This week is St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve always had a weird relationship with this holy day due to the circumstances of my family lineage. St. Patrick’s Day in my family has always been a simple family holiday with corned beef and cabbage and wearing green to the neighborhood pub to see my grandfather. He was adopted, something that my family only learned by the time the grandchildren were born, and so for most of her life my mother believed she was Russian, Irish, and Italian. I have second and third cousins on that side of the family who are proud of that Irish heritage, but for me it’s always just been green, corned beef, and family and not much more than that. It’s a strange cultural memory that I’m neither genetically attached to or invested in, but I’ve always enjoyed that the experience was part of our family.
I married a true Celt though so I suppose in the end life just comes back full circle. My wife’s grandfather used to sprinkle holy water on my mother-in-law before bed and ask her “who do we hate?” The answer was, of course, the English. That’s Irish immigrants for you, I suppose. I suppose I could relate if my French-Canadien family members embraced the easy Anglo hate instead of always look for a hustle or a rumble.
I’ve always had an affinity however for the Irish. I wouldn’t be able to tell you why. Shared Catholic backgrounds? Partial cultural heritage? I don’t really know. It remains one of the few countries I’ve visited however and the oldness of the land that I felt there makes me sad to see what it’s becoming. It’s like watching the beating heart ripped out of a human being.
One of my favorite Irish tales is Mad King Sweeney, Buile Shuibhne. It is a work in verse that recounts the madness of a cursed king wandering Ireland until he receives Christian repentance and rest. Something about great men cursed to wander resonates, I suppose. Flann O’Brien had a reverent sense of this, incorporating Sweeney into his boozy metafictional novel At Swim-Two-Birds, where the original work is not subjected to the same level of satire many of the other Irish tales are, though not completely without some cheek. The conclusion though is given over to Sweeney, unconsecrated and still insane in the trees, as O’Brien briefly meditates on the nature of madness within the Irish.
“Evil is even, truth is an odd number, and death is a full stop. When a dog barks late at night and then retires again to bed, he punctuates and gives majesty to the serial enigma of the dark, laying it more evenly and heavily upon the fabric of the mind. Sweeny in the trees hears the sad baying as he sits listening on the branch, a huddle between the earth and heaven; and he hears also the answering mastiff that is counting the watches in the next parish. Bark answers bark till the call spreads like fire through all Erin.”
Seamus Heaney did a translation of the original verse that I’m quite fond of called Sweeney Astray. My brief time in Ireland I was fortunate enough to be in the same city at the same time and see one of his public poetry readings. It’s been well over ten years but I can still vividly remember him reading the poem he wrote for his wife, “The Underground”.
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.
Likewise when I think of Sweeney Astray, the verses I always remember are the ones of Sweeney’s wife Eorann when her now mad husband returns after the curse of St. Ronan left him a wanderer. Sweeney has deserted his kingship while Eorann has gone on to live with another man, Guaire, who is also a pretender to Sweeney’s throne. When Sweeney finally finds her he asks her, “Do you remember, lady, the great love we shared when we were together? Life is still a pleasure to you but not to me.” An exchange ensues where he tells her “you have broken trust, unmade it like a bed“. Eorann responds with words I haven’t forgotten since I first saw them in Galway:
Welcome here, my crazy dote,
my first and last and favourite!
I’m not sure why I remember all this after all these years. My wife thinks me a stoic, flat affected man with sudden sentimentality. I suppose that is so, I suppose that’s so.
The story of Sweeney ends with him finding harbor at the house of St. Moling, who takes pity on the mad king and hears his story. This will be his final resting place as after a terrible misunderstanding Sweeney is speared by the parish cook’s jealous husband. He receives sacrament and these are his final words:
Of all the innocent lairs I made
the length and breadth of Ireland
I remember an open bed
above the lough in Mourne
Of all the innocent lairs I made
the length and breadth of Ireland
I remember bedding down
above the wood in Glen Bolcain
To you, Christ, I give thanks
for your Body in communion
Whatever evil I have done
in this world, I repent.
I’m just an outsider to Ireland and the Irish, I can’t tell them what they are. But I remember Ireland, and I hope they do too.
On the topic of Ireland I asked the wife to give me an Irish composer and piece for this week. She needed to think about it so I did my own research into Irish classical composers meanwhile and my choices seemed rather limited. My wife, being a classically trained piano player herself, has a great love for Chopin and nocturnes. I was intrigued to discover the Irish composer John Field apparently invented the Romantic era solo piano nocturne that Chopin would master and draw out its true potential. I asked my wife about him and she had never even heard of him. Once she saw that he had studied with Muzio Clementi, it clicked into place. Clementi is the bridge from Haydn and Mozart to many more well-known composers, his sonatas having a tremendous impact on 19th century piano work. Beethoven and Chopin both consider his work essential.
The nocturne, as the name implies, is music reflective of the night. Chances are if you’re listening to pretty piano music with a slower tempo, you’re probably hearing a nocturne. And you’re probably hearing one of Chopin’s. The association I assume many would have with a nocturne’s mood is probably more tranquil or melancholic and it is true that many of them are like that. I am not good with music but when I hear John Field’s work I hear something like a breezy, airy night. Like the end of some kind of magical evening or a night walk beneath the full moon.
Chopin can’t be beat, but it’s nice to visit Field’s.
Fatherhood is on my mind constantly, unsurprisingly. Women’s bodies go through so many changes during pregnancy, especially in their hormones, and I’m convinced a parallel phenomenon occurs in expecting fathers. Beyond just emotions, I’m certain there’s some kind of latent dad DNA (DadNA?) that doesn’t get activated until you feel your unborn child kick in the womb for the first time. Some kind of change must be occurring, I’m certain of it.
There is, of course, research that bears this out. I have a study and source for it, but I’m not going to post it. The content of these factoids don’t do a very good job of communicating any real meaning. An infinite number of monkeys banging away test results will eventually produce the results you want to see within your narrative. It has to be more substantive than that. It has to mean more than that. It should be holistic. Frankly, it should be spiritual and natural, one incarnated into the other.
I carry myself differently while my wife watches closely for every sign of being a good father. I’ve noticed when you’re on the way to being a father that elder family members treat you differently too, like you’re a real person now and not just some kid who has become a bit overgrown. I’ve read some books dealing with the nature of masculinity, one that springs to mind is No More Mr. Nice Guy by Robert Glover which I think does an exemplary job of helping out men who have suffered from the problem of weak or absent fathers. I understand the political problem, but at the same time I remain convinced that it’s not enough to understand being political but that one must also have a politics of being.
What I mean by all of this is that much is made about the fallen state of things, that is the type of people who are in power, the type of culture that is promoted, and the way that women are. None of these arguments are wrong. None of these concerns are unmerited. The simple fact is that for a man you are thrown into a world full of lies and hidden violence and if you ask it to be fair then you’re asking for that violence to become manifest.
Heartiste, whatever what some might think of him, had the fundamental premise down:
“In sober moments free of maudlin introspection, you will understand there is no other game to play save this one. This is why to live as a man is to TAKE what you want. Not to wait for it to be given to you. Because it will never be given. Not to anticipate the empathy of the overseers. Because they will never empathize. Not to expect the coddling of the crowd. Because they will never coddle. Not to assume the wagon circling of kindreds. Because they will never circle for you. You got the short stick, now what? Do you contemplate it and hope for a longer one? No.
You sharpen it and jab it into the heart of every obstacle that sets itself in your way.“
To be a father of a little son is to know you have brought a helpless child into that world, to fight for him, and to teach him a better way. I accept that, and I am ready.