Monday, November 30, 2009

Does Facebook follow our society's ups & downs?

Here's a Facebook message verbatim (?) as posted.
☆ .•´ •´¨¨)) -:¦:- early ☆ ((¸¸.•´ ☆ nite nite ☆ -:¦:- ((¸ ¸.•´ ☆ sprinkles ☆ ☆ * ***fairy hugz****
Also, from same person same day:
"----- is really fed up with inconsiderate people!"

Here's another friend. A typical message verbatim from this former h.s. classmate (transferred out two years in, so perhaps that may account for his orthographic skills) turned entrepreneur. Luckily after an initial flurry of similar themes and grammar, he's diminished his appeals. He lives in Pacific Palisades now and poses by a very fancy car; I assume his FB profile tells truly about such conspicuous consumption.

TELECOM & BLUEBERRIES...or MAKE MINE A BLACKBERRY: Being approached about every opportunity has it's benefits 1) Opportunity to learn first hand about a company & it's products 2) Opportunity to compare ACN's Global Telecom Opp...ortunity to the theirs. Hands Down ACN's Comp Plan & Services WIN! Every network marketer has 2 things a Product & a phone. Funny how every opportunity needs the service ACN offers.

Yeah, funny. On a more humorous, if intentionally so note, around the same time, another friend twittered this: "No one should die because they like Irish music, & no one should go broke because they do it for a living. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day." This was in response to an attempt to go viral via this ubiquitous 9/4/09 message: "No one should die because they cannot afford health care and no one should go broke because they get sick. [If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.]"

That was in response to Obama's dickering with the insurance industry and "wellness provider" monoliths towering over any chance of decent medical plans. With controls on spending absent, I wonder indeed how the new system will be better than the horrendous one we already have, or do not. Not that the fundamental power to decide life-and-death issues is gone, only shifted, from the corporations alone to them in league with the government, over what they will and will not pay.

Trillions: no matter who pays, we pay. Over a fourth of all Medicare is paid for those in their final year of life. Having seen my father's final year end earlier this current year, I understand the emotional difficulties. This debate reminds us of our mortality, forces that no anointed leader can rescue us from. I do wonder if people will eat better, exercise more, and ease up on the obesity, heart disease, and diabetes that some say already account for 75% of health costs right now. These are often preventable, or reducible causes that are not givens, not inherited, not fated. And I fear much of what we do and what we will pay out for as taxpayers, as policy holders, comes after the fact, for those who haven't taken care of themselves. Does this sound too harsh? It seems the unspoken side of this dilemma.

We're a nation that loves quick fixes after overindulgence. Lose that flab after all that holiday stuffing. Most of my neighbors and fellow voters thought miracles would begin promptly a year ago. Given the $19 million our president raked in personally during his campaign from these same insurers, neither his dithering nor the rhetoric of his opposition surprises me, but apparently his inevitable compromise startles the 68 million who voted for a faith healer. The dependence of his wife's income on this healthcare industry makes me skeptical about their loyalties. But I digress.

Nearly a season later, FB posts by most concerned appear to have markedly decreased. Even the Blueberry businessman. Our economy despite boasts of Wall Street and Oval Office has not boosted fortunes of many of my peers. A few single or kid-free (or college-bound via their kid) folks continue to travel about and tell the rest of us their sights, yet others lament on Facebook their job prospects, health fears, and stressful routines. I wonder how the reduction in FB activity (I joined late, last February) can be graphed related to unemployment rates, fears of a stable future, and pressing demands that take precedence over breathless updates and those fun quizzes? (I do the latter but avoid the former; I set my preferences on FB to reveal little to all and use the system to keep in touch with individuals more than as a broadcast. My blog entries feed into it; otherwise I try to keep a lower profile.)

Although I have now gained over a hundred "Friends," I estimate 20%-25% of them actually post regularly, however loosely defined, on Facebook. (Will they skim this entry, once fed over there?) I read the other day that Twitter's already counted on the way out among hipsters. Don't get me started on one lovable but eccentric real-world friend who once in a while bursts on FB via cross-uploading cryptic packed accounts from Twitter of his day out on the town. Twitter also seems to be beloved by-- from my limited p-o-v, a few publishing types-- journalists and writers eager to promote their work, understandably if a bit confusingly. Still, in this day of outsourcing and freelancing, I cannot blame them for such transmedia. I've learned of great articles and even a few books this way.

Not every medium's so bustling today. My e-mail hardly has anybody sending me correspondence unrelated to work, and often's about as scant in terms of personal messages as my mailbox has been for perhaps years or decades now. As I eschew the phone unless no other option exists for any form of communication, maybe many more driven to socially network, those extroverted Type A chattering classes, now resort to forms of messaging that fly under my radar or beyond my narrow technological ken.

Still, being a stay-at-home sort happy to browse and surf, I can handle a vicarious life on the Net fine. I must interact enough in crowded cities and jammed classrooms to fulfill my supposedly evolved necessity for face-to-face human contact. Otherwise, at this distance, I balance peeping with discretion adroitly. So I hope.

Cartoon: Dave Coverly by way of blog "Dangerous Intersections"

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Belliveau & O'Donnell's "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo": Book Review

The first to follow in his 13th c. footsteps, all 25,000 miles, two New York City explorers combine lovely photos with casual prose as they leave Venice, trek overland into China and back again. Avoiding airplanes, falling into the clutches of Afghan warlords, and enduring Canton's hellish train station, they recount their own share of adventurers.

What they find is how accurate "Marco Millions'" travelogue can be when tracing his route in desolate areas still largely the same as seven hundred years ago. I liked the Karakorum setting, with haunting open landscapes you can see in their photography and their simple scenes among the Mongols. How can you resist any narrative that crosses Taklamakan, the sandy wasteland you can get in but not out of by its name, followed by the Desert of Lop? On the Yunnan-Tibet Old Tea Horse Road, similar enchantment comes with the Naxi people, who now as then cap their teeth with their wealth, in gold. The pair realize that due to assimilation and globalization, the pressure of the Han Chinese majority on ethnic minorities (as they witness with the Uighirs and Tibetans) falls upon such peoples. "These are the last days that Polo's descriptions can be witnessed," they lament. (178)

Transience permeates this book, fittingly and poignantly. A Chinese professor in Xi'an paints a pagoda for years "and it's never the same. Every minute of every day the light changes and I see something different...but more has helped me to realize that I am changing more than my subject. When I am gone it will remain." (177)

A Cochin refuses to let them take pictures of the synagogue in India on Jew Road; the spice trade that made his people ancient merchants there has died out, and the congregation withers. Until earlier last century, those "white Jews" took slaves, converting them as "black Jews"; on Shabbat the latter had to sit on the floor of the shul. Denis Belliveau, who tells the story, cringes inside thinking of the irony of Passover seders there, but as many times, if not all, he keeps silent for his host.

Other places, he and Fran O'Donnell, ex-Marine, speak out. They talk back to their churlish Chinese and Persian handlers, and they navigate more than one police state with aplomb. They have trouble getting through Afghanistan as warned, and also in entering Iran. "We used to pray in our homes and socialize in public," one student dares to tell them. "Now we pray in public and socialize at home." (268) Suspected as CIA spies often, the travellers meet their share of difficulty, just as Marco Polo's party.

"In Xanadu, we found no there was no stately pleasure dome, no lush gardens filled with game, no sumptuous concubines. There was only a windswept plain and the remnants of an outer brick wall that once encompassed the Great Khan's summer palace. Destroyed by the Ming so there would be no memory of the Yuan-- we stood there defying them, daring to remember." (166)

In Sumatra they view the same act done by our primitive ancestors. Hunters circle a felled beast, seeking its spirit's forgiveness. This may be the oldest ritual still alive today, in such remote fastnesses as found by the pair of adventurers. In Sri Lanka, at Adam's Peak, they see its shadow cast over forty miles of a verdant plain.

Among the Khotan dunes amidst a sandy sprawl the size of Germany, Denis comes upon "a shattered tree that had drifted these waves for eons." Halting his camel, he runs his hand over the softened grain of the wood. "Maybe a child climbed this tree thousands of years ago when it was alive," he muses. "Maybe a monk meditated under its leaves when it stood in the courtyard of a Buddhist monastery of perhaps a mad Tibetan marauder was put to death and hung from his limbs." Their host, nicknamed "Grumpy" for his resemblance to a certain dwarf, "barked for his boys to start hacking at the bleached trunk, and I reflected on the tree's final demise. Tonight it would heat my bed and cook my food, completing its journey as it helped me on mine." (125)

It's easy to see how such stories endure on such a trail, and how new ones emerge. Overall, this book leaves, as Marco's did, half the tale out, I suppose. This can lead to slight confusion, as the maps as endpapers fail to show the direct routes taken, and there was in the Persian episode as they narrate some alteration of plans, and why this itinerary is not drawn on the maps appears an oversight that needed correcting. Also, I tended to lose track of how long it took them to get from place to place over two years, and I would have liked a detailed chronology on their map to keep up with their pace as it ebbed and flowed.

However, the photos are splendid and the chatty presentation, with easily read type and shaded font for the excerpts-- rather few, so I suppose Marco Polo did tell his fair share of tall tales to fill out his book-- from the original account give modern armchair travelers a thoughtful way to gain instruction from the trail here. As before, tolerance and hospitality, rudeness and danger, violence and threat fill the pages of another Westerners' journey to the Far East and all points in between. (Posted to Amazon US 10-7-09)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Seamus an Gaeilge" (cuid dhá)

Chríochnaigh "Seamus an Gaeilge" agallamh raidió le "Rónán Beo @ 3" go luath. Dúirt sé leis Gaeilgoir eile cáiliúil, Des Mac an Easpaig. Is beirt Nhua-Eabhrac é. Rug Seamus scoláireacht iomlán ar Liam Ó Cuinneagáin-- fear mór ceart go leor-- ag freastail Oideas Gael ina Ghleann.

Faoi deireanach, tháinig Seamus go Gaoth Dobhair go cinnte. Bhí bréa leo ag cadráil a dhéanamh leis cainteoirí dhúchais ar gach taobh. Bhí sé chomh aifreann airsean féin, deir Seamus le nuacht áitiúil, "Pobal Doire/Nuacht na Dún na nGall," 13 Deireadh Fómhair 2009.

Tósaigh Seamus ag canadh seán-nós ina Bún na Leaca ina Gaoth Dobhair faoi láthair. Tá mac léinn ag dul san íonaíocht le haghaidh duaise ina dhá h-Oireachtas. Chuaigh sé go gCorcaigh anuraidh; chuir sé isteach ar dhuais ina Leitir Ceannain an coicis é seo caite.

Tá Seamus ag obair leis scannán faisnéise dháteangach le TG4 agus RTÉ faoi "The Fighting 69th." Tá réim aigesean féin. Is rialta céimiúil Éireannach de réir seanchais ina Arm Méiriceánach é.

Caith Seamus ag dul ar ais san sluabhuíon aige babhta eile. B'fhéidir, rachaidh sé go An Afganastáin leis Na Gardaí Náisiúnta go gairid. Iarraim go bhfaighe tusa a tabhairt 'slán abhaile' go a theach nua ina Gaoth Dobhair gan moill, Sheamais Ó Fianghusa.

Seamus Ó Fianghusa, part two. (See part one "here"/ Feic cuid h-aon "anseo.")

"Seamus the Irish[-speaker]" finished a radio interview with "Rónán Beo @ 3" soon. He spoke with another famous Irish speaker, Des Bishop. The pair are New Yorkers. Seamus caught a full scholarship from Liam Ó Cuinneagáin-- a great man sure enough-- to attend Oideas Gael in the Glen.

Recently, Seamus came to Gaoth Dobhair at last. He was in love with making chat with native speakers on every side. It was like heaven for himself, Seamus told the local paper "U.S. Soldier Embraces His Irish Heritage" from "Derry People/Donegal News," 13 Nov. 2009.

Seamus starts singing seán-nós ("old-style" i.e. unaccompanied vocal) in Gaoth Dobhair currently. He's a student going to compete against others for the prize in two Oireachtas. He went to Cork last year; he put himself into the competition in Letterkenny a fortnight ago.

Seamus is working with a bilingual documentary film for TG4 & RTÉ about "The Fighting 69th." It's his own regiment. It's a very renowned, traditionally Irish, division in the American Army.

Seamus must return back again with his army-corps another go. Perhaps, he will go to Afghanistan with the National Guard shortly. I ask that you may get a "safe homewards" to your new home in Gaoth Dobhair without delay, Seamus Ó Fianghusa.

Ghriangraf/Photo le "LiamFM": "Bá Ghaoth Dobhair/Gweedore Bay".

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Seamus an Gaeilge" (cuid h-aon)

Chuir mo chara Seán Ó Brádaigh an gach lá ormsa ar Leabhar Aghaidh alt suimiúil. Bhí "Pobal Dhoire/ Nuacht na Dún na nGall" a scríofa do pháipéar scéal go hiontach. D'inis sé faoi Seamus Ó Fianghusa ó Brooklyn.

Is saighdiúir é. Bhí trí bliana go ham seo. Bhí Seamus uaidh a foghlaim Gaeilge. Casadh airsean féin leis cainteoir dúchais ina gcathair Nua Eabhrac ó Dún na nGall, ina Ghleann Cholm Cille. Tá áit dúchasach aigesan féin anseo.

Thug Treasa Ní Mhurchadha dó dúil ag rá Gaeilge Tíre Chonaill ansiúd. Cheannaigh Seamus téipeannaí. D'eist sé 'Rónán Bee @ 3' leis Rónán Mac Aodh Bhuí ó Gaoth Dobhair ina dhiadh sin.

Ní raibh Seamus daoine eile ag labhairt leis, chomh mise féin. Bheul, d'fhoglaim sé féin Gaeilge beagán ar bheagán. Rinne sé féin é.

Ansin, fuair sé Treasa aríst. Bhí Seamus ábalta déanamh comhrá leí anois. Thósaigh sé ag rá leis dhá bean eile ó Gaoth Dobhair air leis an teanga dhúchais. Inseoidh mé go mór leis cuid dhá faoi "Seamus an Gaeilge" go ham seo chugainn agaibh.

"Seamus the Irish" (part one)

My friend John Bradley sent to me the other day via Facebook an interesting article. There was in the paper "Derry People/ Donegal News" written a wonderful story. It told about Seamus Ó Fianghusa from Brooklyn.

He's a soldier. It was three years ago. Seamus had a want to learn Irish. He himself met in New York City with a native speaker from Donegal, in Glencolmcille. It's his own ancestral place here.

Treasa Ní Mhurchadha gave him a desire to speak Irish of Tir Conaill over there. Seamus bought tapes. He listened to "Rónán Beo @ 3" with Rónán Mac Aodh Bhuí from Gaoth Dobhair after that.

Seamus did not have any person to speak with, just as myself. Well, he learned himself Irish little by little. He did it himself.

Then, he found Treasa again. Seamus was able to make a conversation with her now. He began talking with two other women from Gaoth Dobhair with the native tongue. I will tell more in part two about "Seamus an Gaeilge" next time to you all.

Ghriangraf/Photo: "U.S. Soldier Embraces His Irish Heritage" 13 Deireadh Fómhair/Nov. 2009. Derry People/Donegal News.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Commit to Sit": meditating a month at home

Perhaps you share my unease lurking within. You want to get away from it all. But bills must be paid, commitments fulfilled, and timeclocks punched. How can those of us not blessed with an inheritance or a calendar free of obligations find time to listen to ourselves, in peace and quiet? Our spirits keep knocking at our minds, reminding us of the need to recharge and remotivate, but the opportunity in daily life appears to recede, and even a few minutes for one's self seems often impossible.

"Bo" over at "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" on my blog short-list (invitation-only so I encourage you to join; see samples at "The Cantos of Mvtabilitie") mused lately he needed a break from the Cambridge infighting, timewasting trivialities, and endemic malaise that in an academic hothouse may afflict many sensitive plants. He posted this link to Tricycle magazine, the Buddhist site, for their 28-day guided retreat-at-home "Commit to Sit".

I find it may be helpful to adapt or reflect upon. I've not been the only one down in the dumps. It's been a difficult year-- or two in my case--financially and personally. Perhaps it's Seasonal Afflictive Disorder? Even far from Cambridge's shadows, or torrential rain inudating my Irish friends, it's been a gloomy duration. While the sun shines intensely on me today in seasonless Southern California, I've been -- along with my wife as she notes under "Put Upon"-- staring down domestic "acedia"-- a spirit's weariness, a "noonday demon"-- lately.

A former co-worker of my wife's-- with no kids, no spouse, no time-clock-- manages as a freelance writer to get away for (to us) bewilderingly long silent retreats. We are not sure where he goes or what he does; he tends towards taciturnity also in public. I've never pried. But I am curious. (I think of Leonard Cohen up at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, thousands of feet above the very town I grew up in, away for years until legal battles and lissome lasses drew him back into the spotlight in El Lay.) As a writer, I also wonder how my less-famous acquaintance can afford it, although I suspect his costs are minimal and its comforts spartan. I've heard of those who do this regimen for three years. I wonder where they get the cash, time, or freedom.

Buddhism from its start, as James William Coleman's sociological study emphasizes, appealed to idealists and intellectuals. The need to sit and stay apart from distractions day after day does mean it's hard for a "normal" person to attain insights that may come only after utter, hushed attention. Monastics, as later in Catholicism, got to benefit most from separating themselves from society while being supported by the necessary labor of lowlier castes in humdrum trades. Mary gets to sit at the feet of Jesus and pour expensive ointment on them, and for this largess Christ praises her, but I've always felt sorry for put-upon Martha, scurrying in the kitchen, fixing up a homemade hummus for the rabbi's visit to Bethany.

Often, Western Buddhism as with other "alternative spiritualities" gets rightly castigated as a pursuit for the affluent, the self-employed, spousally supported, or trust-funded "creative classes." Maybe it's like golf, if for those more anxious about the fate of themselves? I confess I am flummoxed about how the rest of us tethered to computers, commutes, people we must serve face-to-face, with two weeks of vacation manage to pursue the higher joys afforded those soulful adventures alighting in ashrams, monasteries, or whatever you call a sylvan or alpine retreat house in another denomination or manifestation. "Commit to Sit" for a no-cost, at-home, assisted meditation structure following a four-week self-analysis of Breath, The Body, Emotions & Hindrances, and Thoughts, may appear suited for many harried, constrained, impecunious seekers.

Of course, being in Tricycle, it expects that its audience accept the concepts of dharma. This may be a stumbling block for many outside Buddhism, hostile to it or "religion," or devoted to another form of spiritual discipline. Yet, I'd counter that most people today, at least in the West, can mix its teachings with their own religious or secular backgrounds without compromising their core tenets. Buddhism famously expects one to test its affirmations against one's own reason before acknowledging them as useful for one's own orientation and incorporation. (This did lead, as I witnessed on a Facebook thread started by an Irish practitioner, into a spirited discussion of what "avoidance of intoxicants" meant in such a lived context...)

The program on line begins with one taking up "the five precepts" of morality taught for 2,500 years as "skillful means." It follows the Vipissana model that many people who gravitate towards therapy and psychoanalysis in the West have found most compatible, compared to the more visually rich Tibetan or more austerely stripped Zen traditions. As with psychiatry, the point's not to chide one's self for failures, but to inspire a more disciplined, charitable, and good-hearted approach to improving one's own life and that of those around you. The CTS immersion gradually intensifies, mirroring what a retreatant would find who has-- or has not or has not been able to do successfully-- been trying to meditate before the month.

I'm curious if any of you have ever gone on such intensive retreats, or found in a daily regimen at home some true progress towards inner peace. That's the most elusive of goals for me, and the one that I've expressed as most desirable for me. I hope nobody whatever their creed could find this humble ambition, approached by meditation in whatever form may fit best your own perceptions, unenlightening.

Illustration: From a Facebook quiz: "The Intelligence Type Test". I got the result ► Intrapersonal Intelligence! (One friend told me he'd imagined "interstellar," another mis-read it initially as did I as "interpersonal"-- which panicked reticent me. I figured a cross-legged adept in silhouette fit today's topic well.)
You possess the gift of self. Intrapersonally intelligent people like yourself best understand the world from your own unique point of view, using introspection and self-reflection. Those who are strongest in this intelligence are typically introverts and prefer to work alone. You are most likely highly self-aware and ...capable of understanding your own emotions, goals and motivations. Often times you learn best when allowed to concentrate on the subject by yourself. There is often a high level of perfectionism associated with this intelligence. Careers which suit those with this intelligence include philosophers, psychologists, theologians, writers and scientists.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Downpatrick & cauliflower soup

"Thriving, tolerant little town;" "a dismal place"; "the pub scene seems almost inadequate for a town of around 10,000." So Footprint, Moon, and MTV guidebooks weigh in on Patrick's home base. There for the first time, I stayed as my hosts commented in "Downpatrick's most desirable residential neighborhood," according to the signs around what was a still expanding estate, pushing the town past ten thousand surely.

Two of its desirable residents hosted me after my conference at Maynooth. Again, as with my Drogheda entry, this now being the North, I will keep a bit of discretion as my host's a journalist, if a determinedly "non-political" one in his contributions. He and I met of all places on the side of Loughcrew's middle cairn, in what soon became a lashing windstorm full of pelting (to me) rain. After our visit, we descended the hill, paid our farewells to my Maynooth fellow-travellers, and sped off towards Co. Down.

I'd never seen it except from a train or bus or car rushing Belfast-Dublin. From the upstairs window of my room, I could see the Mountains of Mourne, and the Irish Sea's silvery slivers. That night, my jet-lag awakening me reliably at 4 a.m., I sat on my bed in full moonlight, courting lunacy, the night after All Hallow's Eve.

Crows-- who reminded me of Maynooth somehow and of preachers in their Irish word "préachán"-- I never see back home. I used to, farther inland, but closer to L.A. itself, they never seem to be there. Perhaps they need seeds or farms or rural grasses? Shows how much I know. They flew all about below when I next looked down that morning, the fading auburn mercury lamps all around the desirable estate. Two fingers stretched into the hills, the rest of the scene that night full of darkness.

On my arrival, soaked still to the bone despite long johns under jeans, I was invited by the lady of the house for cauliflower soup. She had read my wife's blog entry "Editorless" that weekend, written while I was at Maynooth, and I had no idea of it yet. My spouse had related back to them-- see her paragraphs 1 & 2-- my own laundry list of forbidden foods and they delighted in teasing gullible me about my taboo provender.

I answered politely that indeed I had eaten cauliflower the other night at my other host's table. It was true. She then laughed. Luckily, it was curry readied hot. That embarassment over, even in my waterproofed jacket somehow getting damp, I escaped upstairs. I took a welcome shower, and then, as with my previous and future hosts in Drogheda that trip, started chatting and likely never let up.

This time it was near midnight when we stopped talking about the baffling appeal of Snow Patrol, John Waters (the Irish journalist and not the Baltimore auteur), the tourist industry, risk homeostasis, the prognosis for the Irish language, the abuse by a local Brother, the nightlife or lack thereof locally (MTV: "few places to really let loose" and while bustling by day "not as feisty as Belfast"), novels of all sorts, jobs and their lack, coverage of a hanged man from a Bangor bridge, Spain, and the traffic ('lots of tractors'-- my host this time) between there, where was work, and home, thus the expanding desirable estate.

To my interest, the miles were about the same as between my work and home in a place where population neared two tens of millions, and the commute, my freeways vs. their two-lane roads, proportionately similar too. We drove to the city's historic center and passed Denvir's, where I found out the pavement in front was a safe territory for escaped prisoners from the jail-- now the County Museum with waxworks inmates-- up the street. I looked up later, curious about the surname, and found indeed descendents of this very family founded Colorado's Mile High City.

Locally, along the Patrician route, the sights were seen rapidly. I'd long been familiar with the (set there ca. 1900) "tombstone," of late date however as is much associated with the patron saint, at the C of I cemetery outside a rather small cathedral. The Judge's seat, tellingly, showed how small a separation between established church and state was in the 1800s when the interior was restored, freed of medieval taint, to British standards. All pews with boxes, for a few families, you could tell even centuries ago how small the Plantation gentry were in numbers over the natives down whom they looked upon by the river, where the Catholic church loomed larger. There's an Irish, English, and Scotch street, so the old neighborhoods could be discerned, the long sectarian divisions.

John de Courcy came up often in conversation. He'd destroyed a native monastery nearby, so here he built Inch Abbey around 1177. But, the Cistercians, who tended to be adjuncts of the Norman supplanters, kept the natives from joining their foundation on the River Quoile, a very handsome 12th c. site reminding me of the Order's tendency both to situate its monasteries near water and their predilection to despoil local lands to get their abbeys into the best locations possible, this one within safe sight of the Mound of Down and the city center's fortifications in case trouble arose a mile downstream.

De Courcy with his 22 horsemen and 300 foot soldiers full of shock and awe also brought-- I bet not without struggle-- the supposed remains of Patrick from rival Armagh here, to bury alongside those claimed to be of SS. Columcille and Brigid. A far-fetched boast to me, but to medieval pilgrims, a tourist attraction. The Mound of Down, an ancient site, on one side, the Hill of the three saints now the complementary eminence, over the island's venerated triumvirate.

A short distance from town, Saul ("sabhal='barn'" in Irish) in the commemorative year 1932 had its C of I chapel, in a stylishly austere manner, erected where Patrick was said to have been granted by Dichu his first sanctuary-- after Patrick boasted that the chieftain's dogs could not bark so as to threaten a True Believer. Nearby, my host and I climbed (while his wife sat in the car) a hill where Patrick's statue towered over a lovely vista, sea in all directions. I admired the triangular peak far off, Slieve Donard. It immediately grabbed my attention, and like Slieve Patrick in Mayo, must have been long a pilgrimage site long before any saint came to eliminate pagan ritual or Celtic custom. On this little knock, also called Slieve Patrick, there too had been set up in 1932, a kind of papal counterpart to the Saul chapel. Mass was said there, back then ca. 432 in legend but probably, judging from the prominence, in fact to symbolize the Christian triumph. I thought of the story from on the road to Tara the day before about the modern Buddhists who had buried, reverting to an earlier faith than even their childhood Catholicism, the snakeskin on that hill in defiance of the saint and his fabled expulsion of the serpent.

In that restored, dignified chapel where he started the priestcraft that ensnared Ireland for 1500 years, my hosts were married. I read later its font was salvaged, if nothing else, from an early ecclesiastical foundation there, and as in Drogheda, rumors of Augustinian canons haunted sites now cleaned up and made into the State church, just as the Latin rite once had been set in place over the natives. My hosts were locals; although he grew up first in West Belfast as a child and then Coleraine, his wife was a Downpatrick homegirl. His family had come from a nearby port, and his surname marked him as one who stayed by the shore's wall pursuing the catch. How long must a clan have lingered in a place to earn that as their name? A generation? Five? Ten? Now, he and I both on our own had struggled to learn Irish again, lost by our clans a greater part of a century before our birth.

I noted how their accents had respectively differed from my Belfast-bred host down the motorway. I caught a softer tinge in his cadence and her lilt. I marvelled how varied were such distinctions, compared to my flat, unadorned California-but-nothing-really, absence of a dialect, speech. But, for them, I wondered if I too sounded foreign, strange, exotic. I doubt it.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Loughcrew & a rose bouquet

Less known, harder to reach, more intimate than Newgrange, Loughcrew needs as of yet no replica mound, no twinned museum, no solstice lottery. On Meath's highest hill, Carnbane East invited us, with a practical and symbolic key, into its narrowed womb-chamber.

Of course, as on Tara's softer declivity a few hours before, the rain lashed us mightily. Our host, who took a few of us from Maynooth's Alternative Spiritualities conference that weekend concluded, later wrote me of Terry Pratchett's musing that the forces always conspire against those who strive to enter pagan places. Whether out of defence, or out of challenge heightening reward, who knows? Ritual retreats: by us long denigrated, demolished, or transformed utterly.

About 280 meters above the plains of fertile Meath and overlooking Cavan's lakes, 17 counties are said to be seen, besting Tara's 16. However, at both sites, an All Saint's Day storm raged. The Hiberno-Norman family the Plunketts owned this demesne once. Riding into the valley below, I watched mists rise as if to shroud newer venerated sites, such as Oldcastle's parish church where St Oliver Plunkett was born (whose head I'd seen enshrined in a later sacred edifice in Drogheda a few days before), sufficiently to allow older spirits to emerge on the determined wind to surround us. We'd studied that weekend at Maynooth the entry of New Age and "new religious movements" into Ireland recently, and now we found ourselves alone this Sunday afternoon which soon turned grey, blustery, and battering.

By Californian standards, at least. Wearing glasses and a waterproofed thin jacket with a scarf wrapped around my neck to keep out the drops and the chill, I ascended the gradual slope. I chatted with an Australian medievalist as she recommended a book "Modern Paganism in World Contexts," for I wondered how the Old Beliefs revived or revised were faring abroad. In our own small ranks, at least one youthful practitioner from Tipperary had already at Tara's Lia Fáil quietly carried out his own private ceremony, and he'd be the last one left, chanting nearly inaudibly, within the summit named "Carnbane" ("White Cairn") we were off to visit, holding the key to fabled Cairn T.

I've cited in my Tara entry Anthony Murphy & Richard Moore's argument, discovered in full only after my return from Ireland, about the ancient patterns set up on the heights of the Boyne river valley to match the Bóthar Bó Finne, the road of the illuminated Cow, that worshipped Bóann, the cow-goddess. The triple hills that comprise Slaibh na Caillaighe (or Caillí), the "Mountain of the Witch or Hag"-- now revamped by New Agers into "wise woman healer" as my own research presentation into "Celtic Buddhism" had noted at Maynooth-- mythically arose when the woman dropped her stones there. Out of her "divine womb, translated into the language of dress," as Michael Dames in "Mythic Ireland" parenthetically puts her magical feat, the "Witch's Hops" of three spaced hills arose, so folk belief had it.

Dames argues for a midsummer solstice fire-kindled alignment for Loughcrew with Uisneach, the "tree" centrally located as island hub, with Cairn T as a "hag-shaped tomb" penetrated by the sun-god. Murphy & Moore, building on Martin Brennan's theories, sketch an even more elaborate schema. Murphy, photographing the backstone (pictured above) brightened as its patterns inscribed tracked the sun's passage entering on the autumnal equinox, happened to look tilted up on his back within the cairn's uttermost chamber, backward towards the door. It's a tight fit as we could attest, waiting so three or so of our party could squeeze under the limbo-low lintel into the inner recesses.

Murphy witnessed what probably few before him would have noticed, their eyes naturally face front. The door aligned with the Hill of Slane, another Boyne site, one where Patrick a few days after his Easter triumph had lit in 432 the paschal fire to roust the pagans. This cairn, these Drogheda-based researchers surmised, revealed a equinoctial orientation within the horizon, even 32 miles away to Millmount which had guided me to my host's home in Drogheda. Murphy and Moore's knowledge of their local Louth lore, additionally, revealed Millmount as the missing link. Unfortunately, just as at Tara misguided British Israelite-misled excavators had damaged sites a century ago, so at Millmount the Martello Tower's bulk, erected after 1798's rising-- above what's rumored as Amergin's tomb, this Stone Age mound-- amidst fears of French coastal invasions, long after the Sons of Mil, continued to impose the modern fear over the ancient ground, as the motorway below Tara shows.

Lots of ifs, lots of qualifiers. Still, scholarship the past thirty-odd years has moved towards a recognition of the Boyne Valley as a massive astronomically aligned configuration of womb-tombs and holy sites. Amergin ca. that legendary 1694 BCE uttered: "Who but I knows the place where the sun sets? Who but I knows the ages of the moon? What land is better than this island of the setting sun?" Seeing the Sons of Mil were said to have left Spain for Eirinn, high praise indeed.

As I trudged up the hillside, around puddles and over mud, I met finally my host about whom my entry on Downpatrick will tell more. We'd corresponded on line after an amazing configuration of my own. Over the years, entries on this blog on Horslips, John Moriarty (I'd quoted an article of this host, a journalist-poet-novelist whom I'll keep anonymous as he works in Belfast; old reticence dies hard for me), Francis Stuart, and finally the band The Fall. Quite an unlikely pattern, speaking of cosmological formations on the Net if not Bó Finne. Yet, it brought us together, and straightaway, recognizing each other from the photos-- and who else would approach a band of academic misfits on a stormy Sunday in the back of beyond?-- we struck up conversation.

I asked him if that was Drogheda far off. He said no, but I wondered, when later studying Murphy & Moore, if that Boyne Valley set-up pulled me at least in the right direction. I saw wind-generating towers, so much for Bronze Age cairns, on the hills far away. We could see a bit of the Irish Sea; supposedly Ballysadare Bay the other side below Sligo town can be discerned, but you'd need the sharp eye of Amergin to make that out even under a clear sky. After we had entered Cairn T, we noted how similar the floral drawings carved within seemed to the untutored gaze like a hippie child's fingerpainted flower, or a Native American's rock art pictograph. We tried, with flashlights, to shine some light on a dark chamber.

Cary Meehan in her fine "Traveller's Guide to Sacred Ireland" notes 27 inscribed stones within. I felt intruding on a venerable place, which oddly reminded me of the fake Injun Joe's cave on Tom Sawyer's Island at Disneyland, an attraction I'd long liked as it had no time limit. Unlike the Frontierland site, this Neolithic one, perhaps as old as 3000-3500 BCE, makes it older than the pyramids of Giza, or Newgrange itself, let alone Stonehenge.

A candle burned in an outer chamber. As the young neo-pagan stuck his head, faintly chanting, into the farthest recess where Murphy had looked away from, the rest of us tried to poke and peer a bit, feeling awfully enormous in this small space. When I exited with my new friend, the rain pummelled us.

I spider-crawled up the cairn. Usually I would not, as I sense I'm scaling a tomb. But certainly whatever remains were within had long since entered their own reunion with the elements that thrashed about us. A miracle this solid stone mound had survived the course of civilization, millennia before what motorways and traffic-- which to be fair brought us to and from such sites today in relative comfort-- sought to speed us past.

On top of Cairn T, on Carnbane East, what's called "the Hag's Chair" surmounted the small hillock. It opened down on the chamber, to allow rain in and smoke out, I suppose, with a welcome bit of sun. The stone lap atop Cairn T cradled, flooded by a small accumulation of rainwater, a fresh bouquet of roses left by an earlier pilgrim.

The force of the gusts up there intensified. I felt full impact of the wind as it roared in from the Atlantic side, eastwards slashing the island at Meath's tallest summit. I turned away to the west, gazing across at the more brushy, less raw, third hill, Patrickstown, tellingly named for he who drove out druidry. Over 30 chambered cairns sit here on the witch's triple hops, where most tombs have never been opened.

Down the hill, we walked, not able to talk much due to being wrapped up in our jackets and hoods. It made me again appreciate, for all my grousing, the technology of the present, and I kept imagining how soaked I'd've been as an ancient devotee. Intruders had long been imposing themselves upon these airy, isolated redoubts. Meehan notes that the Iron Age-- which banished the old ways as the Celts advanced with weapons, male-oriented pantheons, and an upending of the maternal alignments-- often made these hills, legendarily the haunts of fairy women, the Sí, the last bastions of the goddess, if now warped into hags rather than "wise healers." Mebdh reduced to Queen Mab; the Wife of Bath's tale of a loathly lady's entreaty.

A later tradition-- if one around three thousand years ago said to have been instituted is newer this tells how long this site has been commemorated-- claims that Ollamh Fódhla, poet-king and law-giver, who started the triennial féis at Tara, was buried at Cairn T. Underneath where I stood, above the path I now climbed down, the sun, another brighter day, would pass again along a diagonal route over the backstone. Images of a rayed star, spirals tripled and swirling like a nebula, reminded me of the simplest art we fingerpaint as children, and of the most complex, via Hubble Space Telescope transmitting to us today. We love to look up at the sky, and in it, as Flannery O'Connor wrote, we try to figure out our central mystery-- no less or more clear after all our inventions and measurements than it was to nameless ancestors on my mysterious isle-- to puzzle out "the position of our human life."

Photo at the equinox of the backstone, Cairn T.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tara & a traveller's tale

Only 300 feet elevated, but Tara's eminence does appear, once you're on it, to expand. 16 counties from this navel, this fifth province, supposedly can be seen, but not when I stood there. An Atlantic storm had washed over Meath, neither mountain nor bog. Gales scoured tourists off the hill, but left a few (neo-)pagans.

And/or those who had studied them that weekend before this excursion. Among them, recalling (if not a Facebook one done today that defined me for my "God can neither be proven nor disproven" assertion as bonafide "atheist/agnostic") my recent quiz scoring me a hundred percent as "neo-pagan" and a "Mahayana Buddhist," I heard on the way over Tara's background. An ancient coronation site-- likely far older than the Celts who spread its fame. We were told of its past rumored glory and its present predicament-- as it borders a new motorway-- by a practicing dharma follower. He'd preceded me in our panel on Irish Buddhism panel at the NUIM conference on Alternative Spiritualities he'd organized at Maynooth.

Palisades and piers, of course, by millennia of rain as we encountered had long blown away, but ceremonial ramparts and ditches remained. The Mound of the Hostages upon which I first scampered upon chilly arrival was perhaps raised over a passage-tomb in 2500 or as long ago as 3200 BCE, when the Boyne monuments, Tara, Newgrange, nine km. away from there at Millmount (a new one to me, but I'd seen it-- still thinking it only a Martello Tower and not bard Amergin's supposed tomb after the Milesian landing in Eirinn ca. 1694 BCE in lore-- as a landmark to guide myself by when disembarking from Drogheda's bus station, and over its summit I'd see my last sunrise over Ireland two days later as I waited at that same terminus), Loughcrew, Slane: these too were orientation lines down to the Irish Sea, aligned by Stone and Bronze Age peoples about which we know nearly nothing but their stones and spiral scratches.

These guided my ancestors along the maternal path of the stars called not the Milky Way but Bóthar na Bó Finne, "the road of the illuminated cow" along the Boyne river valley down to Drogheda and the Irish sea, so Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore argue in a book I'd consulted before my trip about the derivation of "Tara," their "Island of the Setting Sun: In Search of Ireland's Ancient Astronomers." If I had looked further into Murphy & Moore, as they summarize at Murphy's "", my perambulation around what I figured just another Norman-Cromwellian-Imperial tower of subjugation overlooking Drogheda might have been more cautious, or more inspired. Still, as it was that last morning, I noticed the conjunction of road sign for Newgrange with the day-star's ascension over Millmount, and I basked my pale face in its welcome glow.

Back to where I'd wound up after Drogheda and Maynooth, Tara, as our host told us on the bus, while it had succumbed despite long protest to the M3 motorway thanks to a greedy landowner connected with the government's right of way through the valley, still remained at least somewhat vindicated. Soon, closer than my home is to the world's first freeway, visitors to the hill will be able to hear (as I do here) the hum of traffic piercing the calm. The motorway waits 2.2 km. away, ready to ease congestion of Meath as it suburbanizes, as does Drogheda along its own new highway, and the pressures of a wealth undreamed of by Tara's assemblies of three thousand, with three hundred cooks to sustain them, in fabled if still mysterious days of yore.

The challenge lies for those who must dig and discern. The British Israelites damaged the site a century ago in their foolish insistence that Tara equated with Téa who came with eponymous Scotia from Scythia via Pharaoh's Egypt of the Exodus. The motorway did its own destruction, as it had with the infamous Wood Quay demolishment when that Viking-era site on the Liffey had to go the way of the valley below Tara to satisfy earlier scions favored by a nation's leaders more engaged with money than dúchas, heritage being less a value and more a marketing scheme. "Save Tara" failed against Celtic Tigers. Still, the salvage archeologists hired by the same Republic did their best for their masters in their doomed project. (I recall Brian Friel's 1975 play "Volunteers" about the Wood Quay destruction, and the digs done on Liffey''s shore, in his drama, by prisoners there.)

A few of us from the Alternative Spiritualities conference-- all students (at least) of neo-paganism more than Catholic pilgrims, befitting our weekend's exploration of New Age and 'new religious movements' in the changing Ireland that led to Wood Quay and Tara Valley's erasure and also their mourning by such as us a saving remnant of keeners-- heard from the organizer a telling tale. A few Buddhists on reverting to an earlier practice than the indigenously implanted Catholicism, a few years ago, had defied Patrick's decree. They buried on Tara a snakeskin. They proclaimed the return of the repressed, the triumph of what 1500 years had failed ultimately to banish from the Emerald Isle of now saints pursuing shamanism, healing arts, and druidry, and scholars such as we studied them.

Our teller's daughter, four-year-old Alannah, was as I told her aptly named for one of the Irish words for beauty. She and her minder walked about the blustery hill. Nobody else I could make out was on it. It did seem to stretch out much farther than you'd expect, once you scaled its gentle slope, barely noticeable. A couple of Travellers, New Age more likely than native, offered a Scottish scholar, an expert on cults, a homemade oatmeal and chocolate biscuit after she talked with them. They stood at a tent over a fire.

We trooped past after a stint in the dreadful teashop-cum-gift shop that I will not dignify with a name. My Downpatrick host noted later a fine used bookstore's nearby, and I wished I'd spent my time there rather than wandering ruefully its few square feet. One section, candle-scented and unattended off to the backside, filled with wraps and bric-a-brac you might find in a Keltick Mall ("mall"="slow" in the Irish) out of an airline shopper's catalogue in your seat pocket. The other, where I stationed myself after foregoing tea (I take it easy on the road, remembering well a time two years ago from Glencolmcille to Ballyshannon when the bus had no time to stop for me to stop in Donegal Town; under an an hour later on the weaving road I was about to burst and-- mortified-- had to dash off to the jakes, begging the driver and passengers to wait.), boasted such a selection of misguided New Age gimcrackery that it made my hometown's shop, The Bodhi Tree, look as serious as the Bodleian Library at Oxford, I hazarded.

The only semi-respectable book on Tara, Michael Slevin's illustrated guide, was what you'd expect, but that was it. All the rainbowed, crystalline, astrologically aligned auras and baubles and gee-gaws you'd desire filled the other shelves. As our guide mused, "twenty years ago, you'd never've seen this in Ireland." I looked for a tea-towel, standard of an earlier brand of kitsch, for my wife, but the single one on sale failed to move me. No State-approved map, no visitor's guide, and the audiovisual center that took over the old C of I church up the hill--talk about prime real estate-- tellingly was open only in a sunnier tourist's season.

My own Maynooth talk had loads of pseudo-scholarship cited; I have always had sympathy for misguided autodidacts like British Israelites I confess. So, I glanced in what soon turned to disdain rather than delight in what I will not name by author, titled "The Lost Magic of Christianity: the Celtic Essene Tradition." Even by New Age teashop standards, disappointing. To my dismay, the expert on cults bought it, I had a feeling not for novelty's sake, and a colleague who studied circles from an anthropological perspective sprung, despite her skepticism, for said self-published scholar's (the book jacket noted he was of Anglo-Irish gentry descent so his inevitable coming to live on an island off his family's former colony's coast was foreshadowed I suppose) companion volume full of spirals and circles galore.

Maybe I was to blame or credit for those two purchases by curious scholars. I'd told them on the bus, after that expert's query, that although Tara's naming as bodhisattva of compassion and Meath's omphalos seemed fortuitious, my own forays into many scholars, degreed and self-taught, failed to show more than happy coincidence, unless "teamhair" as "eminence" and "sTAR" and Hindu status for the goddess beloved by Aryans and Tibetans could make a very attenuated Indo-European match made in heaven. I wish I could have proven this. Surely the teashop benefits from such imagined conjectures by many who visit Tara during equinoxes, solstices, and cross-calendrical times the eight seasons of the neo-pagan commemorations.

I scanned the trinkets but was depressed by the Cadburys, Chinese-made trash, and soulless Green Man zodiacal "crafts" that lacked any "mana," any spirit, any genuine pagan spark. The clerks did a boom business, even in the damp, for where else were the few visitors an All Saint's morning going to go until-- and if-- the sky cleared?

I figured my change should go to a better cause on Tara. I've always left coins in the Guide Dogs for the Blind figurines on my British and Irish travels; I did then. I'm a soft spot for totemic appeals to charity. If beggars dressed up in animal costumes, I'd probably donate more to their pet causes.

Once outside, I did see a rainbow to the south-east. One of six I'd see that day, easily a record for me from "the land of little rain." It occured to me for the first time that such apparitions might appear always at a certain angle to the sun. But I lacked the astronomical expertise that Murphy & Moore documented among our forebears here along the Boyne. I contented myself by showing the rainbow to Alannah on the bus, where some had retreated for shelter before we faced the pagan forces who kept so many from easily enjoying Tara that morning.

I told Alannah's minder, as we tried to talk about the Irish prison system (she was studying the juvenile incarceration-rehabilitation there), about the even more dismal American equivalents. But, the weather discouraged advanced discourse. "At least it's not rainy, cold and windy," Maria commented as gusts slapped even native Irish faces silly. "It's only two out of three," I sighed. My Southern Californian nature had won out over my genetic disposition. It was brisk, even natives concurred.

We academics marched out, finally, and the wind hit me hard as we faced the hill itself among the mud and grass. Cattle grazed as they may always have among whomever scaled Tara long before teashops in the Old Age. We closed gates to keep them in or out, and we soon faced "Dumha na nGall," that hostage's mound, and other fancifully named (by antiquarians determined to make the nondescript surface remains match the scraps of Iron Age sagas) sites, such as An Forradh, the king's seat, and Rath Righ, the fortress of the kings, and Teach Chormaic, Cormac's house. I tried to scurry up that last one, but as the wind roared, I admit it was difficult. Still at its small summit, I made out even in the mist a panorama that seemed to encompass the horizons as I swooped around 360 degrees, a splendid sight, if one's imagination was kindled.

The site's rich, if you harbor that kind of mindset as I indulge-- for research purposes only-- in sexual and potent allure, if subtly so after so much Christian revision. The 'Bán Fheis,' euphemistically called the "sacred marriage" said to have been granted by Medb or Maeve to nine successive suitors seeking the symbolic kingship over the isle, here was said to have been consummated. Michael Dames wonders if the cry of the standing stone when it approved a claimant might recall the orgasm-labor cry twinned of a woman transformed into a goddess, a faint gasp of Neolithic ritual.

The position of the Lia Fáil (although moved from its original site where it'd been found fallen) and the night sky, Murphy & Moore suggest, hold an alignment of release into the Bó Finne, the Milky Way, the path for the Bóinne, the cow-goddess of fertility that even in Stone Age times four millennia before Christ may have guided early settlers along this sacred route towards and from Drogheda from Millmount along Newgrange, Slane, and the next place we'd visit, Loughcrew.

Alannah's father asked a few of us outliers making our own confused pilgrimage in the whirling breezes if we'd want to see a sheila-na-gig. The C of I graveyard, that well-chosen plot, stood on an older site, naturally. Two small standing stones in it rested near a ruin that was a church wall from who knows when, the visitor's center being locked up. Near the base of one stone, the sheila-na-gig rested, if unseen to the likes of my eye. On what to me looked like a slightly raised bit of lichen, but what the expert told us was beneath one of these caricatures as if from a medieval bestiary, much debated by feminists, New Age devotees, archeologists, and folklorists still.

I can direct you to a Wikipedia entry easier than I can explain these explicit, disturbing, but still, to my warped sense of humor, amusing creations. "Figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva," as the definition primly puts 'em. Made famous for many impressionable hipsters by a P.J. Harvey song, as my Drogheda host and her big fan might second. Underneath the stone, I was touched. Three tiny pink petals, trefoils smaller than periwinkles, rested, and one white. Despite the nasty weather that "soft day," they nestled in a row securely beneath and among the elements. I'd see no such floral tribute left before Patrick's supposed tombstone the next day in Downpatrick.

It helped to have so much noisy air about and so few companions. One fellow from the conference, a young, earnest autodidact from Clonmel down in Tipperary who to my earlier delight had the same name as my older son and had worn a Lakers cap like my younger would, circled and quietly recited as he dipped his walking stick into the puddles. I respected his ritual. Yet, he also jammed with his foot what looked like to me a purple child's purse into the grass in front of Lia Fáil, the stone of destiny. That puzzled me. Next to the half-buried phallic pillar in commemoration stands a hideous marker raised for Patrick. This juxtaposition alone made me want to see the eradication of papal priestcraft in this snakeskinned demesne.

The daughter danced about, chanting too. Her minder encouraged her to keep hoping as she asked the Lia Fáil: "I want to be a princess." The stone answered the royal petitioner-- a man back then in less enlightened times-- by shrieking approval for the claimant to the throne. I assured the four-year-old girl that the wind was too loud for her to make out the stone's approbation, and with that diplomatic judgement she was well pleased.

I found out on that hill a bit of my own connection to a mystery from the past. NUIM's Attracta Brownlee had researched not New Age but indigenous travellers in my ancestral maternal territory of East Mayo. I went up to her by the Mound of the Hostages and asked her about my great-grandmother's surname. I had suspected it to be a Traveller name, but I had doubted any intermarried back around 1880. Still, then as now, a few do, she told me with authority.

Like pagans, perhaps not the most popular group to ally with even in today's Ireland, but Travellers until recently stayed, or were made to stay away, rooted in what so many in today's Ireland reject at their peril, as plastics replace tin, cars turn plastic. My Irish cousins rush to pave over their past and make it to me an all-too-familiar parking lot. Coming from L.A., take my caution as a warning, will yiz? Attracta confirmed it was all but certain given the name and provenance and time that I am a direct descendent of a people still argued over today, as to when and where and why they came to wander, once, these roads. Roads less crowded if no less dangerous than today's superhighways. Romanticizing our heritage runs its own risks.

So, I left Tara's hill with my own small share of acquired wisdom. Granted with a scholar's judgment, I accepted my smidgen of folkloric Irish heritage. It rests within a family tree, far off, but I claim it as Alannah did her reign over Tara.

Photo from a good overview on "Mythical Ireland: Tara". Hard to get a sense of this site from the air or from illustrations. I've seen it all my life in books or on screens, but still, you get a liberating sense from standing on Tara, I swear. Defying I pray even the motorway's arrival, there is a magic power there. Even for cynics like me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Maynooth & a black cat

A poignant visit on Samhain to what was Ireland's Catholic citadel. There for a conference on alternative spirituality in the island, quite a contrast. As I entered the two-hundred-year-old courtyard towards my dorm room, twin Gothic spires and gathering clouds matched a Halloween mood.

Tonight, as I post this, it's two weeks later, Friday the 13th. Superstitions long shadow our souls. I crossed over and over that weekend the bridge between old seminary and new campus, traditional beliefs and innovative syncretism. For Ireland, as NUIM presenters argued, Catholicism itself becomes another choice. The Alternative Spiritualities conference, attended by nearly 70 academics from 15 specialties and as the blurb boasted, from three continents (there was another American identified on the program and I heard a couple of presenters with mid-Atlantic Yank accents starting or trying to go native), was what I'd hoped for. Not the crusties and crystal-chanters I'd expected, although a couple of anti-cult protesters stirred up some Q & A.

Jenny Butler of University College, Cork, gave a discussion of neo-paganism in Ireland. I asked her what distinguished its Irish version from British or pan-Celtic practice. She explained three manifestations: the use of Gaeilge, the attention to the Sí (fairy women is a poor, deracinated translation-- we've fallen far from graces post-Iron Age, and the goddess banished underground's the last sign often of the domination of the weaponed man and the sky-god horde invading over nine waves), and the use by some Irish druids of black as an earth color rather than customary Briton white. I will have to track down her essay in the anthology "Modern Paganism in World Contexts" on the Hibernian milieu. My own research that brought me here intersects, tangentially, tracking those who blend Tibetan Buddhism with Celtic Reconstructionism-- if in a manner more syncretic and less scholarly than CR per se. (As within old or "new religious movements," differences endure. For CR vs. "neo-pagan" Celts: Paganachtd CR FAQs.)

Laurence Cox preceded my presentation on the "invention of the concept of Celtic Buddhism" with an expansive talk on the history of Buddhism and Buddhists in Ireland. He explained to me later that what he'd been commissioned to write as a short chapter in a book about Irish religious variety turned into a six-hundred-page manuscript. He's currently readying it for publication. Although due to an Journal of Global Buddhism article by him and Maria Griffin forthcoming [here it is: link back from TOC on left-hand margin to Volume 10 and then to Articles under pp. 93-125 for "Border country dharma: Buddhism, Ireland and peripherality"] I was not able to draw on his research much in my own, which had already been completed before then, I look forward to learning much from it in an area that I'd have expected barely could've produced a pamphlet. That was before my own foray resulted in a 15,000-word article I narrowed down to 9,000 for the conference proceedings and 2,600 for my Power Point talk that drew on its most visually accessible elements to ease comprehension and entertain listeners. Prof. Cox related my paper as "hilarious," and I admit it's an accolade I welcomed although few contenders that weekend may have striven for such an encomium.

Audrey Whitty of the National Museum of Ireland's preparing an exhibit on Albert Bender, an Irish Jewish patron of the arts who lived in San Francisco among the wealthy bohemian crowd in the smart set days of earlier last century. His donation of Asian art, especially Tibetan thangka wall tapestries, will be on permanent display at the Museum. Audrey's getting her dissertation, based on Bender's collection, and she and I made another fine pairing after Laurence Cox's presentation. Three papers on Irish reactions to Buddhism: a great panel ensued.

That done, I relaxed. The "vegetarian by default" soups and curries proved excellent; the crumble and currant buns the last night were just as welcome. I'm never skilled at small talk amidst six dozen strangers, but I found an interesting dinner companion with Brigitte Veiz, from Munich. She presented on the Rainbow Tribe's circle making, and has published a book on the ritual meanings of her hometown's Oktoberfest. She regaled me and another lecturer with what the abundant beer steins propped on enormous platters in front of heaving bosoms symbolized.

Other papers on such topics as shamanism, astrology, Celtic spirituality, Lough Derg & a Hare Krishna "lake isle" both repackaged for ecumenical seekers, monastic retreats, and AA appropriation of religious terminology were also well received. The sociologists dominated; as an outlier, like usual, I found their perspective instructive-- citations, theories, and methodologies set up every argument. I wish I could have heard more of them, as two or three sessions competed for my attention.

I chaired a spirited session on goddess worship and feminist spirituality. I had to use my own diplomatic skills honed by moderating students when it came to acknowledging a listener's assertion that modern-day witches had not reclaimed successfully the term as a positive one vis-a-vis popular culture and common usage, and validating as equally true the speaker's countercharge that the term deserved to be acclaimed in a reversal of the negative.

Neither side gave in, both claiming fairly their advantage, so I let the audience listen and chime in and clarify before we all moved on. Witches, at least outwardly practicing ones, even in Dublin had not dared to come forth until about the early 80s, around a decade or more after their British appearance on an accepted scale. As with many phenomena we studied that weekend, Ireland's entry into the esoteric lagged behind that of the Continent and the rest of the English-speaking world. It made me wonder about the resurgence of Western neo-paganism. I'd mused as a schoolchild, hearing from the parish clergy the demise of post-Vatican II Catholicism in a France and Italy then under assault by hippies and Commies, if the Church would shrink back as the forces of nature fought back after a millennium or two of oppression. I had sort of cheered, even as a kid, for this heathen comeback, as I'd resented humorless naysaying Patrick's easy besting of the Celtic druids.

Constructing such comebacks, rather than as some speciously claimed to my judgment of continuing an underground tradition by a great-grandmum who was a "Wicca healer," appeared the cause for a few of the presenters who mixed their scholarship with their practice. This also made me vow to reread Ronald Hutton's magisterial "Triumph of the Moon," a book which my cyber-pal "Bo" at Cambridge, himself a scholar and participant-observer at least in the past, has noted (only last week) decisively proved in 1999 to neopagans what the general public knew ca. 1964: nobody can be believed who claims to be the heir of a dozen generations of adepts, descended from survivors from the "Burning Times." Gerald Gardner, basically, was right.

Much as Buddhist academics commonly do, or Maynooth's theologians, this blend of detachment with commitment from what the social scientists who made up the majority of presenters call participant-observers intrigued me. You don't get the same match up at literary conovocations. Profs may love what they read, wish to be a character, but they don't truly act it out as a ritual or a belief. Being a lit-crit type, I don't get to witness this from my field unless I'd happen to see what I never have: say, a lecturer dressing up as a Jane Austen character or a critic parading as a fellow from "Wandering Rocks" across Dublin on Bloomsday. (I know the latter surely happens, however.) And that's for show; some of my colleagues here affirmed what they analyzed. That makes for an intriguing blend of partisanship and analysis.

Well, I liked hearing from those who took the study of the oft-derided or distorted New Age seriously. My own talk earned more laughter than the hidebound, cited, and methodological norm, so I kept a low profile and let others have their earnest if occasionally ethereal say. We had time to explore this fascinating topic, thanks to two rather than three speakers (as my topically themed panel had been logically restrained by time) so we had two leisurely presentations followed by a generous Q & A time that satisfied all, especially as dinner succeeded it promptly.

I also had time on my stroll back the first night to learn about research done by a fellow (and unlike me alas still practicing-- although Carole Cusack's dissertation on the Catholic eradication of the Saxons in Germany soured her so on the Church that she resolved to pursue paganism as her field thenceforth) medievalist from Australia into current fringe groups-- or as the conference phrases them, "new religious movements." She and I chatted about the Worldwide Church of God, a spin-off of one of my pet-likes of psuedo-scholarship, the British Israelites. Herbert and Ted Armstrong, father and son, had their headquarters just up the freeway from me, and I recalled their ubiquitous newsletter "The Plain Truth" and their handsome campus, now a military-industrial contractor's urban sprawl. I wondered what happened to them, why they vanished so suddenly. She told me the whole organization imploded quickly after the revelations that old codger Herbert in his '80s married a sweet young thing and used some church funds for a penile implant.

Leaving her and my comrades that day who sauntered down to the Roost, the nearest pub outside the old seminary gates, I wondered-- after jet-laggedly walking back over the footbridge from the featureless, drab suburban NUI campus to the old seminary to my dorm-- why the chapel was closed. I tried the doors, but a sign said the floors were being cleaned that weekend. I noticed a small box outside the entrance: marked "Poison Bait." I laughed to myself that my host in Drogheda, with whom I'd already exchanged a couple of chats about Dawkins vs. Hitchens, Dennett vs. Harris, the neo-atheists like himself, would've loved that sight.

That Halloween night, a black cat scampered ahead of me. I hoped he didn't eat the bait. The moon shrouded in clouds turned a harbinger of storms the next day when I'd go to Tara and Loughcrew, pagan sites again. I sat in the only holy place open at 10:30 the second night I was there, St. Mary's Oratory. I lingered there a while with my thoughts, but the noise outside by the Royal Canal distracted me. No sanctuary candle lit; was this as in Drogheda, no holy water in the font? (I later read that the latter may have been a swine flu precaution in churches, and I mused if the lack of the Sacrament in the oratory was for protection against maurading pagan snatchers of the Eucharist.) Probably the priests had a tabernacle behind their locked doors. The oratory was used however, as books were under the stalls, one with an portable Oxford Student's English dictionary.

That Halloween night, seen dimly through the Victorian iron tracery and the lead-framed translucent windows, firecrackers boomed. A few had the night before, keeping me awake in a high-ceilinged room, where the bulb way up failed to light the space. I tried to sleep, jet-lagged and weary. The next morning, we went over to the conference to find that electricity on Halloween day had gone out over much of the campus. We moved to another building, and on opening it, as I was one of the first inside, a black cat, well fed, walked away ahead of me. I figured he was the same one who greeted me as I closed that long All Hallow's Eve.

I walked about the courtyards, and hardly any way back into the dorms was open. You had to enter into a single door cut within the closed massive wooden doors, stepping over a threshhold, to get through to St. Patrick's dim interior. Imperious prelates looked down, reminding me of Francis Bacon's portrait. Latinized first names, dates of rule, endlessly in file. The far reaches were often shut to the laity. I wondered about the few seminarians and priests left, always retreating as the vacant dorms became a "conference center."

A Nigerian, in a black coat, slacks, shoes and white shirt, and I exchanged greetings in the elevator; he asked me if I was there for "The Gathering," the other meeting held there that weekend. I explained my "Alternative" allegiance, although I guess neither of us knew exactly what the other was talking about. So mirrors the Irish psyche today in its former redoubt. Poverty once pushed many second sons into Maynooth; now many enter Indian or African seminaries. I hope they find their calling for sincere reasons, not out of escape, lucre, romanticism, or rejection.

Maybe the black cat's path led to a better Catholicism, more humble, less assertive, more sensitive, less domineering. I wished silently the Nigerian well on his path. Both of us open to new influences, from far off realms, still drawn to this center of spiritual exploration, however reformulated for a very different century and evolving nation.

Malachy O'Doherty's "Empty Pulpits" (reviewed by me last month on the blog and on British Amazon) suggests that whatever form the Church will take, it will be more akin to cultural Catholicism akin to that in Western Europe a half-century previous. Tom Inglis, a noted sociologist who's long studied Irish Catholicism, defined for us four types now: orthodox, cultural ("belonging without believing"), creative ("mix & match" with other practices), and individualistic "pick & choose on an ad hoc need). Maybe Poles will follow their emigrants here to minister to the natives. Or, Nigerians for their countrymen.

Still, as Maynooth's eerie architecture, so short of human habitation over long stretches of hallway and garden, shows, there's a dramatic loss of energy within these venerable stones. Still, as my hosts in Downpatrick would remind me, it tended to fall upon the second son, the one who didn't get the farm, to be sent off to the seminary. Like it or not. I assume the few now here enjoy their stay much more.

The pleasant gardens thrive, but can its floral caretakers-- I guessed I heard Polish or Lithuanian-- renew the indigenous fauna? Perhaps the fate of the Anglicans in their own homeland, reduced to curators more than curates often, will happen as Ireland's celibate ranks dwindle. The imposition of male priesthood either results in a few ordinands who cannot handle so many duties, or the simple relegation of parishes to lay ministers doing all but saying Mass, which may become as infrequent in Patrick's realm as it was on the American frontier, or maybe for a congregation in the penal days in Ireland itself.

I walked impressively echoing corridors, framed with enormous pictures (see pictorial samples here; compare above 75 in class of 1947 with perhaps a dozen from 2008) of those ordained each year. My dorm wing of St Patrick's Seminary had those from 1917-18 to the early '40s. One giant frame was half-obscured by a falling-apart cabinet. Many photos had faded, damaged by light, moths, or water stains. They were all labelled in the old Gaelic font and all surnames and dioceses were in Irish. My dad had been born the first month of 1917. I counted the number of ordinands: 68. Further years had about as many, steadily. I don't know where 1940s and '50s were located, but downstairs the parade continued apace. If I had memorized specific years of a few priests I'd once known, I'd've looked more carefully. However, I suppose All Hallows, now all but closed in Dublin, educated the clerics for the foreign dioceses; Maynooth seemed to pluck the cream of the crop for home service as I recall.

Surprisingly, compared to Los Angeles in number of Catholics about the same amount during my lifetime, the number of Irish vocations continued far greater into 1980s and early '90s than my hometown. Only about ten years after the sex abuse scandals hit both places did Maynooth's classes precipitously plummet as blank spaces filled the frames. Populated more then by deceased professors than new priests, old faces jostled with the young. By 2007, five dead, four ordained for all of Ireland. This year, up to six. Even then, some were for abroad: San Diego, Johannesburg, Spain.

The place resounded with my boots. I felt sad by it, for it reminded me again of the Church of my childhood, of my family and friends then and now, of a few classmates who had persevered to be ordained. But, did the Church, to use my panel's slang, get karmic justice? I suspected among the ranks on the walls those deserters, shirkers, and failures who'd emerge after their appointments to parishes and schools.

I could not forget those who had fallen from their vocation, by whom I'd been taught. One, a bishop, had been disgraced by a supposedly coerced affair with a young man he ordained under suspicious circumstances. A con seems to have embroiled both men, unqualified priest from Costa Rica and seasoned bishop. Blackmail and embezzlement ran the diocese he'd been brought in to salvage (after the previous bishop's sex scandal) into the ground. He was sent off to a monastery in Arizona. There he died from cancer last month. When I found out he was ill, I right away sent him a card with a handwritten note expressing my thanks for his example way back when, but I also could not forget my tacit message, of how far he had lapsed from his own high standards. My dad, a stern judge of all in authority, once pronounced him the "best priest he'd ever known," and even he, after scandal broke, expressed what by his standards again was a generous judgment in his grumbling old age, that the priesthood must have warped my former mentor and prevented him from being the kind of man he was meant to be.

Sexuality, celibacy, (homo)sexuality, power, money, control: all these tempt so many of us, in and out of the priesthood, to temptation. Classmates of mine suffered abuse. I forgave my one-time religion teacher in my heart, but I knew many of my fellow congregants could not. Freed from the Church, I hold no grudge. I am grateful for its education and generosity to me. Yet its internal oppression and psychological imprint have long marked my weakness. I understood those with whom I'd been raised, and shared if not their lost investments nor their own resentment still my own steady, but ineradicable, ebb of faith. I don't blame the clergy for my own mature decision to move away from the Church-- that's a twisted form of the Donatist heresy-- but I do charge them with perverting their trusted calling to the faithful.

I knew in Ireland the pain had in many cases been far worse, for young boys and girls rather than grown lovers had been entangled and destroyed. The orphanages, industrial schools, and reformatories, coupled with a sexually ashamed culture far crueller than even in Irish America, enabled horrors to endure. I have sometimes wondered, if my birth mother had borne me but a bit earlier an ocean away, how I might have fared in her homeland, left to mercies and cruelties as a child of sin.

A decade after the scandals hit, marked on the walls of the corridors, the fresh priests dwindled to a handful, literally, at last. That image above of twelve priests for 2008 is the best showing for a while compared to the years on each side of it with half or less that apostolic number. The annual photos on the walls of the echoing corridors accused their handlers as well as moved me, for in their often implacable gazes above "dog collars" I imagined that conspiracy of silence which my old teacher had perpetrated in the diocese he led, the sin against those that Jesus had condemned as that never to be forgiven, leading astray the little children.

I passed by the footbridge a hideous statue opposite the John Paul II library (itself no charming site). Two children knelt before a looming bulky papal figure, stylized into a Stalinist steel memorial rather than a loving homage. Also, the poses of a burly man clasping the necks of two youths towards his center as he bent over them disturbed more than inspired me. It seemed a poor tribute to what the Church could have erected at its Pontifical University, in honor of the 11,000 priests-- I wondered how many, or few, more would follow-- ordained here since 1795.

The chapel was closed off, but the postcard made it look splendid in the mode of the architect Pugin who designed the dining hall named after him. I sat one morning, having paid about $11 I figured for a big bowl of porridge, tea, an orange, and toast, under a portrait of one of the many rectors. I chose him, far off down the tables that sat 250, since he looked like me, if I was twelve and dressed up in a cassock. His name was not recorded, and his tenure brief: 1853-54. He appeared sensitive, young, and nervous. He must have been overwhelmed, post-Famine, by his appointment.

Under the portrait, immediately to the right, Sunday before I left with a few of the New Age scholars and neo-pagan fifth column to visit Tara and Loughcrew before heading up to Downpatrick in the All Saint's Day rain, I heard but could not see the priests who ate in their own separate refectory. Their accents sounded like the men I'd known as a boy, of twelve. They sounded hearty. I saw an umbrella over a chair. An unseen hand closed the door behind them, perhaps sensing a pair of foreign ears far down the hall from the usual paying guests.

I kept the big orange for my lunch. I wound up carrying it in my suitcase two days until I ate it, dripping over a Sunday copy of the Irish Independent I'd snatched as I left the Dublin plane and saw it discarded, at my layover in O'Hare. The fruit, which must have travelled a long way to Maynooth already, kept delicious.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Drogheda & a severed head

Straddling the Boyne, founded by Vikings, fortified by Normans, fought over by rebels, this market town to me'd long been a traffic jam. My family, coming down from Belfast, would get stuck in the bend of the main road over the river. Less scenic if similarly configured to Derry, Drogheda now hosted me, for the friends with whom we'd visited in Belfast themselves had moved south.

From the airport to the bus to a walk up the steep south bank past Millmount and its Martello Tower (more on this place under my Tara and Loughcrew entries, to my surprise on returning and researching) I arrived mid-morning at my hosts (having thanked them personally, I'll keep them anonymous here and in my next post as both the husbands involved work as journalists and this still is-- or is near enough-- to the North in both cases to allow for discretion). I tottered up, after the usual long flight from L.A. to Chicago, a long layover before a red-eye that had no in-flight entertainment but a "Transformers 2" movie that banged and whizzed in my headset. I never slept, and the boy hacking nearby, despite the flu signs everywhere, when I looked up out of my sleepmask (not that I got any sleep) was then way over the other side of the cabin with his own mask on-- over his mouth. The flight, after all, was half-empty.

No more non-stops from the West Coast; San Francisco's had terminated but the weekend before. I walked down the international departures terminal to stretch and found that night only eight at most of the twenty-two or so gates opened for even one flight each, such was the emptiness; I also strolled into Aer Lingus and through security without any delay. Lots of time to sit or stroll and ponder the recession's impact on travel.

My hosts' children, four and eight (more or less to my bleary recollection) had not seen me for two years. Their mother was kerfluffled that I'd come a day early to her own bleary recollection, and the kids, it turned out, were off school for a mid-term week's break. Nice Halloween touch. So, one day I made up for my unexpected stay by helping clean the playroom, all sticky plastic and discarded paper, up. This led to wailing and gnashing of daughter's teeth, if son's younger non-plussed resignation, and a bag for the bin that even my earnest SoCal efforts to sort by recyclables had met with efficient rejection by the mistress of the manse.

It was good to have strong tea, for even the water makes it such in Ireland, and to talk about issues. They were as diverse, or related, as the secrecy over homosexuality in Irish republicanism; a much-acclaimed if to us bewilderingly so thriller just out about the Troubles; the lack of a principled, if fictional, republican protagonist who proved neither a tout nor a scum; the controversy over what the 1981 hunger strikers were offered by Thatcher-- but which was possibly held back by Adams and cronies so as to ratchet up their own political plans-- as a compromise to meet the prisoners' demands. Perhaps rather arcane material to you, but it made for hours of conversation for us. It was as if we picked up where we'd left off two years earlier, such is friendship when a shared interest entangles and enchants us both.

Host number two had a run-in with dentistry gone bonkers, and this did not bode well for those like me chuckling over the Simpsons' with its "British Book of Dentistry." Still, he regaled me with spirited insights into his reading of Richard Dawkins and his fervent trust in evolution and reason rather than saint's relics and sectarian strife. I thought ruefully of my own recent root canal's quick (if over three visits) repair by our trusted dentist back in Pasadena, as opposed to the botched job on my host, who at one point feared the infection would swell to cut off his breathing. Luckily, it never got that bad, but all this had happened while I was preparing for or was in transit over there, so I had truly no idea at what a bad time I'd arrived. (Later, my second host's wife suddenly became ill stranded up in Belfast while me and my first hosts were hosting him down in Drogheda a few days later; my last morning there, I'd reached up to pull a towel and took down the whole shower curtain rod, unable to jam it back up. Buses failed to show, planes flew in an hour late. It was that kind of week.)

As for the city, my medieval bent was roused. A couple of ruined gates, however, were about it. In 1649, the decade's rising had been crushed here. Cromwell supposedly had murdered 2000 (I think they used to say much more) Confederate Catholics in his suppression of the Boyne rebels, and this city had long nursed bitterness as the symbol of massacre. 3,000 defenders were said to have died in battle. Millmount saw the end of the leaders; the wooden leg of its governor Aston was said to have been used to beat him to death by soldiers angered that the limb did not hide gold within its recesses. The city's ethnic cleansing led to those who had fled into the Church of Ireland-- the other St. Peter's-- being burned alive. They died in its wooden steeple. The tower of the Catholic church, however, loomed higher, still barely the landmark over the town today despite a trendy "d hotel" and a waterfront lined with the Brú bistro, refurbished docks, and a handsome iron Victorian rail viaduct bridge.

I knew of St. Oliver Plunkett's preserved head in St. Peter's Catholic cathedral in a glass reliquary. On West street, still despite mall competition (mighty such for a small town with so many shrines to yuppiedom that confounded me) the old shopping corridor, you can see his head, along with his prison door from London's Newgate where the archbishop had been held for eight months before his martyrdom in 1681; his show trial as a French-loving agitator the first time having collapsed, he was simply retried and then hanged, drawn and quartered-- thus his grimace. I bent down to see it in the reflection of my own head's shape. I had done this at the British Museum to see if my head "fit" into the Sutton Hoo helmet, and it overlapped in my gaze that one better than the saint's blockier skull. It reminded me of a slightly shrunken voodoo prop. Or a wooden carving as a trophy.

There was a difference. For the Celts, the power lay in the enemy's soul, captured in his victor's decapitated trophy; what use did the English have for the Hiberno-Norman Irishized prelate's head? Yet, it was the French nuns who rescued the relic to restore to Ireland. Ireland's first saint to be canonized in modern times did have it easier in one way-- the second miracle was waived, part of John Paul's massive campaign to make saints that'd please so many peoples, so many interest groups, so many worshippers.

Still, I said a prayer for my Catholic friends and family as I do when getting bonus points for entering a new church. Like the prison door, such relics from the past remind me of how short our ancestors were. (At Maynooth the next night for a conference, I'd stoop through the main door cut into the twin wooden door at the entrance to St. Patrick's Seminary, closed at night I suppose to horses if not people, before curfew. I found out the other day we are about 55% larger than our ancestors two centuries ago, by the way.) I wanted a postcard of our saint's severed head-- that old Celtic totem even for a man of quite a Norman surname-- to send to a prisoner who'd requested a card from Ireland, but none were to be procured.

What else could I recommend in Drogheda? Lunch at Stockwell's Artisan Foods could please even my foodie wife and her pals; similarly, the magnificent dinner at the Eastern Seaboard restaurant just a walk away from my hosts in a ordinary strip mall could stand against fine dining in my hometown easily. If you want to walk around, as we did, without kids in tow, the Gymboree in Scotch Hall afforded them genial fun. Other moms walked about, kids like mine and my hosts, and I remembered my own.

The winding streets seemed colder up here, the faces more worn, the lines etched deeper. I compared them to those of my sunny, smoggy city, where despite its international quality, perhaps matched in the world only by London or Paris, the skin seemed softer, the wrinkles-- allowing for botox-- less prominent, and the gazes more placid. Or, it may have been that whenever we roam, we exaggerate the small differences we encounter into national qualities.

Of course, the rain threatened. We ducked into one shop on what had been a street hard hit by the economy. Boarded up stores, some with African or Polish signs. A butcher there forever but his own shop without customers; I wondered how Scotch Hall and Dunne's had taken away his business, or the retail park by the new motorway (less traffic jams at least in the medieval city center), or the half-built mall I passed on the bus in from the southside amidst raw estates as this city became sucked into the bedroom community exurbia of massive Dublin.

On West street, Boyne Books was pricy-- 45 euro for a tiny Mercier Press paperback by Padraic O'Farrell on Ernie O'Malley seemed outrageous-- but it had a well-stocked selection of books especially on Irish history the past century. There was also an Eason's and a Waterstone's, the latter featuring my host's own book on display and where I scored, despite my vow not to add to the one small suitcase I lugged about any more weight, a couple of Irish-language paperbacks I knew already I'd been unable to get Stateside. The staff there were patient as the young man before me kept regaling them in a sort of autistic repetition his stream-of-consciousness riffs on money. Sort of like a stand-up comedian's Andy Kaufman act, but no acting.

I thought, as in other small exchanges I'd witnessed with kind bus drivers, a postcard seller at Downpatrick's Cathedral, the Gymboree folks, the man running Stockwell's counter, how despite the rush of Irish life now, perhaps my Yank romanticism was not to blame. I try to be patient and genial in my interactions with put-upon clerks and agents who must put up with same parade of inquiries over and over, day in day out. Perhaps still among such in Drogheda-- I kept seeing people greet each other as they walked on West street and its older environs, perhaps more than at Scotch Hall-- there persisted a genuine notion to take a bit longer to stop and listen to people, to help them, that at its best pervaded traditional Irish hospitality. Stereotypes, after all, can be positive.

Photo: Stephen Durnin, Wikipedia entry on Drogheda 2007. You can see a photo of the reliquary at the Wikipedia entry on "Oliver Plunkett." He was born near the site of the Loughcrew Cairns in Co Meath, a subject of one of my next blog installments.