Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Polka-dot Dancing Men: Leonard Cohen

Lee Templeton over at corrected me on a lyrical fragment that I had read in a review of that suddenly ubiquitous Amy Winehouse's album, and posted on CBH's GB the whole song, which I never heard of. I did tell Lee that once in college I liked a girl named Suzanne, and wrote her a card with the lyrics to the song of the same name by Cohen. The lyrics and/or me "freaked her out," she told me. I gave the missus once a bio of LC about a decade ago. It's enormous. Gathering dust on the top shelf, waiting for us to read it as we surely will one day perhaps in retirement. Obviously, I don't know much about Cohen, other than that he lives part-time up with the Zen masters on Mt. Baldy, above my very own childhood haunts of which I began this March month on this blog writing about in "Phil Spector & Me," in turn inspired by some musings I had after Lee had posted an old postcard written by her aunts in 1964 sent from Ireland back to their Ontario (CA) family.

(Update: LLT tells me it's not the original LC but a cover version on an album I only played once but that she assures me is damn straight, if the last place I'd've thought to look: Fairport Convention's album of about a dozen years back, "The Jewel in the Crown." Image: a diligent search of the first 600 images on Google for AH revealed none with her in said red dress with white polka-dots. So, a substitute. Apparently she has a rabid following among lesbians too.)

Your polka-dot dancing men are from Leonard Cohen's great song of pub-life "Closing Time" which has line after quotable line of bitter beauty:
Ah we're drinking and we're dancing
and the band is really happening
and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high
And my very sweet companion
she's the Angel of Compassion
she's rubbing half the world against her thigh
And every drinker every dancer
lifts a happy face to thank her
the fiddler fiddles something so sublime
all the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops:
it's closing time.

Yeah the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops:
it's closing time.

Ah we're lonely, we're romantic
and the cider's laced with acid
and the Holy Spirit's crying, "Where's the beef?"
And the moon is swimming naked
and the summer night is fragrant
with a mighty expectation of relief
So we struggle and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladder
to the tower where the blessed hours chime
and I swear it happened just like this:
a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
the Gates of Love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
but closing time.

I swear it happened just like this:
a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
the Gates of Love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
but closing time.

I loved you for your beauty
but that doesn't make a fool of me:
you were in it for your beauty too
and I loved you for your body
there's a voice that sounds like God to me
declaring, declaring, declaring
that your body's really you
And I loved you when our love was blessed
and I love you now there's nothing left
but sorrow and a sense of overtime
and I missed you since the place got wrecked
And I just don't care what happens next
looks like freedom but it feels like death
it's something in between, I guess
it's closing time.

Yeah I missed you since the place got wrecked
By the winds of change and the weeds of sex
looks like freedom but it feels like death
it's something in between, I guess
it's closing time.

Yeah we're drinking and we're dancing
but there's nothing really happening
and the place is dead as Heaven
on a Saturday night
And my very close companion
gets me fumbling gets me laughing
she's a hundred but she's wearing
something tight
and I lift my glass to the Awful Truth
which you can't reveal to the Ears of Youth
except to say it isn't worth a dime
And the whole damn place goes crazy twice
and it's once for the devil and once for Christ
but the Boss don't like these dizzy heights
we're busted in the blinding lights,
busted in the blinding lights
of closing time.

The whole damn place goes crazy twice
and it's once for the devil and once for Christ
but the Boss don't like these dizzy heights
we're busted in the blinding lights,
busted in the blinding lights
of closing time.

Irish within an Anglicized Ireland

This follows up the replies to the post that I sent to Learning Irish Yahoo Group yesterday. It's my reply to other list members' replies!

Kevin's comment about speakers using English in public settings when there are those present who lack Irish is exactly on target. Statistically, therefore, the number of those identifying themselves as speakers may not decline on paper, but Irish becomes less used in public, and retreats into the home and the circle of intimates away from the ear of the tourist, the blow-in, and the visitor to the Gaeltacht. Irish marks itself as the code of the native against the intruder. It may not be meant as hostile. It may show instead the natural defensiveness of a hard-pressed community that sees itself under cultural and economic assault. As in "they paved paradise and they put up a parking lot," what attracts many to the Gaeltacht may hasten its decline. Which makes me wonder, as Steve Fallon (who was at An Cheathru Rua in the NUIG program but who also tours the other supposedly Irish-speaking enclaves) does in "Home with Alice: A Journey through Gaelic Ireland," (Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 2002) what we adult learners bring to and take from these Gaeltachtaí.
Antoine O Flatharta in his plays set in Conamara (he's a native of Leitir Muilean) addresses this situation where Irish begins to ebb away from being heard out in the wider world. He himself used to write plays in the 80s and 90s in Irish, published by Cló Iar-Chonnachta; some are out-of-print now. Now he writes children's books in English. I don't know what this signifies for a man who was called the leading Irish-language playwright. Learners might like to read his play "Gaeilgoiri," as there's lots of Bearla in this story of two young women from the city who stay with a local family while at the Irish-language classes. I find personally the author's "macaronic" use of English and Irish mixed intriguing if sobering. ( It's like a "Spanglish" hybrid, a creolization of two tongues.
Mairin Nic Eoin, a leading Irish-language literary critic, has a wonderful book I can only get bits out of due to my low level of skill, but if you read Irish better, her recent (again from Cois Life) "Tren bhFearann Breac" applies postcolonial and cultural theory to readings of contemporary Irish-language literature. Her title comes from a Cork poet's verse. He tracks passage past (what Hugo Hamilton in his memoir "The Speckled People" calls also) the "breac," the place name signs of his native Munster. These compare to those like himself: bilingual, half-and-half, on the border, on the margin, the fringe of anglicized Ireland today. The fact of a waitress with only the Lithuanian or Polish with the Gaeilge fascinates me as a sign of an alternative new Irish identity that in 1992 perhaps Colm Breatnach or Antoine O Flatharta might not have ever anticipated.
Poignantly in his 1992 poem Colm Breatnach laments the italicization of his native Irish on the signs, always second-class, always relegated to the side as ignored or patronized. I wonder if the battle over Gaeltacht signage in Irish only changes this perception, or only further proves the majority view of 21c futility of making the case for Irish in Irish, as in the reaction of the Dingle folks to their town becoming "only" An Daingean?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Making the Case for Irish through English?

I posted this to quixotically calm a flame war on the Yahoo Learning Irish group list today.

The thread of the prospects for Irish is taken up here, but after a while, who wants to scroll down increasingly lengthy previous posts tagging a few new lines? This drives me crazy when I have to read these posts. So, a new subject line. I borrow it from DCU translation theorist Michael Cronin. Whether Irish is alive or dying cannot be discussed intelligently unless the contexts of Irish-language use in our 21c reality are scrutinized.

Regarding debates on the health of Irish, I have had the help of Cionaidh and of David both on other Yahoo Irish language lists. I respect them both, thank them, and advise against descending into namecalling. Muiris' bibliographical forays are appreciated by me, by the way; I wish him luck in returning to Ireland.

The predicament of Irish in the new century, as shown in works by Michael Cronin (see my abstract below), James McCluskey (language death in globalized contexts), Ciarán Mac Murchaidh, Steve Fallon (on learning Irish as a Yank and touring the Gaeltachtaí and Irish-language cafés in Dublin), Aodan Mac Poilin (on NI & Irish) & Fionntan de Brún (on Belfast) --all in English-- recently have analyzed the state of Irish. Their findings complicate English sociologist Reg Hindley's reductive Marxian study done in the later '80s; Hindley was criticized by among others Eamon Ó Ciosain of NUI Maynooth in a 1991 paper. (I understand Hindley may have revised assertions in a paperback reprint of his book, but I have never been able to find this paperback reprint slightly expanded with 30 pp. or so, of "Death of the Irish Language: A Qualified Obituary?" I only have the hardcover.) I highly recommend MacMurchaidh's edited essay collection on "Who Needs Irish?" to anyone on this list. This tackles the types of questions David, Muiris, Cianoidh and LI'ers have been raising.

Supporting Hindley, on the other hand, the prospects for community use in the Gaeltachtaí appear now to be diminishing even in redoubts like Ghleann Cholm Cille or the heart of the Conamara region; I do not know as much for Munster, but surely pressures of tourism and second-home owners swarming in the wake of Fungi into Dingle/ An Daingean cannot be seen as encouraging for the sustenance of Irish. Studies by the Irish government chart this slump; see the book I review by Mac Giolla Chríost for examined data from recent NI and RoI statistics. Wish I could be a Pollyanna, but the numbers of active users in a community setting keep slipping. Again, the steadily increasing EU second-home and holidaymakers influx, as seen in Wales and the Scots Gaelic regions, must also take some of the blame for the state of Irish among "natives" today.

This decline leads, of course, to the supposition that in our century, as Cronin argues and I expand in my paper abstracted below, the survival of Irish in its "native habitat" depends on the actions of we the English-dominant millions rather than the few thousand (however tallied or how many) who claim to use Irish daily in the Gaeltachtaí. Can it survive on "reservations"? What about the cities? Naturally, anyone using Irish today does so by conscious choice to set themselves against the Anglophonic mainstream, and the growth of gaeilscoileannaí and enclaves in urban areas in the North as well as Dublin is intriguing as a counterbalance. I think of my friends and their children in West Belfast, finally able to attend school through the medium or Irish. Although I wonder if it means that Irish will become like Esperanto, an avocation and an aspiration? There is a backlash in some cities to the perceived "snobbishness" of Irish-medium education, and with the growing multilingualism in Ireland on both sides of the border, I wonder too if Irish will be weakened still more.

My own research into sociolinguistics and my interest in how the Irish language is represented through the media of English-language literary culture means that although ironically I am still laboriously learning Gaeilge in the midst of a life and a career (how some folks manage flame wars and heated debates multiple times daily is beyond me, or I suppose my more restrictive workplace where I cannot monitor a computer station all day....!). I have read all I can find admittedly from a distance about this issue. I wanted to share with you a bit of what I have synthesized, not to blow my own horn but to offer a contribution to this thread that avoids "culchaint" and examines what scholars have recently found about recent prospects for Irish.

Ok, I do have a Ph.D.; I try not to sound too stereotypical, however. I have no tenure, no cushy research fund. I buy books when I can and try to pursue my interests while teaching nearly all year-round with little time for study. I say this only to show that I am very challenged by Irish, and I do not find it comes naturally at all. It's tough. Modern Irish, even, is much harder than the medieval literature I studied for my dissertation, and the intricacies of numbering and naming what's numbered in Irish are among the most troublesome sets of information I ever encountered. I am not a linguist, I am not a born acquirer of languages, and I struggle almost daily with the bits of Irish that after two decades still at my child's level confound me. But I like it! Panu Hoglund's 2002 paper to the Royal Academy of Sciences, Valencia, Spain. "How is Dear Old Irish & Where Does She Stand" reviews sociolinguistics. My own article from Estudios Irlandeses 2 (2007): 151-160, "Making the Case for Irish through English: Ecocritical Politics of Language by Learners" also in PDF. I cut and paste here my abstract.

Abstract. This paper examines recent accounts by Americans who have learned Irish. Their narratives from the West of Ireland express what translation theorist Michael Cronin calls 'individualist politics of language'. He claims that the English-speaking majority will determine the survival of 21st century Irish. Cronin shifts Irish into a globalized, 'late modern' network.

Foreign-born learners enter this network when they choose to study Irish. They counter the stereotype of Irish schoolchildren forced into rote recitation of a moribund language. Patricia Monaghan combines goddess-worship with academic research into indigenous spirituality, place-name lore, literature, and the Irish environmental inheritance. Her travelogue and reports by five other American visitors to Gaeltachtaí are compared with John Montague and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's literary depictions of 20th-century Irish-born school-level learners.

Feminist, post-colonial, and literary criticisms enrich understanding of how American students apply ecological and cultural strategies that seek to recover this indigenous language. Choosing to make the case for Irish, adult students share Cronin's 'individualist politics'. In English-language books, American advocates preserve and expand a linguistic ecology in which Irish may survive.

Key Words. Eco-criticism. Irish language learners. Irish Americans. Feminist spirituality. John Montague. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. Post-colonial. Dindshenchas or Irish place-name lore.

Note to Learning Irish List readers. I refer to Michael Cronin's recent monograph in Irish & English, "Irish in the New Century/ An Gaeilge san Aois Nua," from Cois Life, Dublin. This is a serious publisher of academic and linguistically centered works in Irish, on Irish. Anyone doubting the health of criticism "as Gaeilge" needs to examine Cois Life's works before digging its grave. See also the Conamara publisher in music and print Cló Iar-Chonnachta. These offer works for adults, not only learners or kids, also.

Finally, I have reviewed many books (some of my popular non-academic reviews are on US) in English on Irish; many titles are found in the works cited in this Est. Irl. article and my review article at LinguistList of Diarmuit Mac Giolla Chríost's 2005 Routledge study "The Irish Language in Ireland." blog under this March 2007 also contains reviews of popular English-language works about learning Irish: http://fionnchu.blogspot.comThanks to the list for a lively debate. I hope I can add some substance to the issues raised by LI-ers lately. Slán go fóill agus le dea-mhéin.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Threading "British" & "Celtic" DNA Labyrinths

Following up my blog post earlier this month on the NY Times' Nicholas Wade's March 6 article about the debates over the common "Celtic" indigenous origins attributed to most of the "British" Isles' present-day inhabitants, here's today's Amazon review of Bryan Sykes' "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain & Ireland." (WW Norton, 2006). Alas, but no local library yet carries his colleague Stephen Oppenheimer's new book, "The Roots of the British: A Genetic Detective Story."

Earlier reviewers sum up Professor Sykes arguments well. I read "Seven Daughters of Eve," and what struck me about this "sequel" is that Sykes does not engage in the imaginary narratives with which he enlivened the composite "life and times" of his seven genetic prototypical mDNA matriarchs. Those tales gave a poignant and charming (albeit popularized and therefore probably bound to annoy his colleagues) glimpse into the conjectured "inspired by a true story" that we cannot fully translate from Paleolithic Europe. "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts" avoids this fictional device.

Reading between the lines, as many readers and critics misunderstood his "seven daughters" as "real" individuals, Sykes may have opted for less creative methods to explain the patriarchal counterparts-- which are far more numerous if less attractively developed here in their genetically distinguishable progeny, it seems from their Y-chromosome variants. Instead you get potted histories and summarized geographies of the early formation of the land and the tribes that entered the various insular regions post-Ice Age. While valuable to a general readership who never heard of Geoffrey of Monmouth or learned where the Grampians sprawl, such data does fill these pages with a lot of material that veers tangentially from his genetic research. It's difficult in a book aimed at non-scholars to combine so much information from so many fields; it reminds me too of Jared Diamond's similarly ambitious, polymathic, and synthesizing efforts that roam widely in rounding up support for the grand scientific thesis that spans millennia. Like Diamond, Sykes arouses scholarly and popular controversy. He too likes a good anecdote, and labors to entertain as well as educate, and shows he can speak to audiences outside the learned seminar. We need academically trained authors who can fill this necessary role and so counter so much merciless jargon and dismal prose from their more timid, tenure-tracked, and dryasdust peers.

What puzzles me is the lack of any bibliography, any footnotes. Even popularized accounts usually provide references or suggestions for further reading. The work by Paul Besu into Scots emigrants' search for roots sounds intriguing from the quotes on pp. 53-4. But what's Besu's book, or article, titled? From where in his work are the quotes taken? There's nothing to go on here.

Sykes apologizes at one point for having to even mention "haplotypes." I was relieved he finally did; he builds on Prof. David Bradley and his Trinity College Dublin team's analyses of Irish DNA that were initially published about half-a-dozen years ago. When Bradley had announced this data initially, I had searched in vain for any layman's explanation of the study beyond a paragraph or two in the press. This book met my expectations for a summary of Bradley's team's work I could understand. Certainly, as on pp. 112-113, Sykes shines when he talks of the humanity behind the numbers to the thirteenth decimal point, and how the Isle of Skye's weather at his second home suits his scholarly pursuit. These moments of candor and passion sparkle amidst the recitals of the highest peaks in Scotland, evidence from Roman amphorae, and where to get the best ice-cream in Lampeter! It's as idiosyncratic as the studies of his lovingly- described forebear in research, John Beddoe, a century ago.

In "A United Kingdom, Maybe?" by Nicholas Wade, in the March 3, 2007, Science section of the New York Times, Stephen Oppenheimer's theory that most in the Isles descend from ancestors 16,000 years ago is also explained along with Sykes' somewhat variant interpretations. But Oppenheimer, also a geneticist at Oxford and so presumably just down the corridor from Sykes, is never mentioned in SV&G. Why? Professional rivalry? Reluctance to mention his colleague's work that would be explained in Oppenheimer's 2006 "The Origins of the British," that came out alongside Sykes' book? Silence seems strange, given both profs work on "British" DNA. Maybe it's academic etiquette or cautious reticence.

Oppenheimer agrees overall with Sykes that the Isles were settled by the group still genetically predominant today. Oppenheimer appears to claim a date significantly earlier than Sykes suggests here with "Cheddar Man," (whose tooth drilling by Sykes begins his book vividly) but the two are both arguing for a primarily "Celtic" (despite the problems with that psuedo-"racial" 19c term for a linguistic and not an ethnic identity common among certain earlier Europeans, as Sykes explains well) "bedrock" of shared ancestry for most of the Isles' present-day people. Sykes wanders these Isles before asserting this in his conclusion. Lots of his byways are fascinating, others depending on the reader's own predilections may be tedious, as on any journey with an eager if rambling guide.

Certain places of interest on the journey lack necessary details. While he cites Ireland's island-wide population at 5.7 million, how does the current situation in the Republic whose 10% of its residents are now foreign-born effect his estimations, which seem to assume all of the Irish population are of families at least a few centuries longer established? Similarly, I wondered how soon the genetic impacts of Italians, Poles, Jamaicans, Nigerians, or Chinese begin to alter the DNA composition in ways that can be measured in the peoples native to, but intermarrying with now, those arriving in recent decades as global immigrants into Great Britain. Did Sykes in his gathering of samples only test people who knew they had "native" origins? This selection is implied but not explained.

Also, he cites for a surname, e.g. "Dyson," (pg. 272) that 90% of those with the paternal surname share the same Y-chromosome from common ancestry. Does this confirm the rumor of supposed (10% of, some say, although this figure by others as been said to be inflated) offspring who are not paternally sired by their putative "fathers"-- or what of those adopted into a family, or in the old days fostered? Is there a "rate" measurable of non- "paterfamilial" births by women that shows a pattern over the centuries of a steady percentage of extra-marital pregnancies? Does this 10% explain the less than 100% chromosomal match to a surname assuming a paternal descendant's lineage? I am guessing these effects, but Sykes never tells us why there's this 10% discrepancy or its DNA cause.

More gaps remained after I read "S V & C." The "DNA of Wales" chapter seemed rushed. If Ealdgyth on pg. 227 was Queen of Wales before the death of Gruffudd, why did she have a Saxon name? More crucially, speaking of Welsh genetic roots, why the lower- than- expected rate of Y-chromosome "Oisin" mutations in mid-Wales? He mentions and maps in the back but does not give any in-depth detail about the "families" of the less common markers metaphorically named Eshu and Re. Where are these groups from? No help here. I don't understand how Wodan differs from Sigurd exactly.

Finally, he argues that women rarely move about as much as the men who invade and kill off their male enemies but spare their womenfolk as potential mothers. Where did all the males keeping alive the Y-chromosomes of the pre-Germanic Atlantic-Fringe, Celtic-speaking peoples retreat to and procreate undercover in the Isles? Is Sykes arguing that the maternal "native" stock is mostly "Celtic" and so this numerical preponderance outweighs the part-"Celtic," part-"Germanic, etc." male mix traceable in their Y-chromosomes? Or, is even the male side mostly majority "Celtic" even without the female indigenous element? I still am unsure.

If Gildas' claims of the "Ruin of Britain" were exaggerations, then how did these pre-Germanic cultures adapt to their new overlords, linguistically, while preserving their stubbornly "native" bloodlines genetically? More needed filling in here. Especially since on pg. 285 he notes the opposite claim, that Y-chromosome diversity in regards to dating its settlement dates has been challenged by claims to "patrilocality," men staying put while women wander off to marry. Sykes challenges this indirectly with the "Genghis effect," but I remain puzzled about this counter-claim of "men stay, women go" that opposes his book's conclusions.

But this uneven presentation manages still to end powerfully. He compares the mDNA to a smooth umbilical cord back into maternal mists, while the male Y "thrusts its way from generation to generation." (I add, in both senses of the word!) This maniacal patriarchal drive wreaks havoc, enslaves and kills in the name of conquest and destruction and empire. "We could not have any more different conduits into the depths of our ancestry." (pg. 279) I agree with reviewers who note that in our DNA quest we are only grasping two strands of a multi-colored thread, the only two whose twists we can follow, and that this obvious fact, strangely unacknowledged by Sykes, does threaten to become too reductive a trail to chart accurately our ancestral passage through the labyrinth of time.

As Sykes notes, the blur of Teutonic ancestries with the Vikings, Normans, Danelaw, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Roman legionnaires makes easy "tribal" genealogies difficult to unravel from the "Wodan" and "Sigurd" strands. This key point, undermining the manipulative historical claims by the English to an Anglo-Saxon, anti-Roman Teutonic, and therefore anti-Roman Catholic legacy of Germanic freedom fighters, finally explains why so many chronicles, legends, invasions, and conquests were "justified" by those who took over the name of the earlier British if apparently not their maternal inheritance to an ineradicable pre-Germanic, indigenous, eventually Celtic-speaking matriarchal heritage for the majority in today's Isles. Pg. 206: "The later arrivals may get all the headlines, but it takes a lot to displace indigenous genes, especially on the female side." I remind you how James Joyce mused in "Ulysses" that paternity is a "legal fiction." But the woman's own record, DNA shows, can never lie.

As a non-scientist, I am grateful for Sykes' book. Despite its starts and stops, I am happy to have gone along for this intellectual ride. I am sure that geneticists will build upon the raw material here and find more intricate structures in our veins and sinews that will explain much that Sykes and his colleagues now can inevitably only suggest as educated guesses or speculate upon.

(P.S. Image: from Luigi Cavalli's map of Y-chromosome haplotype distribution; area #17, Castlerea in Roscommon, is the exact barony that my Finans, Dockerys, Fordes, and an O'Connell or Connell or Connellan all occupied since, well practically time immemorial. It has the highest percentage on this chart of the Isles, 90%, of R1B haplotypes passed down through the male line-- indicating a considerable degree of genetic isolation from the rest of the gene pool. See more at: )

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Irish Jewish Museum needs mitzvot!

I read an article this morning in my nod to Shabbat (and a certain Shabbat Queen, the woman whose price is greater than rubies, is actually shomer two weeks now off the keys and some of her accustomed partakings-- mazel tov, shayna meidele!) in the March 16, 2007 Forward about the Dublin Jews. Every spring around March 17 it seems there is some journalist regaling us with the same small bit we know from their past.

(I added some of those same small bits to my entry "Jews in Ireland" in "Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia" edited by Seán Duffy, Routledge 2005, pages 239-240. My article on Paul Durcan's poem and the real-life Hat Factory in Castlebar-- and the one at Galway in which my grandfather was a dispatcher, the enterprise Les Modes Modernes run by Jewish refugees admitted with some hesitation by the Free State in the late 1930s-- has been sent off to a journal but seems in limbo. I have another article sent off and in an adjoining liminal state, examining the anti-semitic corporatist far-right Áiseiri movement in Hugo Hamilton's memoir "The Speckled People" of his father-- and Seán's affiliation with its leader Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin in the 1930s and 40s. I hope to write another analysis, on Hugo's "The Harbor Boys" aka in Britain the more appropriate title "The Sailor in the Wardrobe," soon.)

Their present has predictably been more precarious; but recent immigration may help the three synagogues in Dublin that survive. The well-designed site revealed to me today heretofore unknown news that the Cork shul actually meets the first Friday night of the month, so perhaps it too may recover from the sickbed, where so often both Jews and Yiddishkeit are assumed to have been finally-- about-- to be laid to rest or put to death. When in Limerick in June I will be able to visit the tiny Kilmurray cemetery recently restored with its six headstones, and I will lay pebbles on the graves and say a jumbled Kaddish.

Marilyn Zeitlin in her "A Slice of Ireland" entry to the March newspaper's ritual of reminding readers that there are still non-fictional Jews in Dublin and alerting me to the IJM's precarious state can be read at

She notes that three American Jewish philanthrophic organizations rejected the IJM's appeals.
This is shameful, lashon hora, or as they say in Yiddish "a shandah, a scandal for the goyim."
So, if any of you care to join me in contributing what you can to the IJM: find bank transfer information at this site by a kind "friend;" scroll down the page to "Objectives"

(This was also posted after removal of spousal tributes and shameless self- promotion on the Forward site after the Zeitlin article, and in re-edited form also without such promotion although I wish I could have kept it on, given the audience, on the Irish-Studies list. I also sent a short letter to the F. editor with links to the Jewish Ireland site and the bank transfer data.)

(3/25: Follow-up to Aidan's comment: yes, the Belfast Jewish community also exists, but from the news of our local temple's president, our beloved Henry Leventon of Rosa Etta Terrace in Cliftonville's natal embrace, grad of the Inst., bold journeyer at the cusp of manhood from Belfast into the Korean War's draft of all things, it's been long on the decline due to heavy emigration, especially since WWII, to Britain, Canada, US, and for once, Israel. Like IJM, no website that I can find but e-mail: As of 1999 a UJC-UK site lists "99 seatholders" at the Wolfson Centre vs. over 400 in the 1940s. Another one lists the 2004 population at 130 down from its highest number, 1800-plus, at the time when our Henry was leaving Belfast for the great world beyond its shores and terraces.

Sad related link to abandoned and/or vandalized cemetery sites in the Isles, including an obelisk in the City Cemetery on Falls Road in West Belfast, which I will also visit this summer.

As an aside, my search also pulled up Marlena Thompson on Cork's Jewish community:

I'd love a review copy... since I am wanting to do so...of Cormac Ó Gráda's new book on the economic history "Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce," mostly about the heavy Litvak immigration and its impacts on Dublin. Blurb & sample from its opening pages:

(The image: Chaim Herzog was born in the unlikely Ring of Kerry village of Sneem (Irish for "knot") where there is a sculpture garden with one figure commemorating him today. He later became the State of Israel's first president. His father Dr. Isaac was the nascent Irish Free State's chief rabbi.)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Putting my head into a speaker

This has been my quest: to hear as I always thought I should the thousands of songs I love. As faithful readers (e.g. Layne and ???) know, I posted about my search for IEM's (inner-ear monitors, not earbuds, darn it) which did not break the bank. Ultimate Ears, as their website shows, has Gwen Stefani, Sinéad O'Connor, and Chili Peppers among their satisfied rock star clients; UE used to make only custom-fitted earpieces that require a visit to whatever an ear specialist is called in Latin and not "eye, ear, nose & throat" doctor. They also require this for their top-of-the-line set for us plebes sold for a thousand bucks. Wetware is the next frontier: tapping into your tissue, your neural network, and running outside electronics along our inner electric network. Can't hardly wait.

UE's recently out with a triple speaker set-up in a wee boxy container that sticks-- way out even for me of big pop-out Irish ears tormented childhood ("Murphy Mouse" my heretofore unrevealed nickname not by choice circa junior high)-- in your ear and hooks in the back of the ears with little twisty bits at the top of the cable for the phones. I could only afford the double set-up, that with a significant discount (which Leo demanded back in other ways from that AmEx bar mitzvah card that had to be used by, hey, this month of March; AmEx charges you when you apply the "gift" card to pay a fee for the privilege of about 4%. G-d d-mned bankers.) and then a "B-stock" reduced pair from the experts (there are legion as Head-Fi list online will reveal; some happy hobbyists keep tallies of their earphoned, amped, cabled, IEM'd, MP3 player, car player, and less commonly IPodded) obsession in $$$, in the thousands if not the tens of yet) pursuit of the lost accurately produced chord.

IEMs from UE aren't pretty. On stage, said stars can have one on and tuck it so their hair or scarf or wig or hoodie covers it up somewhat. But take it as I do into the subway station or on the bus and those Bose-deluded sound-suppressing yuppies and hipsters look at me askance, not to mention the white-corded Apple hordes. Little do they know as do I with tremendous, placebo-like, self-justifying research that I hear better than they do my sound files, and keep my hearing safe at lower volumes. Further in the ear means you isolate more sounds you do not want and substitute them with those desired.

With the Bose-type set-up, made for aircraft (you apparently, sigh, get them on Lufthansa in first class) pilots originally, white noise is generated, suction created inside the "cans," but the outside noise is not really cut off, only that the inside noise via the cord is sent in to battle it out inside the 'phones and presumably triumph! We like our Bose radio- CD player (but white shows stains and smudges almost as bad as the mud from five years ago in my backseats from the kids coming back from Tom Sawyer camp and now, as of last week, the corned beef juice/ grease --sorry, L.-- seeping out from the pans I had to carry to L's work for the St. Pat's traditional lunch) but those in the know, snobs and those with disposable income, rate its products consistently low compared to many others far cheaper. The Corgi ate the remote to the Bose, and why the player did not have a little slot to keep the remote control safe on the player is beyond me. An obvious oversight.

Back to UE IEM 5s: as with all their products, it looks like Spock-wear, some audiophiles say, but it manages to shove a rubber-tipped (cf. Can's song; Damo Suzuki or is it Malcolm Mooney singing for all of a vinyl side it seems "Then I saw Mushroom Head") toadstoolish capped speaker with a tweeter and woofer (I guess) into my ears as a musical earplug of sorts. I can report that the debated "burn-in" does happen after a couple of hundred hours of use. Cables arguably need a break-in period to adapt their capacity to the frequencies and levels carried through all those braided tiny wires, and I felt, after having bought them around Thanksgiving, that in mid-February there was a significant improvement in spaciousness. This separation effect, the soundstage, is enhanced by my little headphone amp made by a diligent and kind engineer, Gary Ali, in Toronto. I run the iPod signal not directly to the headphone but via the amp, about the size of a pack of mints, so the sound gets boosted better than it could from the reduced circuitry crammed inside the Pod.

You forget-- my early ambition of a ham radio license was never realized due to my poverty, but shortwave radio delighted me and I would read stacks of books in electronics in junior high! So, my interest in sound returns, and teaching where I do keeps me vaguely aware of the necessities of design and implementation of devices to plug-in or charge off of. Today, from Hans Oosterwaal in Holland, his "Qables" home-made connector arrived. A step up again. I will explain. This bypasses the headphone jack of the iPod as-- predictably-- audiophiles realized that the sound is compromised again with the small space and the comparatively large space taken up by the jack. That's about all I can figure out. Why not go in and pimp the jack? One fellow does this for $200 and calls it iModding. It, combined with a line-out dock connector cable, is apparently the bees' knees. Someday when L. makes me rich.

My rig (as they are called) is bargain basement and almost embarrassing to tell of if I could have posted, as I tried, on Head-Fi for cable advice. But I can only read posts, and my signing on is there but I cannot post; e-mails to the head Head-Fi'er never received any reply, puzzlingly. Neither did one to an orthographically challenged fellow named "K" (I don't want to grace his full name so to deny him a Google hit) and his on-line business of making fancy dock connectors and cables for headphones and mini-to-mini and for motorcyclists and their Pods (a whole sub-category). He lists at his site a Head-Fi thread singing his praises, and it was him or Hans. Qables also received acclaim, much from Europe as would make sense> Still, when I noticed that H. charged a bit less for international shipping than K. did domestically, I figured H. was a fair man. Both of them had been dissatisfied with what was out there, and like Cardos or I suppose Harmon or Bang, built better soundtraps. I sent them both the invitation to help me out and offer them my hoarded cash. One did, the other didn't.

Did you know cable for linking your ears to speakers, small ones you wear and not some Bang & Olufsen or Harmon-Kardon (as in Jane Harmon's tycoon husband, JH quondam rival to Pelosi in Congress once before her capitulation to Madame Speaker, herself too funded by her zillionaire husband in turn) stack from the 80s, can run near a thousand dollars? Cardos is one such line, and obviously Mr. C. has a great love for his craft. The intriguing aspect is that in my own efforts to improve my commute, beginning with the kind inheritance of L's unused iPod (but she will get a far better one, stocked with personally selected tunes, from gracious Bob and genial Chris soon as a jubilee gift) , I block out the homeless mutterers if not their fragrance, the cellphone chatterers, the laughing ninnies, the jabbering schoolkids, and the annoying bilingual blare of each stop and all of the noise of the stops and starts, well, nearly. Estimate 70% or more depending on proximity, duh, of said sonic disruption? The worst is the female voice speaking the Spanish no fumar etc spiel. Braying, mush-mouthed, pushy, clipped oddly on last letters.

Whew. Tangent. If "K" did not even bother to respond to my well-organized, carefully detailed explanation of my specific needs for a dock cable, how can he run his on-line business? I guess some Harley owners keep him solvent. Thanks for nothing, and proofread your poorly composed page while you're at it.

Hans, contrarily, was a true Dutch gentleman. We exchanged half-a-dozen e-mails as he gave me advice and suggested the best cable for my purposes within a limited budget. Yes, L., I am at the bottom rung, be assured, if above an Apple earbud. Ten days after he sent it, here I sit and listen. It'll be a while to burn-in, but I did find after ninety minutes so far in its maiden journey joining 4th generation iPod 30 GB to Pocket Amp PA2V2 via Ultimate Ears IEM SF5's that it makes a difference. No, I am not imagining it. My far from favorite song but one I use as a test is "Paperback Writer" by the Beatles. It has near the end the sounds faintly heard of the inhaling of breath by John or is it the Walrus. I have tried this out with each successive set-up, and trying it on the Qables custom cable (not the top-of-the-line Silvercab he makes as it is too fragile for portability-- one day, Hans, when I get my home stereo, ok?) I did hear a bit of an earlier (about thirty seconds from the conclusion) intake of one Liverpudilian's probably chemically enhanced in-spiration.

I also heard the dreaded "floor" of the soundscape revealed. One more reason for flash drives to takeover the hard spinning turntables in the Pod. Why can't we all get 30 or 40 gigs on a flash? Then all would be the size not of even a Nano but perhaps a Shuffle. Want a postage-stamp sized screen? Like stylii and Treo keyboards, tech gets smaller but our eyes (and fingers) need larger. At least until we evolve in a half-million years into small digited droids. The iPod's hard disk's chugging between songs is now very audible! Click, click, click. Thus is rendered the closest I have stumbled on my beer budget aspiring to champagne. I wonder: what would a thousand dollar IEM, same priced cable, amp half that truly reveal? {Update 3/30: since the maiden voyage, next to my computer, this click-click has not returned. I tried with both my Radio Shack cans, which do sound great with Qable Kustomized dock connector too, and the IEMs, and no clicks with the iPod on batteries.}

Even the lowest circle that I am at in the sonic stratosphere beats the red transistor radio I found in the garage purge: when I was almost twelve, in Boy Scouts near Palm Springs, listening on it with the one rubber plug in my ear to "Little Willy" by the Sweet. Be careful what you wish for? I have now entered the sanctum sanctorum, and have paid attention to the man behind the curtain, I have now heard the mechanism under the music. Talk about accurate reproduction! A sobering price to pay for an investment in and a pledge made to fidelity-- isn't that the consequence of a serious commitment?

But, as with matrimony, I will adjust to my new partner. With what my spouse dubs my "wife- cancellers," (wait until she gets her rig) on I went to songs from The Loud Family's last 2 CD's "Days for Days" and "Attractive Nuisance." These intricately arranged pop-gone-bent creations grow on me more and more. They are produced not by former producer Mitch Easter (who seems to have wooed away the band leader's wife) but Scott Miller himself, and he learned well at the foot of the master over LF and its predecessor Game Theory's total of seven albums from about 1986-1994. I could hear him and his backing vocalist Alison Faith Levy with more "roundness" in their quirky voices, and the soundstage proved not so much more precise as it did defined by volume in the geometrical sense. The insistence of the drums, jangle guitar, rootedness of the bass: these all gain groundedness. Plectrums on strings, shimmers of snares, the bass drum pedal, the feedback rustle, overlapping collisions of sounds finally placed beside and not atop one another, volume shifts, and again the buzz of the beat. Such are what's in a similar song playing now: The Moles, "Breathe Me In." I wish leader Richard Davies had not wimped out with the overrated Cardinal alongside Eric Matthews; he could have worked perfectly with Scott Miller (better than Anton Barbeau who's not untalented but on their recent collaboration AB's too much imitating his master's voice IMHO.)

A couple more trials from the ultimate record, my own Sgt. Pepper (which is incredibly hyped and is not represented even on my iPod; "Murmur" too is missing there two or three of its wussier forays, but I still prefer the first LP to "Reckoning" against critical assertions of my professional fourth estate and, curses, at least one grad student peer widely published and now tenured rock-as-cultural-movement and not just music, maaaan, professoriate) for me: "Pilgrimage," R.E.M. This shows the connection of the dock indeed-- at quieter moments, as on the train when songs end, the background, so to speak, revives. I hear the tambourine much more. Mike Mills' supporting vocals ease their shrillness. "Moral Kiosk" followed, so it too. More of a sluggish, hefty song than the vast emptiness of its predecessor. Thumps a lot, but now you pick out the bits of guitar strum in the half-seconds that otherwise get drowned out by the vocal and main thrust of the song. That bass-drum rhythm section is often underappreciated in R.E.M., but the deep bass that PiL tried on its early records as well as Easter & Don Dixon on "Murmur" gets depth without getting doomy or too thick. Bill Berry in a Rolling Stone review I somehow remember from when "Life's Rich Pageant" came out and I read it in the parking lot of the 7-11 in Alhambra across from Sears on Fremont was dissed for his poor drumming, but the nuances, if they could have been heard by that critic in 1985, might have resulted in a fairer evaluation. Even that jumbled album, by the way, has improved with time.

Ok, one more, the one that sounds like Laacoon and his ("her two"?) sons, "Laughing." Good challenge for the combined light guitar and the heavier bass-drums under the more wistful vocal. Again, the bass pedal, with more air whooshing around it. The pressure of the air around the drums somehow sounds present. Mills sounds more grainy in his back-up, more throaty. Peter Buck's guitar fools about on a bridge near the final chorus and you catch the noodling. "Catapult" shares with "Pilgrimage" a similar setting, but the folkier guitar and harmonized vocals stress a louder-softer balance. Not as much new in this song to my ears but tinier percussion glints and shines off of the sides as its echoes can be discerned. Lots of supporting taps on something sharpish. The strum and what sounds like a piano (those taps: maybe keys?) comes out possibly a first for me. "Sitting Still" is to me more emotional. The guitar hurries more and the song hustles insistently with that wonderful chord shuffle. The drums still keep the change I notice today: they are placed more centrally to support the other musicians and the voices. Stipe sounds more restrained, and the music is not as precise; a more muffled song?

A more middling song, "West of the Fields," expresses similar improvement, but as it does not sparkle as a song, and gets mumbly and rather ho-hum, there's not as much to write blog home about. But the layered vocals stack nicely two-thirds of the song in, and the underlying guitar fills added and the end of the backing vocals that staggers with the main voice emerges.

Back (I had to listen to "We Walk": why do I have that on my iPod? Eek-- "Perfect Circle" remains extant too) to "Radio Free Europe." Same: drums displace air, insistence of melody, click of high-hats sharpens metalically and underneath it can be heard better the steel-strung guitar picking. In vocals, I cannot make out a difference in Stipe's singing. Possibly it's the instruments that convey better now? Ah, but wait until that burn-in, John Michael S.!

And this at the standard Apple 128 kb AAF encoding. What in the world do those songs sound like at 256 or Lossy (jargon necessary)? I tried a few songs at Lossy and on the headphone jack set-up noticed NO difference. But, I will put a few back on the docked iPod and dutifully report again.

P.S. The following day, I tested the Qable with my $50 Koss-Radio Shack cans, and guess what? Sounded great too, but no click heard from the iPod! I guess the cans are sensitive enough to create the enhanced soundscape, but lack the range to transmit the soundfloor's hard drive support. Another reason for flash drive hegemony and capitalist- driven price drops.

Note to myself: I have to scrutinize the LF keyboards more-- my typing as I listened necessarily lessened my total immersion the past two-and-a-half hours! I have to stop now or I will be typing all night. It's getting cold in the basement---so, trail mix snack time.

Overall, how do I justify my time and money investment today explored? I "feel" the rush more, closer to the Platonic childhood dream. Yeah, that one: pushing your ears into a woofer and tweeter past the flimsy fabric screen into the cone. Implosion. To think that the enormous bookcase speakers of the 80s have come to a few ounces, and all of a half-ounce in my ears themselves. Giving a final exam in a physics lab last month, I had my iPod in my backpack, so I weighed it and the IEMs. In the name of acoustic science, I submit my findings and bow out now. {3/30 update: spouse sniffs on her blog: could Himself have gotten any more masturbatory about his wife-cancelers? I sniff back, preferring to regard myself as increasing my audio-critical acumen.}

Lest you call me a heedless hedonist: bowing, may I tip my untonsured, unrazored, head to Philip Groening's documentary, 2'45" on the Carthusian monastery La Grande Chartreuse, "In Great Silence," again. I would have seen-- a second time happily after I saw its premiere on the West Coast a year ago-- it in Pasadena today, but its two-week arthouse run came to a close yesterday. I had set aside time today to see it, and I am disappointed it lasted so brief a time, but I await the DVD although it cannot do justice to its cinematography or the sound it captures which you only realize over time-- and plenty of it here-- is the whoosh of snowflakes falling.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Shane MacGowan, wheelchair & all:

Proud am I of having in July-ish of 1986 on the Pogues' first visit to LA to say I at the center of the front of the stage, having got there first, shared a drink-- plastic cup of the black death indeed-- with the great man himself as he passed it around to some of us punters pummelled by the crowd of hundreds at our own backs at, I guess, the Palladium. My spouse with her Paul Westerberg hero-worship (another alkie genius singer-songwriter of the non-James Taylor ilk although Paul for her is even to my unbiased eye still a more-enticing cuddle than is Shane)-- He, her and him, the three of them all the same age within a year or less. Jubilees! ) I won't mention Mark E Smith, whose boyish mien collapsed due to ravages of drink & drugs. He's a month younger than my dear spouse. Who looks worse now, Mark or Shane? Both are undeniably talented singer-songwriters in that same self-destructive, autodidactic mode. They both should learn from Brendan Behan & Dylan Thomas' trajectories & flame-outs. Luckily, my wife's neither a singer (ha) nor a songwriter, just a calmer, wonderful collector of wisdom about songs, and a great writer to boot even if she's not from the oul' sod, sod it.

March 17, 2007
(NY Times) Editorial Observer

How Close Is Too Close to Shane MacGowan and the Pogues?

The other evening I was doing a very grown-up thing, ironing an oxford cloth shirt for work, when my youth reared up and punched me in the mouth. On the television, a Cadillac commercial about a stylish family’s morning rituals was accompanied by the jaunty melody to the song “Sunnyside of the Street,” by the Irish folk-punk band the Pogues.

This has to be an instrumental, I thought, just as the lead singer Shane MacGowan’s sandpaper voice sang the garbled words I knew so clearly from repeated listening, “So I saw that train and I got on it, with a heart full of hate and a lust for vomit,” while the perfect parents in the ad drove their children to school in their shiny Cadillac.

I can report no urge to buy a car, but I did rouse myself from years of largely dormant fandom to see the Pogues (best known for their Christmas hit “Fairytale of New York”) play at the Roseland Ballroom in New York as part of a tour scheduled around St. Patrick’s Day.

As is often the case for a band with a self-destructive front man, their first attempt on Wednesday night was canceled, due this time to a knee injury for Mr. MacGowan. But true to the promise posted on the band’s Web site, the musicians made it onstage on Thursday — with Mr. MacGowan sitting in a wheelchair, an old Keith Richards joke come to life.

For better and quite often for worse, this man was my role model from junior high through college. His powerful songs — the more grotesque are the lyrical equivalent of Francis Bacon paintings — were my soundtrack.

Not coincidentally, the band I played in covered the Pogues’ songs and mimicked their instrumentation, right down to the penny whistle. When we recorded our own music on a four-track cassette in the basement, we chain-smoked cigarettes in the boiler room in a vain effort to gravel up our choirboy vocal chords to sound more like Our Shane.

This kind of dedication may be familiar even if you’ve never heard of the Pogues but spent your teenage years memorizing the canon of Bob Dylan or poring over the Martin Scorsese oeuvre on VHS tapes. For me, the Pogues’ manic mix of mournful dirges and hard-edged thrashers seemed to map the chaos of my suburban teenage mind.

The fact that there was substance in there, a long Irish musical tradition coupled with references to literature and legend, was what allowed my relationship with the Pogues to blossom from passing fancy into obsession. To steep yourself in the Pogues requires you to read James Joyce and Brendan Behan, to listen to both the Clash and the Dubliners, and to take up some, but, I hope, not all, of the legendary bad habits of our latter-day Baudelaire, Shane.

The ultimate experience, then, would be a face-to-face meeting, a wide-ranging, soul-searching discussion of music and the written word. That was not quite how it unfolded for me when it finally happened, during the summer I turned 20.

Hanging out after a show in Washington in 1995, I found Shane MacGowan alone, confused and locked out of both the club and his tour bus. Pale and unsteady, his words unintelligible, he clawed feebly at the door of the bus. There would be no discussion of “Ulysses.” I pounded on the bus door until the driver woke and let him in. Though this audience lasted several minutes, the only words of my hero’s that I could make out were “Cheers” and “Thanks.”

Until this week, I hadn’t seen him play live again. At first I felt removed, as if I were having coffee with an ex. For the better part of the concert, I stood where no hard-core fan belongs, near the back, feeling a little uncomfortable about singing along. Though I listen to the records infrequently, every last word to every last song was still branded deep in my brain. The band was on top of its game. Although Shane was either inert or muttering incomprehensibly between songs, he roused himself for each number, nailing the heartbreakers and glass-smashers alike, through a long set and two encores.

By the time the band launched into the rousing “Sally MacLennane” from its second album, I was right up front, colliding with the youngest and most boisterous members of the audience, who were happily moshing as the man in the wheelchair shouted, “And we sang him a song of times long gone, though we knew that we’d be seeing him again.” No more than a dozen feet apart, Shane and I were separated by a railing, a bouncer and the height of the stage. And that, I realized, was just about right.

Colum McCann on the Tara motorway

Please sign the petition and find more about this:,0,7022745.story?coll=la-opinion-rightrail

Wild Irish roads

Four-lane motorways on the emerald island are paving over a rich heritage.
By Colum McCann
COLUM MCCANN is author, most recently, of "Zoli" (Random House).

March 17, 2007

IN HIS EXTRAORDINARY examination of landscape, history, texture and storytelling, "Connemara: Listening to the Wind," the author Tim Robinson says that "right living in a place entails a neighborly acquaintance with those who lived there in previous times." What Robinson suggests is that whoever we are now is derived from those who went before us — their stories, their architecture, their failings, their journeys, the roads they took. Things connect, and in those connections lies a certain mystery.

There is a massive ongoing debate in Ireland about a motorway destined to destroy one of the richest archeological landscapes in Europe. The expanded route for the M3 motorway goes through the heart of the Gabhra Valley, between the hills of Tara and Skryne. Legend records that St. Patrick set ablaze his Pascal fire on the Hill of Slane, just as the pagan fire was to be lighted on Tara. Successive Irish kings were crowned there. History lies deep. In a week when Irish politicians come to America bearing bowls of shamrock, it's interesting to ponder that they're going back to dreams of concrete.

The proposed road is a four-lane tollway, the sort that Ireland has grown fond of in recent times. Cultural and environmental activists predict that the motorway will inevitably be followed by all kinds of commercial and ancillary development. Much of the Emerald Isle is key-chained with crossovers, flyovers and high steel bridges these days.

"Future tourists are sure to be confused by what they encounter in County Meath and indeed throughout the country," says Muireann Ni Bhrolchain of the Campaign to Save Tara, a newly formed umbrella group for the dozens of opposition groups. "Rampant development throughout the country, much of it facilitated by corrupt officials, has been a byproduct of Ireland's breakneck economic expansion over the last decade."

Roads touch our lives in more intimate ways too. Recently I was reading a book about the Irish high kings to my 8-year-old son, John Michael. He loved the Stone of Destiny, the ancient coronation stone, and was fascinated by the notion that the stone would roar when touched by the true king.

"Did it shout?" he asked. I said I had no idea, but I imagined so.

"Good," he said, and then asked: "Have you ever been there?" Many times, I told him, even once when I was his age. His eyes lighted up, as young eyes do at the wonder that their fathers had ever been the same age as them.

"Did you ever hear it roaring?" he asked. I said I hadn't, but I bet it would for him.

Just a few hours later I received a series of photographs showing that work on the M3 had already begun. Trees were being ripped up in and around the Gabhra Valley, which happens also to be the site of the proposed interchange at Blundelstone, near the heart of the matter. It seemed that the Irish National Roads Authority and the Meath County Council were trying to get a jump on construction so that the proposed rerouting of the motorway could not take place.

So be it, perhaps. Roads find their places. Ireland is changing. Perhaps we should just let it change.

But then the question is, what sort of Ireland might remain?

The area of highest contention is about two miles of the Tara-Skryne valley. Few people dispute the wider issue of the need for a better road. Defenders point out that the motorway is about three-quarters of a mile from the Hill of Tara. It will take 30 minutes off the journey between Dublin and Cavan. Some even claim, amazingly, that it will restore tranquillity to the area. There is even an argument that the road and its floodlights will become part of the archeology of the future. Hallelujah, the future says. A four-lane highway. Another Stone of Destiny.

But we bury the past only if we're ashamed of it. We have a responsibility to heritage, environment and, indeed, imagination. Yet most meaningful Irish debates these days seem to take place only in the realm of time and money. Half-hours are crucial to the economics of the future. Those who oppose these notions are labeled contrary, dreamy, populist. Even when viable alternate routes are proposed, the proponents are labeled simplistic. But nothing is simple, not even simplification.

As an Irish novelist living in New York, I've been told that I should keep my "bourgeois," "emigrant" and "sentimental" nose out of the debate. It is not my story. It is not my road.

But the road here has gone back an awful long way. If we are not to be ashamed in the future, we must take whatever care we can of our past. In a strange, naive way, I think my son, here in New York, might understand this too.

These are our roaring stones — and sometimes they take root in the most unlikely places.

(P.S. from me: 1) Dick Roche-- fitting name-- is in charge of the Irish agency supposedly looking after its environment. 2) thanks to Julian Cope, archdruid-dude, author of the amazingly sharp-- given the drugs-- memoir paired as Head on/ Repossessed, psychonaut - archaeologist - shaman and reclaimer of his island's Head Heritage, compiler of massive tomes on same, space rocker, and the list attached to his HH site and his books from where I copied the image. I posted there at HH once meself for the Boheh Stone in Mayo aligned with Cruach Phadraig. )

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Lawrence's death, with post-script

A brief note: my high school classmate and friend, (Fr.) Lawrence Signey, the one from whom I first heard Sex Pistols 45s that he brought back in 77 and 78 from his summers in his native Seaham, near Newcastle, Co Durham (not far perhaps from Bede's monastic home nearly fifteen centuries earlier on that stormy coast), the one who gave me when I visited him in his freshman year at college seminary a copy of Sid on a single of "My Way", and who I have not probably talked to but once around 84 about REM a bit at a class reunion party and perhaps waved to or got his blessing at his ordination-- well, the one who died suddenly of an infection. I found out only last night in an e-mail. The paper and my fellow classmates have no more details at present. Red-haired, ruddy, freckled, with a great taste in music! So few priests and in this time so many of those few who do so much good. I hope in his twenty years (almost to the month I estimate) he brought many others closer to the divine and to the human. Requiescat in pacem.

Since I wrote this, I did the yoga the same hour as his funeral Mass at St. Robert Bellarmine's up a dozen or less miles from here. I remember seeing that church as a kid, since I went to another of the city's parishes, St. Finbar's. Although we'd go up the hill to St. Francis Xavier in a pinch since the masses were super-fast there. My co-inhabitant has written in her blog at a few days ago about her take on the yoga experience. I will simply add that I hope the psychic and physical energy expended worked in harmony with that from a dozen miles up the 5 freeway, and that on the way to the site where he and I once, about a dozen miles more north, went to high school together and got to know each other over four years. And, since I know now what it is, I too say with my wife and son "namaste."

Monday, March 12, 2007

Nollaig Mac Congáil's "Irish Grammar Book"

Another recent Amazon post, and another in the big three 21c grammars I recommend.

This book's a useful entry in what I'd recommend as the troika of grammatical references that'll pull you ahead as a learner of Irish through snowdrifts and impassable ruts. Irish grammar for English speakers offers few recognizable landmarks by which to orient one's self. This book is a straightforward reference, the 'Leabhar Gramadaí Gaeilge' from 2002; this English version is also from the same publisher, the fine Irish-language book and music purveyor Cló Iar-Chonnachta. (I presume that as Noel McGonagle this same author wrote for Hippocrene Press the shorter resource "Irish Grammar." That book is not the same as this one!) Based on Niall Ó Dónaill's Foclóir Gaeilge- Béarla, the standard dictionary, IGB sets out the Irish terms and paradigms in an attractive green font; the English translations appear side by side in an italicized green boldfaced. This handsome layout appeals to the learner.

Unlike Éamonn Ó Dónaill's "Teach Yourself Irish Grammar," IGB lacks any exercises. The explanations are here slightly more detailed in places than in TYIG. This book lacks the immediate classroom usefulness that Donna Wong's college-level "Learner's Guide to Irish" possesses with that book's expensive spiral-binding and larger, easier to hold, format. But, for concision, IGB may be sufficient for quick answers and simple demonstrations of conventions. If not here, than in LGI would be the expected order of investigation for topics; TYIG than could be used for drills and reinforcement by practical examples for student practice.

I spot-checked ordinal and cardinal numbering, for me a difficult concept. IGB offers a bit more than TYIG, far less than LGI, so it fits my estimation of the coverage intended by each of these three basic grammatical works for learners, all written in this century, therefore attentive to how Irish is taught to learners in urban, far-flung, and self-tutored set-ups beyond the typically near-uniform Irish schoolroom.

Unlike LGI and TYIG, the Irish vocabulary used for explanations and exemplification is not always translated. My four-star ranking reflects this, although per se it may not be a shortcoming. I look at this book, however, from the perspective of a student, and so ask myself: if some of its illustrations are given also in English, why not all of them? Generally, lists appear of Irish words left as such; their English equivalents generally appear only when rendering phrases into Béarla. So, those needing the support of English might want to be more confident in their level of comprehension, although a dictionary on hand is an obvious necessity anyway. Yet, having the IGB reinforcement when learning of phrases alone and not vocabulary in English and Irish appears uneven. LGI and TYIG give the impression they could be used by learners anywhere, as they take pains to balance Irish with English; perhaps IGB reflecting its genesis is intended more for applications within classrooms in Ireland?

I would buy IGB before LGI; as a handy reference it's well-designed, laid out so as not to crowd the page, and pleasing to the eye of the otherwise overwhelmed newcomer to this fascinating but convoluted language-- at least as it appears to many native English-speakers. Including information on idioms, "varia," and expressions, although all are dealt with on only a page or two respectively, is a useful supplement that shows attention to a learner's needs. Any student of Irish can benefit from IGB, and along with LGI and TYIG may find that he or she will soon want to set all three on the same shelf to complement their aims and compare their explanations on fine points and how-to's of grammar.

RTÉ's "Turas Teanga" book- CD- DVD

I revise a bit my Amazon review of this set. I bought the book-CD for the 40 euro list price in Westport three years ago; while Gill & Macmillan in response to my query promised me a review copy they never sent one. The DVDs are separately sold, by RTÉ for 40 euro. A fine way to humiliate yourself if you think you are progressing from a rank beginner at the "lá bhrea" stage, yet I suppose also a necessary boost even if its "agus" or "tá" only that you now find yourself hearing when following stumblingly along the rush of Gaelic spoken as she is in real life on her home turf and not enunciated on a patient, pausing, measured language tape.

This multimedia course is geared towards those who most likely have had Irish in school-- and I mean in Ireland-- years ago. It is not meant for beginners: to quote the back cover: but "at those who have studied Irish in the past and understand a great deal of the language, but have had few opportunities to use it in recent times." The "great deal" is the clincher. If you have not attained a past level of at least upper-intermediate fluency in speaking, listening, writing, and reading, you will flounder. Therefore, as one who has picked up admittedly less than "a great deal" of his Irish by study outside of Ireland, I found this course more marginally but still relatively useful.

Why? It fills a niche left so far empty. It's arguably the first comprehensive multimedia learning platform oriented-- as its presenter, participants, and preparers show-- to Irish in its native habitat, as in our 21st century. (The author also wrote a useful "Teach Yourself Irish Grammar" in 2005; I review this and two other grammars, Donna Wong's "Learner's Guide to Irish," and Nollaig Mac Congáil's "Irish Grammar Book," on Amazon, as well as some of the other titles mentioned in the review you're reading.) While beginners can select from O Siadhail's formidable "Learning Irish," the Teach Yourself Irish series, or Transparent Learning's "Irish Now?" CD-ROM, to name the three usually found easily around the world, after this, what next?

The three TT videos record the 20 TV programs broadcast originally on RTE; these for learners will seem fast-paced. There's a helpful website link via RTE that explains more about the workings of the language as a refresher, as the intent of this book + video is to sharpen conversational skills and not duplicate grammatical book-learning. (Wong, Mac Congáil, and TYIG can all help the latter need.) The TT book itself is designed to be used with the videos, although it can be bought separately. The book has CD exercises that the video does not. The videos overlap with but do not duplicate most of the textbook and CD.

Here are the differences. The chapters in the book start with learner's tips, go on to dialogues, follow with activities for practice (if you don't have sufficient basic comprehension already, you need to review, as they move briskly), a glance at key phrases or idioms, a bit of grammar, a reading text, and a review. Answers to the exercises are appended.

For the videos, the dialogues are acted out--this is very helpful, as three conversations are given, one each with Munster, Connacht, and Ulster accents (and dialectal usages once in a while). This feature aids a learner's ear for the crucial differences in stress and grammar that arise and challenge you once you leave behind "caighdean" or standard "school" Irish. These differences are rapidly commented on by Sharon Ni Beolain, the affable host, but you need to understand the bulk of the basic conversation on your own first. What's explained are the more subtle points that a teacher or tutor would comment upon. There are other video features not in the text. For me, this lack of integration is a definite shortcoming of the text proper.

Why? The most glaring and frustrating instance is when you get a "soundscape" of "everyday" conversation ambiently recorded. I know immersion is the reason. But it is often hard to hear the details of what is said or likely mumbled-- and as no captions are available and no text is offered, you cannot advance much in your comprehension. The visit made by the host to native speakers is only alluded to in the text by a picture and caption; again, with only an English caption provided for the conversation, it helps comprehension to a degree, but it would have been much better if the videos had always provided both English and Irish captions that a learner could switch between for self-study. Irish captions, in fact, are rare, when I expected them to be parallel to the English option. This lack is the worst shortcoming that I found in the videos. Repeated viewings enable one to better "hear" the Irish, but for words or phrases you're still unsure about, there's no text or any way to verify or correct your mental version of what you think you're listening to.

A similar shortcoming exists with the enjoyable "reality show" that brings together six people to see if they'll divide into three couples, as they compete to find romance and to win a house in the Gaeltacht of their choice! This offers a great chance to accustom your ear to the various dialects and accents, but with only English as a caption, this falls short of its potential. I have to admit that the graphics for this currently "up-to-date" video series look surprisingly shoddy, and that in a few years the haircuts and fashions will be terribly if amusingly dated!

All in all, there's finally a choice on the market for intermediate learners, and for that RTE is to be commended. Four stars for effort; three for execution? But the lack of a total match between textbook and videos, as well as the absence for the most part of Irish captions added to not any captions in large segments does mean that you will have been expected to have a sharp ear for mastering the Irish you hear but will not be able to read-- neither on the video nor on the page.

Éamonn Ó Dónaill's "Teach Yourself Irish Grammar"

Here's my Amazon review from today on the latest grammar. I posted at Amazon and then here about --among other learner's resources-- Gabriel Rosenstock's "Beginner's Irish," Turas Teanga, Nollaig Mac Congáil's "Irish Grammar Book," Ó Siadhail's "Learning Irish," and Donna Wong's "Learner's Guide to Irish" over the past few days on this blog.

Not to be confused with the "Teach Yourself Irish" tape/CD w/book that focuses somewhat on a Munster-based Irish and is itself a revision of the old 1961 Ó Sé & Shields text full of sentences about sheep, TYIG is a 2005 fresh text and a new addition to the TY series by Éamonn Ó Dónaill, a noted teacher of Ulster Irish who earlier made the "Now You're Talking" learner's materials, now out of print. Ó Dónaill also worked on the recent Turas Teanga RTÉ CD-DVD-book series, so he's up-to-date on how to teach Ireland to a largely more urban, possibly international, audience.

This book combines the sort of paradigm-centered discussion you can find in Nollaig Mac Congáil's "Irish Grammar Book" (from Cló Iar-Chonnachta, and this book in turn's not the same as "Irish Grammar" by Noel McGonagle-- this does get confusing) with exercises after each of its 22 chapters. Appendices and supplements cover naming conventions, list declensions, give a glossary of grammatical terms, and suggest learner's resources. This book is more useful for classroom and self-tutored work than Mac Congáil's reference, if less technically organized than Donna Wong's more expensive and more academically intended "Learner's Guide to Irish," although I recommend those two books for any self-motivated learner who's committed to getting serious, past the "where's the pub?" and "see you later, then" types of exchanges. Ó Dónaill's book with its mass market distribution in chain bookstores and on Amazon will be the easiest of the three to purchase for most learners, and serves as a necessary basis for the )also recommended) LGI and Mac Congáil books.

Ó Dónaill's text is arranged with boxed charts, boldfaced lettering to emphasize changes in patterns, and has attractive fonts (as with Mac Congáil and Wong I might add-- all three remember how crucial for self-study becomes the visual element of organizing material for comprehension outside of a classroom with a patient teacher at the board). TYIG may borrow a helpful feature found (if in more detail typically) in LGI: it refers to and shows how to consult the standard Niall Ó Dónaill & Tomás de Bhaldraithe 1977 dictionary Foclóir Gaeilge- Béarla. Éamonn Ó Dónaill begins each TYIG term by defining it straightforwardly. Explanations are briefer than Wong if slightly more detailed than Mac Congáil. This middle ground will for most learners needing grammatical drills plus a handy reference suffice unless the in-depth discussions of Wong's LGI are needed-- as they may well be-- to explain Gaelic intricacies and nuances.

Grammar for most of us is not inherently thrilling. I think learners with a knack for math, language learning, and structural patterns tend to favor grammar more than those of us (like me) who struggle with forms but pick up vocabulary more naturally. The order is: spelling, accents, and stress; articles & nouns; genitive case; adjectives; prepositions; pronouns; lots of verbs; cardinal and ordinal numbers and personal numbering; adverbs; relative clauses; indirect speech. Each lesson has a helpful preview with key themes, and answer keys are at the back of the book. All Irish words and phrases are translated into English. However, this would not be the place for a beginner to start; I'd recommend an encouraging guide like Gabriel Rosenstock's "Beginner's Irish" or the dryer, but concise and handy Mairead Ní Ghrada's "Progress in Irish."

For anyone past the initial stages of learning Irish, this will be a useful guide and a handy tutor-- it fills a need (as far as I know) that no other text for learners of this language has met: grammar plus drills.

Why less than five stars? While no fault of Ó Dónaill's, you cannot use TYIG without breaking the spine apart to flatten it enough to do the exercises. And I doubt if you can write the answers in the lack of space provided. These are more ideas of exercises than ones meant to be completed in their actual configuration on the pages here.

TY in their present format (I have one from decades ago for TYLatin and one for TYChemistry both with large-format, notebook-sized layouts much easier for real-world use) sells the type of cheap paperback too common for learners of any language: it is not designed with any practicality. If you weigh down the edges so as to actually read the pages more easily, the spine separates and the pages come loose from the glue. Wong's book justifies its price by a large-format spiral binding. I wish other publishers would do this-- I would pay more for this durability. I guess you can prop it open somewhat and copy TYIG exercises into a notebook laboriously, thus reinforcing the exercises content by writing them out before completing them! One ironic way in which you must teach yourself Irish grammar, I suppose.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Róisín Elsafty's solo début CD

Coming full circle: Róisín Elsafty links Ireland back to its most ancient origins

Róisín Elsafty
Má Bhíonn Tú Liom Bí Liom
Vertical Records (

Egypt and Barna: what do they have in common? We classify under 'origin myth' the tale in the Book of Invasions that traces Scotia's voyage as her people fled in the wake of the Exodus from the wicked pharoah through what is now Morocco and along the Iberian coast up to Kerry. Yet Bob Quinn, in his revision of his Atlantean thesis in book and documentary, proposes a North African origin for sean-nós, or 'old-style' unaccompanied singing. A controversial theory, but I wonder how Róisín Elsafty regards her fellow Connemara resident's research. After all, she lives minutes from a structure long called the Spanish Arch on Galway's bay. Imaginations have long been fired by the 'Orientalist' possibilities [see note below]. Along the route that for Quinn's Atlanteans connected the Moors to Inishmore, Elsafty continues this ancient exchange through words and music. Tinged with robust influences from the Islamic lands transported into the rockier Gaeltacht coves that have long sheltered traditional Irish-language song, she presents us with an album reminding us that even the most purportedly traditional of Irish musics carries within its core the pulse of a distant desert realm.

A decade ago, Róisín Elsafty appeared with her mother, Treasa Ní Cheannabáin, on Irlande: L’Art du Sean-Nós (Buda, France). Róisín has appeared too rarely on records since then; this marks her first full-length solo album. Sustaining the tradition of family support, her brother plays tabla and her sisters sing backup. Easily among the best sean-nós recordings in recent Irish music, Má Bhíonn features her 'old style' singing rooted in the Connemara custom. This style, argues Bob Quinn in his book and documentary on the Atlantean Irish, may be traced to the Moors and North Africa. The ancient origins of this melismatic, traditionally unaccompanied singing style return in Róisín’s debut. Daughter of an Egyptian doctor who moved to the Cois Fharraige Gaeltacht at Barna, immediately west of Galway city, Elsafty is backed by accordion, harmonium, guitar, bodhrán, whistle and harp. Yet she enriches her style with backing by Ronan Browne on Indian bansuri, Shytte flute, and Bull flute. These varied accompaniments do not overwhelm her voice. It recalls the delicacy of Máire Ní Bhraonáin on Clannad’s earliest, pre-synthesized, recordings. Pastoral settings dominate the arrangements. A capella songs intersperse with instrumental support. The album successfully updates traditional Irish singing with diverse musical playing.

All but one of these fourteen tracks are sung in Irish. Brief notes in English convey the gist of each tune, but only the lyrics and Róisín’s own acknowledgments (both in Irish) capture the essence of her spirited, yet controlled verbal delivery. Sean-nós defies translation. Connemara performers combine vocal embellishment with emotional restraint. Elsafty favors less ornament. She prefers direct expression and austere presentation. That Dónal Lunny produces this album shows both the esteem with which Elsafty is regarded by her peers and the welcome absence of a misty, effects-laded, lush overproduction which has marred many of Lunny’s productions after his pioneering years with Planxty. From his bandmate Christy Moore’s repertoire, the sprightly 'Cúnla' turns less insistent but more seductive.

Elsafty's choices remind me of what Bob Quinn in his own article [see note below] classified alongside his own thesis as the other suggested explanation-- both under 'Sean-Nós, speculative origins'! The UCC scholar Seán Ó Tuama contends that sean-nós originated in the French amour courtois period typified by troubadours and 'romantic love' around 1200-1400. He estimates that this style-- also showing Provençal strains-- entered Ireland in the wake of the Normans, but no later than 1400. Quinn and Ó Tuama both judge that, wherever sean-nós was engendered, it sprang from not only Northern European but Mediterranean progenitors. Elsafty, then, brings this traditional style back to its more temperate nursery. She eschews, as I hear it, the harsher keening quality of many singers (which has been used contrarily to link Arab with native Irish vocal phrasing) for a more rounded, lower pitched evenness of tone. 'Cúnla' or a lullabye 'Hó-bha-in' from the version of noted Connemara mid-20c singer Sorcha Ní Ghuairm explore this approach well. They lessen the angst and desolation found in many singers' stock of songs, while accentuating the tenderness and play. This typifies her softer reading of these predominantly traditional songs. Róisín respects the self-imposed limits of the Connemara style, yet she invigorates old songs with fresh arrangements and nuanced manners. Her interpretations under Lunny’s direction reveal the appeal of a measured, understated ambiance. She will not totally surrender the hushed, reticent confidence within her voice. This stance strengthens her album.

One new 'anti-war song encouraging the people of Iraq to have the strength of endurance' tells of a boy left a double amputee and an 'orphaned victim of the U.S. invasion'. Here, Róisín sings in both Arabic and Gaelic. She describes the 'vast destructive' army of Saddam, and of the B-52 whose bombs caused Ali's suffering. Presenting Ali’s predicament as another rebel song, Elsafty represents with such choices her contemporary awareness of how themes of Irish rebellion and demands for peace can incorporate her complex influences of Middle Eastern and native Irish-speaking heritage. A few years back, I recall how her single in support of Palestine took pride of place at the counter of Mulligan's record shop in old Galway, the pre-eminent seller on the West coast of indigenous Irish music. She chooses songs beyond the typical 'old style'. Reading her notes, whether the deft summaries in English or her own warm acknowledgments in effusive Irish, you glimpse a woman truly representative of this new century's wealth of opportunity for all in Ireland. Róisín brings hybridity out of its academic niche and sets it center stage. She does not shine a spotlight upon her own blend, but prefers to have her audience wait, listen, and discover the radiance of the song first-hand, but quietly. Róisín's Arabic and Irish and English words fill the album's booklet. Indian, Egyptian, medieval Irish, Spanish- and Balkan-derived instruments present her album's music. Elsafty mingles tranquil legend and harsh truth. She includes amidst venerable tales of unrequited love and lost innocence relevant narratives for our decade.

An exception to these sparer songs proves equally innovative. On the expansive final selection, 'Coinleach Glas an Fhómhair', Róisín widens her vocal range. The music gains depth. It appears in two parts, the song renewing itself as it quickens in pace and grows in instrumental intensity. She gives an epic rendition of this song that Clannad popularized on their classic 1974 second LP. Backed by noted Belfast whistle player John Mc Sherry and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, it ebbs and surges like the Atlantic waves near Elsafty’s family home.

{Quinn, Bob. 'Sean-Nós, speculative origins'. In Fintan Vallely, ed. The Companion to Irish Traditional Music [Cork UP, 1999. 339-345]. His book was revised as The Atlantean Irish: Ireland's Oriental and Maritime Heritage [Dublin: Lilliput, 2005]. Seán Ó Tuama's thesis originally appeared as An Grá in Amhráin na nDaoine {Love in Irish folk song} in 1960. Reprinted in his essay collection Repossessions [Cork UP: 1995]. For more on speculations regarding Ireland and the East, see Joseph Lennon. Irish Orientalism: A Literary and Intellectual History. [Syracuse UP, 2004].}

P.S. This was written for, the "online magazine of the world's music" who kindly asked me last year based on my Amazon review of the first CD by "The Sixteenth Day of May" (a promising English electric folk band in the spirit of Fairport, and on Hannibal Records!) to critique Irish music releases. I read about the Elsafty CD on at their daily news digest of Irish language coverage, and Vertical Records in Scotland graciously sent me a copy for review, which was duly covered first to post for my friends at the Blanket

P.P.S. I might refer you enamored of the Atlantean connection to scroll down earlier this same March 2007 month to my entry "A United Kingdom After All?" for much more on this topic.