Napoleon. They also built a straight road (a rarity in the Burren) from Gort to the sea so that the garrison stationed there could get to the towers in an emergency. Although Napoleon’s troops were used to mud and snow, I wonder what they would have made of the rocky surface of the Burren.

And now, finally, that the sheep in Ballyvaughan have gotten closer to God, they are starting to swear in the Irish way, beginning their oaths with “Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.”

February 20, 2008   Comments Off on A Couple of Clarifications

Sheep Alert

The big news in Ballyvaughan yesterday was how the sheep escaped from their pasture near our cottage and started eating the grass around the graves next to the church. I watched a couple of people chase them madly back and forth until they managed to get all of the sheep to take the plunge and leap through the gap in the wall, normally reserved for humans traversing the stone fence. Once back in their pasture, the sheep were asked why they had done it, and they had replied, with only one or two dissenting, that they had wanted to get closer to God.

February 19, 2008   1 Comment

Like Sheep

A flock of sheep have been let into the pasture adjacent to our cottage. They spend most of their time eating grass by grasping it with their teeth and ripping it with a twist of their heads. Basically, they’re eating machines with thick coats, black faces, and thin, unstable legs, creatures raised for their wool and mutton. Some are bigger than others. Some more attractive. Some stronger. Others weaker. They have an odd habit of loping from place to place, as if they can’t get enough, though it’s the same grass everywhere. They have a herd instinct but seldom stick together, unless someone is driving them from one pasture to the next. Now and then, you’ll see a couple of males butting heads, but there is no beating of chests, no loud bleating. When a female is in estrus, they fornicate, though a few seconds later one or both of them soon gets tired of the proceedings and starts eating again. When they’re had their fill, they stumble forward onto their knees and hunker down like cats. At night they sleep.

Sheep, I’ve discovered, are basically harmless creatures who fill their days with eating and sleeping until the day comes when the farmer decides to replace them with another set just like them.

February 18, 2008   Comments Off on Like Sheep

Same Tune, Third Verse

Just when I think the Irish are going to the dogs and have lost their traditions, they surprise me.

On Sunday, we left the cottage about noon and walked through town on our way to the college. The bus driver who had taken us to Galway on the previous weekend (the one who stopped the bus on the highway to show us the nesting heron), stopped to say hello and then mentioned there was music at the whiskey pub after Mass. So, on the spot, we changed our plans and headed for O’Lochlain’s.

singing_at_olochlains.jpgInside, there were only a couple of people, whom I joked with in the bantering way the Irish have, as the publican’s wife drew us a couple of pints. Soon, the place began to fill up, and without warning, someone started singing an old Irish folksong. He was unaccompanied and his voice wavered and cracked, but it was brimming with emotion. Then someone else sang, and then another. Most were songs about love lost or war and death. They were maudlin tunes, like those composed during the Civil War in America (“Johnny I hardly knew ya”). One of singers was so old she forgot the lyrics and the locals would help her. One young American woman was so terrified of singing (it was obviously her first time) that she literally shook, and although few had heard her song, they immediately joined in. This went on all afternoon. Someone would begin singing, simply for the love of it, to share her humanity, to say something she felt in her heart, and the rest of us would respond in kind.

February 18, 2008   Comments Off on Same Tune, Third Verse

Same Tune, Second Verse

Last night we tried a different pub and found basically the same group of musicians as the night before. It was an intimate space, but the people inside were more interested in talking than listening to the music. We sat between a randy old dentist, who seemed to think I was a rival and heaped insults on me (which I mostly ignored), and a tiny Englishman with a fringe of hair, who informed us, as best he could because he was so drunk, that the musicians were mostly Welsh, some Irish, and a few Cumbrians. He said they went from town to town for the music festivals (which, I assumed, was sort of like the players in renaissance fairs in the States). Very quickly the level of noise drowned out the music, so I left, a bit disgusted. On the way back to the cottage, I was already smiling. Two generations ago, many of the Irish played instruments, and it was traditional to hear music in the villages on weekends. Now they have to import the Welsh to do it.

February 17, 2008   Comments Off on Same Tune, Second Verse

Valentine’s Day

Yesterday we went across the Burren on a frozen tour of Norman monasteries, churches, and castles. The sky was solid gray and our aches and pains were magnified by the cold as we explored Corcomroe Abbey, Kilmacduagh, and the Dysert O’Dea castle grounds. (There are a few shots of our trip under “Photos” to the left).

At the end of it, we found ourselves back in Ballyvaughan, musicians.jpgwhere all the businesses are now open, because the traditional musicians are in town for Valentine’s Day weekend. By the oddest chance, we found a seat in the same room as the musicians in one of the pubs and sat entranced for almost three hours as they played. Some of it is improvised. One starts a tune and the others pick it up. As everyone catches on, there are smiles all around and it swells to a peak. Then, seemingly out of the blue, it dies down again like a fire among the rocks, and the musician who originally began the piece creates a new variation, which the others pick up once more. I remembered how my son and his friends used to play like this far into the night. Maybe it was that or maybe it is because traditional Irish music is so affecting, but, whatever the cause, after a cold day and a Guinness or two, I had tears in my eyes.

February 16, 2008   1 Comment

The Fog

cottage_in_fog.jpgInstead of raining all the time, it has now turned sunny and cold. The mornings and evenings are foggy. Yesterday’s fog was particularly dense. Here’s the view from the end of our driveway at 9:00 A.M.

February 15, 2008   Comments Off on The Fog