Friday, 30 August 2013

Seamus Heaney

In June I went on a tour of the Heaney Country with a group of friends. The tour was led by Eugene Kielt, a native of Magherafelt and a Heaney enthusiast who has many Heaney artefacts in his guest house.

We travelled to Heaney's birthplace at Mossbawn (between Toome and Castledawson) and visited places in rural South Derry that had featured in many of his poems. At the age of 12 he began to move away, gaining a scholarship to a boarding school in Derry and from there he went to Belfast to study at Queen's.

His early life experience features so much in his poetry. This trip showed me just how formative his childhood wanderings and close observation of rural life had been. And just how much had changed in that country during the sixty years or so since. Instead of being populated by thatched farmsteads on wee lanes through the bogland, the country was filled with large detatched houses with wrought-iron gates and agribusinesses. But we went to two special places that were pretty much unchanged.

The forge: a tiny thatched cottage, where we were given a guided tour by the retired blacksmith, a contemporary of Seamus's, who had grown up there. The tiny cottage was divided in two by a curtain: on the one side the forge and bellows, surrounded by anvils, hammers and all manners of blacksmiths tools; on the other, a hearth with small black range and two armchairs, the family slept in the eaves on a wooden platform.

Lough Beg: not a true lough, but a widening of the river Bann into wetlands where cattle grazed and Seamus used to play with friends, most notably his cousin who was murdered by paramilitaries in 1975. This was the source of one of his finest poems.

May he rest in peace.

The Strand at Lough Beg

In Memory of Colum McCartney

All round this little island, on the strand
Far down below there, where the breakers strive
Grow the tall rushes from the oozy sand.
--Dante, Purgatorio, I, 100-3

Leaving the white glow of filling stations
And a few lonely streetlamps among fields
You climbed the hills toward Newtownhamilton
Past the Fews Forest, out beneath the stars--
Along the road, a high, bare pilgrim's track
Where Sweeney fled before the bloodied heads,
Goat-beards and dogs' eyes in a demon pack
Blazing out of the ground, snapping and squealing.
What blazed ahead of you? A faked road block?
The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling
Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?
Or in your driving mirror, tailing headlights
That pulled out suddenly and flagged you down
Where you weren't known and far from what you knew:
The lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg,
Church Island's spire, its soft treeline of yew.

There you used hear guns fired behind the house
Long before rising time, when duck shooters
Haunted the marigolds and bulrushes,
But still were scared to find spent cartridges,
Acrid, brassy, genital, ejected,
On your way across the strand to fetch the cows.
For you and yours and yours and mine fought the shy,
Spoke an old language of conspirators
And could not crack the whip or seize the day:
Big-voiced scullions, herders, feelers round
Haycocks and hindquarters, talkers in byres,
Slow arbitrators of the burial ground.

Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

RLS and Shetland

Robert Louis Stevenson is connected with Shetland in a number of interesting ways. Orkney and Shetland were the destination of his first sea voyage in 1869. He travelled there with his father (a renowned engineer) on a tour of inspection of the many lighthouses he had built in the islands. The most spectacular of these being on Muckle Flugga, a rocky outcrop off the wild north shore of Unst, the most northerly island of the Shetlands.

RLS was eighteen and his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a lighthouse engineer. He trained for this career for some months, but then went on to study Law at Edinburgh University. Here he began to write and gained his first publications. Towards the end of his life he wrote a series of essays about this early part of his life, explaining that he enjoyed the outdoor adventure part of being an engineer but not the office-bound majority of the work.

RLS was a prolific travel and adventure writer. And despite always being in poor health, he managed a great many adventurous journeys in his short life: travelling by canoe, donkey, train and boat across Europe, America, the Pacific and Australasia. He ended up living in Samoa and died there aged 44 years.

After publishing many articles and essays, his first major success was 'Treasure Island'. This work was started in 1881 and first serialised in a childrens magazine under the pseudonym Captain George North. The manuscript was revised and published as a book under his own name in 1883. RLS's map of Treasure Island bears a strong resemblance to Unst, the most northerly of the Shetlands.

I still have my copy of this book, given to me as a present on my seventh birthday.

The Sea Dog

I'm a plain man
been where it's hot as pitch
and colder than winter frost
huge sea tossing the fore-deck
ropes and mainsails thrumming
nor-easterly cutting yer bones,
many's the shipmate never come back
left under stones in a cove
wreck-wood across the grave -
skerries groaning, gulls screaming
black crags cleaving the surf.

I talks square I do
none can tell why he picked it
the Cap'n always a careful man
atop the cliff with his spyglass
no fields, not a tree
nary a lubber on the land
and us hauling the sea-chests after
cursing the wind and sleet.

Buried 'em?
                         I reckon us did
The map?
                         I won't peach
                         Thank'ee kindly
                         it's been meat and drink
man and wife to me.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Lughnasa, Cycling and the Wild Cat

Monday was Lughnasa, the pagan festival that marks the midpoint between the Summer and Autumn Solstices. Traditionally this festival celebrates the beginning of harvest and is marked by ceremonies of thanksgiving that often take place at the tops of hills and mountains.

Like many pagan festivals, Lughnasa has been assimilated by the established church in Ireland; for example, the blessing of fields and the annual pilgrimmage that takes place to the summit of Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo.

I havent been to the tops of any mountains recently. Although I have been climbing hills, for I have begun to ride my bike again after a gap of three years. It feels very good to be back in the saddle with the fresh air on my face, especially in the warm weather we've been having.

There are plenty of fine rural rides that begin from my front door and proceed through back roads towards the Mountains of Mourne. This country is full of drumlins and you cannot go far without coming to steep little ascents (and descents). The old legs spin in my lowest gears and I just about manage to get up the hills with my thigh muscles complaining. Then the delight of sweeping downhill at speed, fields and hedgerows rushing by - before you reach the next uphill. I'm steadily getting fitter, but after the long layoff it's a slow process.

As I was nearing my home on my last ride, I spotted one of the wild cats that lives in the old graveyard. They arent true wild cats but are feral cats of a domestic breed; they behave like wild animals and keep well clear of people (they will run off if you get within thirty feet).

The wee cat leapt down from the hedge with something heavy in its mouth and began to trot up the road ahead of me.  Noticing my approach, the small cat (not much bigger than a kitten) tried to speed up, but was weighed down by what it was carrying. As I gained on it, the cat dropped its burden in the road and disappeared into the hedge.

I rode towards the little grey lump it had left lying in the road and saw that the cat had killed a baby rabbit (only a little smaller than itself). The cat had been hauling its prey back to its lair when I had startled it. I passed by feeling sure that the wee cat was watching me carefully and would retrieve the dead rabbit just as soon as the coast was clear.