Geopark Ghosts

Standard

New month and another inspirating jaunt out with fellow creatives on Cavan Council’s Ancient and Wild project. Journeying with the Cavan Arts Officer, we met in a remote corner in the southwest of the county. At Trinity Island we contemplated place and its impact on people, as well as the function of memory and time, and how all interplay in creating art in all genres. This project seeks to explore the relationship of artistic expression and the unique landscape of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, which straddles the Cavan/Fermanagh region.    And, as well, the subject of ghosts and haunting cropped up in conversaton.

Trinity Island is an watery outpost as the rim of the geological ribbed moraine, the largst on the planet.  A causeway links it to drier, higher ground.  Privately owned by the O’Dowd family, who steward this heritage site, we viewed the ruins of its Abbey and learned of its long history of humans inhabiting this space.

Trinity Island

Trinity Island Abbey was one of three abbeys in this ancient landscape. Founded by the Premonstratensian order of monks, it was a daughter house of the Abbey on Trinity Island in Lough Key, Co. Roscommon.  Tom O’Dowd describes them as ‘White Canons’. The ‘White Fathers’ or Augustininians had their Abbey in nearby Drumlane. Elsewhere in the Geopark Augustinians had an Abbey in the middle of Lough Erne at Devenish Island; they also give their name to the White Fathers Cave in Blacklion, West Cavan.

Trinity Island Abbey

With their white cowls it is little wonder that the lady who was the solitary congregant at Mass in the ruins of the Abbey one wild Christmas morning mistook a ghost for a real priest. Tom was told by another priest that if one of the ordained died before saying a Mass for a Special Intention that sometimes their souls suffer from a guilty conscience. And they come back looking to fulfill their promise. Because the lady could find no mortal priest who had journeyed out into that Christmas storm to say Mass that morning.

The other Abbey in the area was a remnant of the Celtic Catholic tradition that was subsumed after the Whitby Synod in CE654. So the Trinity Island area had three abbeys all within a short paddle along the tributaries of Lough Oughter.

The O’Dowds have uncovered various archaelogical treasures over the years, which have been whisked to the secure haven of the National Museum. Replicas of finds are given to the landowners and we were shown a Celtic cloak pin and a stone face of a man circa 700BCE.

We had thought provoking talks by artist Patricia McKenna and musicologist/musician Sean McElwaine exploring the interplay between landscape and art and music.  Sean also introduced me to new Irish trad band The Gloaming. Check out a sample of their work on You Tube, which includes the haunting fiddle of Martin Hayes, here.The Gloaming.

But what haunts me is that long jawed, wide, generous smile on the face of a man sculpted sometime more than 1,300 years ago. The horizontal lines across his cheeks might have been facial tattoos.  Which might have been interpretted as fierce. The weathering over time has given him a bit of a cauliflower nose, but this man looks more of a lover than a fighter. That smile speaks to me of an ancestor preeminantly happy and confident in his own skin. I would have been happy to know him and imagine him living close to the water and fenland. Perhaps he carved the wooden boat, or cot as it is called, discovered in the Trinity Lough’s mud. It was resubmerged, unlike this visage who smiles out at us from the ages.  He thrived. Possibly his descendents survived. I hope so. Who would not want to descend from such a Happy Cavan Man? Whatever his personal story, that face shines out, immortalising our ancestors long before they began to document the story.

Advertisements

At Home With Heritage

Standard

This summer I have been participating in a Cavan County Council Artists in the Geopark project. Musicians, animators, a ceramicist, visual and landscape artists, and writers have been viewing various sites within Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark as a touchstone for individual projects. The wider project is the brain child of the Cavan County Arts, Heritage, Tourism and Geopark officers, and is a a great example of how imaginative an interdisciplinary approach can be, especially when it comes to supporting the arts.

For those of you who may wonder what the heck a geopark is then, in brief – UNESCO recognises certain regions around this good earth as having a unique international significance for their natural, geological features, as well as ‘built’ heritage. Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark was the first cross-border Global Geopark, in the world. Its sites extend from Louth Melvin on the Donegal boundary, through a swathe of south Fermanagh, onwards east through to mid-County Cavan. Cavan is the location of the world’s largest ribbed moraine on the planet. You can only see it from an aerial view, but it gets geologists seriously excited.

Of course, the land formed the people and the people made the built heritage. So this week I had a date with twelve other artists at Corravahan House near Drung, County Cavan. It is an example of how people used local materials to create homes of both beauty and utility. Formerly a rectory built in 1840 by a Reverend Beresford on a career trajectory toward the Archbishopric of Armagh (which is as good as it can get for a Church of Ireland clergyman), Corrovahan House is a building full of grace, as well as full of individual quirks from its succession of owners.

It is Heritage Week here in Ireland. This part of Ireland breathes an ancient and wild heritage. But it also domesticated itself, a bit like my semi-feral cat Felix. Home comforts are welcome, but there is always an air of the wildish about him. Corravahan House encompasses how there is practical adaptation of a house to social context and status, but  how it also includes certain whimsicalities that are very individual to the people who inhabited its space. While Corravahan House is part of Irish Heritage Homes and is open to the public for sixty days each year, it remains a family home with much evidence of the current layer of heritage archaelogy being built up.

I am also a Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark local guide. When I am showing certain archaelogical sites in Cavan Burren Forest I like to imagine how it was to live in that ancient time. There is a particular glacial erratic split by neolithic inhabitants. Archaelogists reckon it was a project to create a capstone for a dolmen. But plans went awry when it split at an unprojected seam.  The remains are proximal to hut site foundations. I always feel sympathy for the husband who had to have the remains of his DIY disaster in the backyard for an eternity. Literally. Possibly having to listen to his wife kvetch about it, too.

In Cavan you have many opportunities to see the layer of human interaction with landscape. You can see it in carefully conserved homes like Corravahan House. But you can also see it in relict landscapes like the Cavan Burren Park, where there was continuous human habitation from the earliest human arrivals in Ireland, right up to when Coillte, the Forestry Commission took over when the last farmer retired.  Thousands of year, eons even, have all wondrously brought us to this place.

I feel fortunate, blessed and humbled, to have had a walk on part in its ever unfolding story. Meanwhile, I need to get back to my own project. I am editting, revising and collecting my own Geopark inspired writing from over the years living here. Watch this space.

 

 

 

We Need to Talk About Symbols

Brexit
Standard

I have always had a certain ambivilance bordering on antipathy to flags. Flags are territory markers, symbols of possession. They are also a way of saying you are either in or out. If you are one of us you are welcome; everyone else ‘Scram!’

We say patriots wrap themselves in the flag. But really, they wrap themselves in tribalism. Underneath that tribalism is the rattle of sabers and the thunder of war drums, of winners chest thumping and losers being ground under a boot.

Flags are ugly things to me. We aren’t dogs that need to mark territory to find our way home.  To some, flags may be a symbol of belonging, but really they are also symbols of exclusion.

Living close to the boundary with Northern Ireland and, having ‘married in’ with a native of that part of the world, I know all about flags. Mercifully, those flags have become less prevalent since 1998, but there are still neighbourhoods that fly the tribal colours and we know that we can never belong. There are certain times of year where certain neighbourhoods are avoided while they have their annual tribal rites.

And seeing that profusion of tribal colours incites an unease. American-born I can go anywhere, but there are areas where  my husband would immediately feel unwelcome, uneasy if not threatened. It’s got much better, but the point is that those symbols are potent and they can instill fear, anxiety, terror.

I want to ban all flags. Because all are, in a sense, flags of convenience, ways to oil the wheels of power over, to profit the few at the expense of the many. They are symbols drenched in blood and suffering. Some glory in that sacrifice of human life. The truth is that there is never glory, only a trail of grief generation upon generation.

Resistance is more important than ever. Tribalism is pushing its unmasked face into ours. And how can you respond non-violently?

I live near to the border with Northern Ireland and there is much discussion about whether Brexit will mean that we go back to the  ‘hard border’ days prior to the Peace Treaty that created a renaissance in this region, much of it funded by the EU. No one here wants to go back to the days of delays crossing the border, customs checks, military presence.  No one wants a hard border.

A bridge between the villages of Belcoo, Co. Fermanagh (Northern Ireland) and Blacklion, Co. Cavan (Republic of Ireland) is an international boundary. During the annual summer fair an art installation by Rita Duffy was mounted right on the international boundary line. “Soften the Border” used soft furnishings and knitted work (and The Markethouse in Blacklion is host to many avid crochet and knitting sessions) to make a symbolic point.

art installation 2

And there was not Union Jack or Tricoulour in sight. On one side was a small purple blanket. The other was crochet granny squares.

No tribal colours or sabers or drums. This region has had enough of that to last three lifetimes and it brought a great deal of destruction, sorrow, heartache, depopulation and emigration, and economic decline.

They embraced this idea of peace, reconciliation, coexistence, respect. You don’t have to like everyone and their beliefs, but if you want a civil society without violence you need to suck it up and not rub your neighbour’s nose in something that will make them afraid, defensive and reactionary.

Which is why symbols of triumphalism of any kind, whether it is a flag or a statue of some supposed ‘hero’, have to go if we want to walk the talk of ‘love thy neighbour.’ Integration has a long way to go in the North, but over twenty years people have found common ground, most recently in the stand against fracking operations moving into the cross-border region.

Softly, persistantly, with craft, intelligence and wit, people can unite and resist without violence.

But absolutely, symbols are provocations and have the power to incite violence as much as they have the power to unite people behind the nobler call of equality, fairness, and power sharing.

If there must be flags, let them be wooly and soft, symbols of nurture and cherishing, warmth and welcome.

We need icons like this sculpture in Blacklion that looks across Lough MacNean to Fermanagh. We need symbols of hope that inspire us to keep walking the talk, no matter how imperfect our efforts  may be.

Haiku Walk

Standard

The date for my fools for poetry reunion was long ago set for 5th August. I proposed a haiku walk, or ginko, as a way of exploring both nature and stretching the writing muscles with a new poetry form. Haiku looks deceptively simple. No more than seventeen syllables, no need to rhyme. No conventional metaphor saying one thing is like another, or comparisons to lead the reader. Just three lines of nature description.Or not, in the case of senryu, where you look at human nature, rather than flora and fauna.

But haiku can also be a bit of a fiend. Three lines of 5-7-5 syllables flows beautifully in Japanese. In English it can seem stilted and over constrained. Also, while you might be able to write a snapshot, do your three lines convey a bigger picture? Because that is rather the point of haiku. It implies a larger, or greater truth. Sometimes with a sense of humour.

Then again, strict haiku traditionalists insist on a kigo, or seasonal word. So we started our workshop kicking around some words that would universally be recognised as signposting season of Lunasadh, as August is fashioned in Irish: rowan berries, blackberries, bilberries, mushrooms. All these anchor us to a certain point in the wheel of the year.

IMG_0370

Morag got to model some found kigo.

We had to joke about rain.  Which is kind of a default setting for the Irish. For Brid, living over in central County Cavan had been a bit sceptical about the walk given that floods of rain were cascading down the concrete walls of her home a couple hours before we were due to meet.  I had to explain how the mountains hemming us in on all sides gives West Cavan a unique micro-climate that often defies weather prognostications.

Weather gods!

Sunshine shall be had!

Haiku poets walk

Forest bathing

(That’s a nod to Anne-Marie’s and my mutual friend, John Wilmott, who is a great promoter of Japan’s shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, in Ireland.)

Glenfarne Forest Demesne, just over the boundary in North Leitrim, was the venue I chose for both the shinrin-yoku and the ginko.

We followed the trail and took in some of the sculptures that grace the forest, which also offers views across Lough MacNean to Fermanagh. We stopped and looked; the benefit of being in a group is that one of you is likely to know the name of the species that has caught your attention. Thank you, Christine!

shield bug haiku

Forests always feel magical and a bit mystical to me. I had wandered a bit ahead of the rest who paused at a boulder. “I see a face!”

Green Man leers

Now you see him! Now you don’t!

Sinks back into moss, bark, tree.

No, the photo does not convey how we all saw what looked a bit like a skull, or like Edvard Musch’s The Scream, peering from the tree.  But we all saw it!

If you would like to join me in the future on other guided haiku walks, email me dowrabeesmith@gmail.com.

Writer Displacement Activity

Standard

Into every writer’s life comes the siren call of distraction and diversion from the page or screen, from crappy first draft to the editting of Version7.docx.  Suddenly, there is a pressing need to groom the cat, to separate out the recycling bin under the sink.  Don’t talk to me about social media either, it is both friendly diversion and foe-like distraction in the digital age. It’s called displacement activity and it is all about not wanting to face imperfection, failure, one’s own un-original face.

Actors have a (probably underserved) reputation as being the divas of The Arts. But I will tell you, the Pity Party that I can throw in my head makes them look like Am-Dram Night. It all goes on in my busy brain and my husband is wise to it.  Duly noted, it disrupts the brutal, flagellistic pleasure of the Pity Party. Witnessing becomes a form of diversion, but in a healthy way.

It’s at these creative/artistic self-loathing times that I turn to Anne Lamott, she whose father told her brother to take it ‘bird by bird.’ In other words, when you are overwhelmed by the big picture of a project just take it one digestable task at a time.

Her TED talk pep talk can be found at:

Sometimes you need the Pity Party, to vent your Poor Pitiful Pearl (a doll that my aunt owned, but my mother used to conjure up when cajoling me out of a sulk.), to confront your ugly. This, too, is a displacement activity. While Pity Partying and Poor Pitiful Pearling there is no writing happening. Because it is all no use! Pointless! No one loves my words!

In the same video Lamott gives us several pearls of her own wisdom now she is 61. I am approaching my 61st birthday in three months and I would add just one of my own to the pot.

You can be guilty of really heinous acts, imperfect behaviour, distrastrous decisions and be good right at your core and it can still shine through. That the last one to forgive anyone of those actions is the one who perpetrates them. That what Lamott calls radical self-care is compassion for oneself and is forgiving what feels unforgiveable.

Sometimes this compassion requires a change of scenery. Sometimes it comes in absolute silence. Sometimes it arrives with a really hearty laugh at one’s foibles, posturings, the ego-driven folly of it all.

Then I can come back to the page, the pen or the screen. It is smooth and virginally blank of words.  It has the requisite line spacing that soothes my faint heart. My special pen (writers are also deeply superstitious, not just actors) is to hand. Then it doesn’t matter if I am sitting at home with the dogs all around me, or in a cafe, or even in a bus shelter jotting down some lines before I forget them. It is time to let the words flow out onto the page, my particular or peculiar, imperfect way of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling about this, that and the other thing.

That latter is often the distraction, the diversion and can turn out to be compassion, too. Compassion that is for all of us who are both guilty and good in large and infinitesimal ways.

Creation relies on womb-like darkness and dark places can be scary. But there is light at the end of the birth canal. There is light at the source, too, that navigates the darkness.

Even displacement activity eventually finds its way back home in darkness and light.

Writing Inspiration 1

Standard

Where do poems come from? (This is about as loaded a question as where babies come from, but potentially less embarrassing.) I thought I would share where the inspiration can be sourced and then show you the poem that resulted from said source.  The example is the poem “Inish”  (Irish for island), which I wrote after a boat trip to an island off the Sligo coast back in August 2015.

Inspiration and writing both have allies in observation. Notice things. Look. See. Listen. Hear. Touch. Feel. Feast. Taste.  Every sense is quivering to offer you something to prime the writing pump.

So I am going to share some photos I took that windswept day, bundled up in my husband’s thickest sweater.

Inishmurray inlet

Inishmurray inlet. The boats go from Mullaghmore harbour. There is no jetty. You have to leap at the auspicious second onto a rocky promontory.  It is an object lesson in the leap of faith.

Inishmurray was a monastic site, but also had families living there until it was evaculated in the 1940s, when the population had dwindled to an unsustainable level.

063

Brady family members created this monument to their island lineage on what had been the family homeplace.

This is the poem published in Irish publication Skylight 45 in January 2016.

Inish

On an island you are always surrounded.

Not a bad thing – not necessarily, not always,

not even when lashed, cornered by southwesterlies,

the sea the colour of a gun, rock outcrop a citadel,

wind keeping you beyond reach.

 

From their front porch before their eyes

mainland’s Sleeping Giant becomes transgendered,

a paunchily pregnant Giantess,

drowsily sexy with the mountains ranging

to her north and south standing guard.

 

They have a bit of bog, a bit of grazing,

some seagull eggs, laver bread, grey mullet and pollack.

Also round stones, holy stones etched with art

for cursing, for blessing, doing the double;

a diet of dread and angelic awe.

 

How could they not come home again

forty years beyond their leaving, bringing back

the Brady nieces and nephews to show them

what was missed and missing.

On an island you are always be surrounded.

 

067

So get out and about in your world. Inspiration is the next seashell you see. Or a piece of litter you pick up. Flotsam and jetsam are inspiration’s buddies. It doesn’t need to cost any money at all. It does take time, attention and intention.

(M)other Sojourning

Standard

My mother taught me to tie my shoe laces, balance a cheque book, the correct way to pack a suitcase for a trip. In my latest jaunt I packed Mom, too. Back in the spring I wrote a stage 10 speech for Toastmasters titled “What My Mother Taught Me.” A Canadian professor friend noticed my Facebook post about this and promptly invited me to speak at the Motherlines conference at NUI Galway this weekend.

Because Mom was particular about her packing and preparation for trips  she is, in a sense, ever present for any and all my sojourns. This time, however, she got a starring role. Which probably would have taken her aback, since she was inherently shy, but  also secretly pleased. I fretted over my wardrobe, as she would have done, too, and was a critical part of the packing exercise. I inherited her blonde hair and was reminded that her High school art teacher had urged her to wear red to stand out more. So, here I was 80 years or  more later giving that teacher some satisfaction standing before an audience in my red suit and shoes, sharing how my Motherlines had informed my own life choices. In her wildest dreams she would never have imagined her life being celebrated at a conference of feminists.

It has been an extraordinary few days making the invisible visible and giving the marginalised a voice. The academic research papers were mostly quantitative, with many direct quotes from respondents (or co-researchers as one person termed them.)  These voices from and about mothers’ experiences and mothering were wide ranging: mothers who were also addicts, working mothers looking for child carers, mothers who died while giving birth to children, mothers naming the namelessness of pregnancy and child loss, mothers experiencing cancer, separation and divorce. Mother as spiritual archetype of Cailleach and Brigid was examined in Mary Condren’s keynote address. A mother preparing sons for bar mitzvah examined at how gender plays out in rites of passage. Clementine Morrigan’s paper on a Feminist Queer Witch’s Marian devotion had me shifting around some weighty mental furniture, as well as unpacking some old religious assumptions (back to baggage!) from my own Catholic upbringing.

Not all the papers were academic. In the ‘Writing Motherlines’ presentation we heard poetry from Canada’s Laurie Kruk; (Favourite Takeaway Conference Quote: the best revenge is writing poetry.)

It will be sometime before I process all the rich offerings from this weekend –

img_5371

Elma Whealton Russell as a child

img_5368

Elma with her sisters Mary and Betty is a studio shot by their father

The new information, insights, ponderings for future mental sojourning. To sample the banquet on offer you can see more about Motherlines: Mothering, Motherhood, and Mothers in and thepugh the Generations: Theory, Narrative, Representation, Practice, and Experience at The Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.

Feeling profoundly grateful to Andrea O’Reilly of York University, Toronto, for the invitation to speak, listen, learn and be enriched by so much story.

img_5464