Friday, June 22, 2007

Fionn Mac Cumhaill & the Whirlwind

Charles McGlinchey, in "The Last of the Name," his memoir of traditional life on Inishowen in the extreme north of Co Donegal, tells his father's story of Finn Mc Cool, or however you render him. The image is from an earlier encounter with another elder figure of wisdom, when Finnéigeas ["fair" + seer/ sage/ scholar/ poet] tutors him; the young warrior blisters his thumb on the Salmon of Knowledge. That story can be read here:

Now, for today's tale. McGlinchey lived 1861-1954. He died without heirs, thus the title of this brief narrative edited by Brian Friel, published 1999. Imagine this told by another bearded grey one, to fresh faces and weary ones in a damp smoky cottage. Think of how Oisin and Fionn, his Fianna, Cú Chulainn, Conor and Fergus along with hosts of fairies, giants, witches, and folks once like you and me came alive for these excited or exhausted listeners on long lonely firelit nights. Bring yourself into an era of hardship and pleasure that McGlinchey knows as ephemeral now as the whirlwind the tale conjures up. "A house with young children was a noisy place many a time, our own as well as the rest. But it's a long while now since the music of children was heard in this house. It'll be eighty years and more." (104)

Will my children gain delight in their visualized and all too graphic games, their vivid depictions of superheroes and war machines, fighters and bombs, epic contests again pitting doughty good vs. cunning evil, life's flicker against death's darkness?

I'm writing now my conference presentations about Horslips, and how they enlivened the Ulster Cycle and the Book of Invasions for hippies and even shorter-haired punkish teens as myself in the 1970s. My inspiration in turn's from HorsLit and Come Back Horslips under Lee Templeton's direction on the Net. Bold tech, venerable sagas. Derided by many trad musicians and insulted by rock critics, Horslips' legacy today, as with Jim Fitzpatrick's graphic arts counterparts, restored ancient myth and medieval narrative for modern audiences. So, the predictions of woe may be premature, same as it ever was. If I can get my somnolent students this past term into Shakespeare, overcoming their doubt and boredom, perhaps miracles can still occur. By course's end, two students borrowed the Branagh and Hawke videos to view in full; two enjoyed the South Coast Rep's current performance of Hamlet.

Are we literary types the last of our name? Or, as I wonder when teaching my students (including majors in "Gaming & Simulation Programming") will they bridge past print with future fandom? Bibliophiles or video game addicts: any real difference? What will pop culture's scholars and media critics celebrate a century after my birth, those to be tenured in turn a century after that of McGlinchey?

Fionn, lost in the forest, rests by a tree trunk. A "sidhe-gaoithe" or whirlwind (literally a fairy-wind) blows up about him and when it clears he sees a little hut directly ahead. Seeking bed and board, he enters. A grey-bearded man sits in the corner, a big black cat on the other side of the hearth. A beautiful girl appears as Fionn steps in. She puts a meal for him on the table. But a ram leaps up to gobble up the food before Fionn can. The cat grabs the ram by the throat to drag the hoofed one back to the cat's corner. Fionn sups. The girl directs him to his sleeping area. He falls in love with her. Usual entreaties of eternal fidelity and nuptial bliss follow, but she refuses. "You had me before and you did not think much of me and threw me aside. You cannot have me again." (qtd. 109)

Although our confounded swain tries to explain he'd never before set eyes on her, she counters his courting. She only smiles, then leaves him. Next morning, breakfast laid out, he eats. Before he leaves, he asks the old man "what was the meaning of the strange household that he kept." (109-110) The man answers. He's Father Time, who sits and watches. The ram's the World. The black cat keeps the world in its place. It's Death.

As for the comely colleen, she's Youth. "You had her once, but you can never have her again." (110) The old man ascends, the sidhe-gaoithe gusts, the hut and all its contents vanish. Fionn's again seated, his back against the tree amidst the forest.

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