A Month of Ireland: Long Ago, But Still Speaking

In this last post about lovely Irish things, I’d like to look at things from the past that still matter so much to those who see them now.

The exciting thing about Irish literature and history is that we are not only still discovering things today, but we are also rediscovering some of the gems of Irish history.  What has been discovered?  Not many weeks ago, there was an article posted about the restoration of a beautiful Celtic cross from the island of Iona.

st oran's crossIona is part of Scotland, but was the home of many Irish monks seeking holy refuge from the world.  St. Oran’s cross is a massive, stunning piece of stonework engraved all over with beautiful Celtic designs reminiscent of the glorious book that was also supposedly created on that island not long after: The Book of Kells.

The cross is over fourteen feet high and weighs a literal ton, a massive project to begin with and just as massive to restore.  The restoration was timed to be completed for the 1,450 year anniversary of Saint Colomba’s arrival on Iona.  Go ahead and just ponder that number for a moment.  Yes, that many years.  And yet, that cross is still here and there are still people willing to spend exhaustive hours lovingly restoring it to its former glory.

The magic of such artefacts is in their ability to travel across centuries and profoundly impact people a millenium and a half later.  They are part of history and part of the present, stories without words.

On the other hand, some of these pieces of old magic are filled with words.  Not long after St Oran’s cross was constructed, a book was composed.  Containing the four Gospels, The Book of Kells has been honored for centuries, treasured and preserved.  And now to the intense delight of many who are unable to turn the actual pages, the entire book has been scanned and uploaded.

The Book of Kells, like the cross of St Oran, has abided centuries of change and development.  Because of the willingness of generations of scholars, archaeologists, historians, and enthusiasts to put the time and effort into guarding it, and then into updating its availability for a new generation, The Book of Kells belongs to anyone who cares to read it, as the Gospels were always meant to.

I am not a historian, but I am a lover of stories, and the stories tucked away into the corners of history are the ones I find most interesting.  It is all the better when those stories are tangible, visible, and knowable, revealed in a beautiful medium that allows them to speak for themselves.

A Month of Ireland: What Happened to St. Patrick?

Saint Patrick’s Day has come and gone.  What did you do?  Was there much festivity, music, drinking, dancing?  Did you wear green?  Did you see a leprechaun, or at least a rainbow?

I wore green and I certainly appreciated this Irish-themed holiday.  However, it sometimes boggles my mind how a holiday (holy day?) dedicated to a man of true worth, a hero whose valor and sacrifice helped instigate a wave of conversion across an entire nation, can be pared down to things as mundane as wearing green or drinking too much.

Don’t get me wrong.  While drinking is not a pastime of mine, I am not opposed to celebrating a holiday by having fun with friends and enjoying a concept as hilarious as little men in green chasing rainbows.  Although it does seem like holidays have a habit of becoming increasingly fluffy.  I mean, look at what we did to poor St Valentine’s holiday.

Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland.

It’s not so much that I think that we shouldn’t celebrate these things with new, entertaining traditions.  Celebrations are meant to be fun, after all. However, I do think that Saint Patrick does deserve at least a little consideration sometime during the festivities.  He isn’t Ireland’s patron saint because of faeries or alcohol. He was a warrior for Ireland’s heart and soul.

saint patrick's cathedral hall
Inside the cathedral.

Many people know the basic story of Saint Patrick: How a young boy raised in Rome-civilized England was kidnapped to be a slave by Irish marauders.  How he escaped and returned home.  How he became a Christian, and then discovered that his calling was to return to the land where he was a slave and free them from their own, darker enslavement.


saint patrick's well dublin ireland

The stories of Saint Patrick range from his driving all the snakes from Ireland to how he challenged the druidic order by cutting down their sacred oak.  Whatever he actually did, Saint Patrick’s legacy is ongoing.  Far, far more than a color, an overindulgence in alcohol, or a fae creature with a predisposition for ginger hair and rainbows, Saint Patrick’s heritage is one of faith and literature.saint patrick's cathedral dublin

My post last week was about a magic cat and the man who wrote about it.  That man’s earnest desire to convey stories, both true and fanciful, to a lost world owes its existence to  the courage and dedication of the heroic Saint Patrick.

So, I hope you wore green.  I hope your day was festive (in moderation!).  But I also hope that those of you who believe as I do, who were able to go to your church for a day of worship, also took a moment to consider that men and women like Saint Patrick, as instruments of their Maker, brought the light into our ancestors’ dark world. We owe them much.

stone bible Saint Patrick's cathedral dublin ireland
A passage from Psalms set in stone in St Patrick’s Cathedral

A Month of Ireland: The Magic, Faerie-Hunting Cat Named Pangur Bán

Last week I provided a very dark but beautiful bit of poetry about the faeries stealing away a child.  This week, my Irish-themed post has a slightly happier note.  As previous posts have mentioned, there is a cartoon called The Secret of Kells about the writing of the Book of Kells.  In that film is a cat named Pangur Bán, white with one blue eye and one green eye.  Multicolored eyes indicate magic, as we all know.  So today, we will talk more about what it means to have a magic cat.

The original cat Pangur Bán (he was real!) exists for us in the pages of a 9th century Irish manuscript.  An Irish monk reflects on how his own struggle for words compares to the hunting of his “whiter than white” cat.

Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindan
bíth a menmasam fri seilgg
mu menma céin im saincheirdd.
    . . .
I and Pangur Bán my cat
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

The thing about magic cats is they have a tendency to show up in unexpected places.  This Irish cat now lives in my house.

pangur ban white green eye blue eyeThe other thing about magic cats is that they do not see the world the way other cats do.  Pangur Bán’s eyes are her gift and her curse.  She sees our world with her blue eye, the mundane eye.  However, with her green eye, she sees the faeries.

Pangur Bán’s eternal battle with the invisible house faeries has been going on for months now.  She hunts them, chases them, and pounces on them, but our house is overrun.  Fortunately, Pangur Bán refuses to give up, and her hunt for the faeries continues.

 

The Pangur Bán of the 9th century hunted mice, so says the poem, but he, too, was a magic cat.  He had the ability to inspire his master to write. It is through observing his cat that the anonymous Irish monk is able to conclude:

pangur ban

He fesin as choimsid dáu
in muid dungní cach oenláu
du thabairt doraid du glé
for mu mud cein am messe.
                   . . .
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translation by Robin Flowers)

The Irish monks of this man’s time were facing many years of darkness – literary darkness, that is. They are responsible for preserving much of the early literature that we value so much today. They were writers and readers, lovers of books, masters of their craft of illumination. You know a true book-lover when he not only writes the book, but he is driven to make it beautiful.

This poem is so especially beloved not just because it is such a strange little bit of writing tucked in the margins of a manuscript.  It also shows us just a glimpse of man’s thoughts aside from his long hours of writing down and preserving valuable texts.  Over a thousand years ago, a man sits at his desk and struggles to find inspiration and to use just the right words.  Another translation of the first verse by Seamus Heaney:

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.
How many times has any one of us sat in front of a blank screen or stared at a page, pen in hand, and struggled to free the meaning trapped in our thoughts?  If we could just find the right words, the story would come to life.
Pangur Bán may seem to be no more than a small white cat, but this cat has managed to travel through time to tell a very simple, but universal story of the writer’s experience.  A magic cat, indeed! Although the author of this poem is nameless, he has given us a name to remember.  It seems, thanks to his cat, he found his words, after all.
pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban makes friends with the evil Bella Bunny.

A Month of Ireland: The Faeriescape

It’s March, St Patrick’s month, so why not do a few posts on Ireland to celebrate?  I personally have a heavy dose of Northern Irish on my mother’s side (as I discovered when I found her maiden name on nearly every tombstone of a church in Portadown).

And of course, there’s the fact that I am very, very fond of early Irish literature. So was the poet William Butler Yeats, who, aside from poetry, wrote a book called Celtic Twilight, which explores the existence of faeries (Yeats was a believer) and their connection to Ireland.  Yeats’s fascination with Irish magic came through into his poetry as well. I’ve always enjoyed one in particular, haunting and mysterious, about a child being lured away by the faeries.  When I was in Ireland, I was amazed at the enchanted landscapes that we passed through.  It was much easier to see why Yeats was so convinced that faeries lived in the forests.

So, to start the month of Ireland off right, a poem about faeries and some lovely pictures.

(And for a real treat, listen to Loreena McKennit’s version of this poem set to music!)

misty mountains ireland

“The Stolen Child”

WHERE dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

pond portadown ireland

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

tree tunnel northern ireland

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

mountain of mist northern ireland

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

~ William Butler Yeats

Many Wondrous Kinds of Light

We looked through doorways, we ambled along beautiful, mysterious paths.  Now, I’d like to talk about atmosphere.  What makes any place feel more magical is just the right quality of light.

I think I brought up sunrise and sunset in my post on doorways – the time between times.  Photographers love it because the quality of light is both soft and rich, quiet and striking.  

Different kinds of light take you different places.  Those warm, perfect sunsets (I’ll be honest, I can’t really tell you much about sunrises as I am rarely awake enough of in the early mornings to appreciate them) are breathtaking.  It’s hard to look away from the sky when the sun, normally too bright to see, is swathed in a hundred layers of brilliant color as it falls into seas or mountains.  Half the world goes dark as shadows creep up from underneath, but the top layer holds onto that glorious golden color until the last lights fade.

But the time between times isn’t the only beautiful kind of light.  A noonday sun that casts rays directly down can burn and blind, but on a good day, when the light is filtered through the right amount of cloud, the world is bright and dim at once.  The sky has texture.

Or takes on a new color entirely.

And then there is the bright light that we find coming through a layer of multi-colored greens in a forest.  This is one of my favorites.  Gaps in the wood allow arrows of brightness to find the forest floor.  Thin, pale green leaves are like stained glass aglow as the sun hits them from above.  The forest floor is dappled, like the stones of a cathedral across from a green-themed window.

The thing about the sun is, we don’t love it for itself, exactly, but for what its light and warmth do to our world, especially after long, gray days of sunlessness.  I think of Puddleglum under the earth as the witch tries to drive all memory and belief of the Overworld and its sun from their minds.  But Puddleglum, one of the saddest but truest of all heroes, says,

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” (Silver Chair, CS Lewis)

Days without the sun certainly drove me to doubt whether I’d ever see it again, but when the light finally did touch grass and tree and stone, it was as though the whole world had been born again.

We are such light-loving creatures that we seek it long into the night.  The soft, silent kind of light that we find in the moon provides an eery imitation of the sun.

Whenever I think about moonlight, I always hear the sound of Loreena McKennitt singing “The Highwayman” where “the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas” and “the road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moors.”  That is what I feel when I see a moon like the one I saw behind St Giles in this photo.

Firelight, starlight, moonlight – we are certainly drawn to light after the sun disappears.

When the natural world is too dark, we capture our own light – torches and candles, silmarils and lamp posts, we bring small flames with us into the darkness and make our own suns and stars.

I always notice the lamp posts that I pass in a street or a park.  They seem so lonely, secretive, and (of course) a little magical as well.  We know whose fault that is.

Photography is light-writing, and how light touches and transforms the world is an endless study.  Take a moment to notice how light touches, colors, and translates what you see into something better than it otherwise might be.