Friday, July 30, 2004

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Sunday, July 25, 2004

The Celts IV: "Wet-cheeked her Men and her Fair Women"

An ancient world, long departed, has left its discarded image in the mirror of Ireland. When Henry VIII assumed the title of King of Ireland in 1541 English influence, although they had been there already for four centuries, hardly extended outside Dublin and the bigger towns. Beyond these, and especially in the northern portion of Ireland, the old Gaelic way of life continued, largely unaffected by English law. It was a different civilization, different in language and its sense of values, in its law and social structures. It was ancient, admirable, and archaic.

The Irish by nature and preference were country dwellers. Their wealth was in crops and huge herds of cattle; their houses were built of timber or wattle in the ancient way: their strongholds for the most part were crannogs (artificial lake islands) or raths (circular fortifications of earthwork) as can be seen in the remains on the Hill of Tara today. An occasional stone fort acknowledged the progress of techniques and thinking in the world beyond them; otherwise they were content to speak their own language and cultivate a way of life distinctive in its music, its poetry, its sagas, its pride in blood and genealogy. If wars disturbed them frequently it was in the usual pattern of cattle raids or the feuding and rivalries of their chiefs. Although there had been attempts from time to time by the more powerful kings to impose some form of centralized authority they had failed to effect any permanent change. Gaelic Ireland remained a country of autonomous statelets with shifting allegiances, living, as it were, on the tributes they exacted from each other as fortune waxed or waned. You have only to look at the old maps. Topographically they may be largely fictional; politically they reveal a perilous situation, in which small territories, labelled "The countrie of O Boyle", "The countrie of MacSorley", "Harry Oge's countrie", The Countrie of O Kane" and a hundred others all elbow each other with aristocratic arrogance and self-absorption. Although an "Irish" way of living had some meaning, however undefined, for the O Kanes and the Harry Oges, the larger concept of Ireland as a nation seems to have been quite beyond them.

England, on the other hand, had progressed to a concept of centralized authority which in Elizabeth's reign (1558-1603) produced a material power for which the Englishman has been much hated ever since, and a burst of cultural activity which cannot be too highly regarded, not only in her dramatists and poets but in her musicians who, although burdened with such unfortunate names as Dr Bull and Dr Blow, were nevertheless the great Contrapuntists. There could be no doubt of the outcome for Ireland, it seemed, when England determined on the big push to conquer her.

Yet when it came, near the close of the 16th century, it very nearly misfired altogether, precisely because it encountered in the person of Hugh O Neill, Earl of Tyrone, the one Irish leader educated by England itself to understand the strength of England's political organization and the weakness of the Irish.

It had been English policy to acknowledge individual chiefs from among rival claimants by accepting token submission from them, giving them the title of Earl, and then confirming their overlordship in the territories they controlled, on condition that they accepted English law. Many of them made their submission, which appeared to be nominal, only to find that their territories had now been opened to the legitimate incursions of English judges and officials and to the erection of English military strongpoints. In Hugh O Neill England went a step further. He was the likely successor to the powerful chieftainship of Tyrone ("Tir Eoghain" - the 'Countrie' of Owen), a substantial and completely unsubjugated northern territory. Elizabeth brought him to England as a child to be educated there. An English upbringing, it was thought, followed by the prospects of an English title which would secure him his right to his Irish territory, might induce him to suffer the same introduction of English law and practice among his people. Some time after Hugh had returned to Ireland he was, on Elizabeth's agreement, made Earl of Tyrone. For a while the plan worked, in so far as he fought side by side with his English patrons in their war against the rebellious Earl of Desmond. His loyalty seemed to be sincere and he was given an allowance to help him guard the peace in Ulster, with permission to keep six companies of soldiers for the same purpose.

Being recognized by the Crown as Earl of Tyrone meant security, at least for a time, but the inherent disadvantages began to irk O Neill. As Earl of Tyrone he was, like the rest, committed to the English system. As leader of the tuath, under the Irish system, he would have absolute authority and the unfettered inheritance due to his Blood. The influence of life among the Tyrone clansmen, his close connections with other Ulster chiefs who were at loggerheads with the Government, and his first-hand knowledge of the impermanence of English promises eroded his belief in his personal position. Again, with the increasing pressures to push the Protestant Reformation, religious loyalty became an active issue and Ireland generally began to look to France and Spain as possible sources of help. O Neill showed his sympathies very clearly in this regard when he succoured some of the survivors of the Spanish Armada and got them safely away to Scotland, a treasonable act punishable by death. He saw his brother-in-law, Red Hugh O Donnell, heir to the chieftainship of Tyrconnell (Donegal), seized by a trick and imprisoned in Dublin Castle from which he was to make a daring escape in the winter of 1591. To complicate matters further, he fell in love with Mabel Bagenal, who eloped with him. It was a grave matter. Her brother, who was Elizabeth's Chief Marshal of Ireland at the time, was infuriated and swore vengeance. O Neill eventually abandoned all pretence to loyalty. He had himself inaugurated as The O Neill on the hill of Tullaghogue (presumably by an O Cahan, see above), reverting to the ancient Gaelic manner of his clan, an act which symbolized his utter rejection of the English system. He was in open rebellion.

Soon there was an army in the field against him. He was not unprepared. The law had allowed him six companies of soldiers. It had not said they must always be the same soldiers, so he had changed them completely whenever they were properly trained. He had imported quantities of lead under licence for the roofs of his houses. He had made firm alliances with other chiefs so that, with the encouragement of his initial success in a number of impressive victories, his rebellion became a national uprising. Philip II of Spain was sued for help and a strong confederacy of Ulster chieftains prepared for total war under Hugh O Neill's leadership, finding in him: "at last, a man of real greatness, a statesman as well as a soldier, a born leader who combined thought with action and caution with energy, no out-of-date Gaelic chief intent on his own rights and wrongs, but a man of intellect who understood his times and who called on Ireland to combine all her wrongs and seek redress as a united nation. The great rising began in the north with an alliance of Tyrconnell and Tyrone, formerly hostile, and while the elder Hugh proved to be a cautious leader, in Red Hugh O Donnell was found a lieutenant, a young hero, and the forward fighter of the cause". (E. Curtis: "A History of Ireland").

For five years a state of rebellion existed. O Neill won his battles but fought them only when he had to. He had no siege equipment and no field guns with which to attack the big towns. His hopes and those of his allies were centred on the promises of men and equipment from Spain. Only if the ships of Philip were on the high seas could he hope for permanent victory over his enemies. The watchers searched the seas about Ireland, waiting anxiously for the fulfilment of a promise while O Neill fought to hold the upper hand. They sought in vain. As the years passed English military strength built up and opportunity trickled away. When Spanish help came at last under Don Juan del Aguilla, they landed at Kinsale in the extreme south, quite inexplicably, since it left the whole length of Ireland between them and the army they were supposed to assist. They were immediately surrounded and besieged, so that instead of helping O Neill, he was forced to march from the extreme north to the extreme south in an effort to relieve them. The operation was beyond his resources. He was defeated, his army broken and his northern stronghold rendered defenceless.

Dunboy Castle stands on a promontory on the Beare peninsula in Kerry with the Atlantic spreading in front of it and at one time it belonged to a powerful Irish prince, O Sullivan Beare. He too, an ally of the Great O Neill, was a victim of the defeat at Kinsale and his castle was bombarded to smithereens in a last stand which for heroism and hopelessness outclasses anything in romantic fiction. Following its destruction O Sullivan managed to withdraw with the remnants of his clan to the fastnesses of Glengarriff. Here his fighting men guarded the passes against attack for six months, while deer-hunting and fishing supported the refugees. It worked until winter came, when O Sullivan had 400 fighting men left to guard 600 non-combatants consisting of women and children, servants and the aged and infirm. On the last day of December 1602 he made the decision to fight his way north, a journey of two or three hundred miles, taking with him all his dependants, including the sick and the wounded. It meant literally hacking his way from Glengarriff to Leitrim through country which was entirely subdued and infested with English forces. Word was sent through the country by the Lord President calling on all "on peril of being treated as O Sullivan's covert or open abettors, to fall upon him, to cross his road, to bar his way, to watch for him at fords, to come upon him by night; and above all, to drive off or destroy all cattle or other possible means of sustenance, so that of sheer necessity his party must perish on the way. Whose lands soever O'Sullivan would be found to have passed through unresisted, or whereupon he was allowed to find food of any kind, the Government would consider forfeit."


O Sullivan travelled by the Pass of Keimaneigh to Agharis which lies between Gougane Barra and Macroom; then northwards between Charleville and Buttevant to the traditional refuge of the hunted and defeated, the vast solitude of the Glen of Aherlow, holding off skirmishes and guerrilla attacks and fighting pitched battles which were won against enormously superior forces by sheer desperation. He crossed Slieve Felim and at Portland they entrenched themselves while they prepared to cope with the great natural barrier of the Shannon river. Eleven horses were slain, their hides used to make a boat and the flesh eaten and in that way, harassed still by their pursuers, they made the crossing. At Aughrim they fought a pitched battle against a force of 800 which barred their path and again, driven by desperation, burst their way through. They crossed Slieve Muire (Mount Mary) and pushed on by out-of-the-way paths and through deep snowdrifts. When they at last reached O Rourke's castle at Dromahair in Leitrim, the party consisted of 18 non-combatants and only 16 armed men. Within a few days about 50 more straggled in; the rest of the company of one thousand had either strayed, or succumbed to exposure and fatigue, or had been slain.

In 1603 Lord Deputy Mountjoy was writing to the Privy Council "All that are out doe seeke for mercy excepting O'Rorke and O'Sullivan, who is now with O'Rorke". In 1604 O Sullivan, despairing of effective resistance, sailed for Spain and the court of King Philip where, having been received with honour and granted lodging and a pension, he was murdered by English agents in the suburbs of Madrid on his way from Mass.

The stump of Dunboy Castle still stands at the water's edge outside the town of Castletownbere, surrounded by a small wood in which herons nest. Beside it, in 1920, a Welsh-born landowner built an enormous mansion, Puxley Hall, which is in ruins also. The writer James Plunkett takes up the story:

"When I asked about it locally at first I could get no information, until perseverance forced one man to talk.
'It got burned", he said. I knew he was being evasive and I also knew why. He thought I was British because I was with a BBC crew and felt the truth might be unnecessarily insulting to my country - after all, we were guests.
"Who burned it?' I asked.
'Damn the bit of me knows', he said.
'Was it the boys?' I asked.
He was basically an honest man.
After a struggle he gave in.
'Now that you mention it', he said, as though the recollection had just come to him, 'I believe it was'."

So Dunboy Castle and Puxley Hall stand in ruins together, the one razed to the ground by the army of Elizabeth, the other burned out by Irish rebels. Three hundred years and more separate them in time and yet they are very close to one another; not merely contiguous, but close in the sense Louis MacNeice meant when he wrote:

. . . as close
As the peasantry were to the landlord,
As the Irish to the Anglo-Irish,
As the killer is close one moment
To the man he kills,
Or as the moment itself
Is close to the next moment.

Defeated at Kinsale, O Neill was forced to withdraw. The English forces, seizing the opportunity, burst into Tyrone, coming down from Derry and over from Antrim and up from Armagh by causeways and forest paths and the hidden ways that had been denied them for so long. The cattle were driven off, the cornfields trampled and burned. The Queen's viceroy ran up her banner above O Neill's ruined castle of Dungannon. To emphasize the full meaning of his victory he ordered his men to climb the hill of Tullaghogue to shatter the stone chair which for centuries had been the inaugural seat of The O Neill. The hammer strokes at Tullaghogue on that September day of 1602 sounded the knell not of O Neill's sovereignty alone, but of the old Gaelic civilization and order.

As the English continued to strengthen their advantage, Hugh's personal danger increased. At last, in 1607, while he was at Slane Castle on the river Boyne, word was brought that a French ship had arrived in Lough Swilly to take himself and the Earl of Tyrconnell to Spain. O Neill regarded it as an opportunity to make a direct appeal to the King of Spain for military assistance. He rode north, staying for two days at his old residence in Dungannon. Then, travelling all night, he hurried on to Rathmullen on Lough Swilly where in company with more than eighty others he set off for Spain. So, on the 14th day of September 1607, the feast of the Holy Cross, began the Flight of the Earls, an event recorded and deplored in the Annals of the Four Masters: "Woe to the heart that meditated, woe to the mind that conceived, woe to the council that decided on the project of their setting out on this voyage . . . Tonight Ireland is desolate. The banishment of her true race hath left wet-cheeked her men and her fair women - strange that such a dwellingplace should be so desolate".

After twenty-one days at sea O Neill and his retinue landed safely at a little town on the river Seine called Quilleboeuf. Bad weather made it impossible to sail directly to Spain, so the party looked for permission to make the journey through France. The English Ambassador demanded that the King of France should refuse them, which for diplomatic reasons he did; but he allowed them free passage to Flanders. The Ambassador objected to this too, but was ignored. At Louvain the English persuaded the Spanish Ambassador to withhold travelling permission, so O Neill thought to go by way of Lorraine, Switzerland and Italy. Immediately the Duke of Lorraine was warned that "His Majesty King James the First of England will be greatly displeased if favourable entertainment is afforded to these fugitives". Meanwhile spies dogged him and kept the Court informed of his every movement.

"O'Neill hath been at the Court of Beins, where it is said he was very favourably used by the Archduke, and was allowed the grace of personages of the greatest rank to speak with the Archduke covered".

"Tyrone was again in town two days since and lay a night at his son's lodging in Bruxelles".

"The Earl of Tyrone, his wife and forty men of their crew arrived, by the way of Switzerland, this last week in Milan, on horseback, well armed with arquebusses and pistols, to the no small wonder of the beholders; the Governor . . . sent to them, immediately upon their arrival, his 'cameriere maggiore', with banqueting stuff and such other refreshments, and with words of much affection".

Despite the spies and the plots to hinder them, they entered Rome in state by the Piazza del Popolo and were received in audience by the Pope on the 5th of May 1608 (as O Cianáin, scribe of the Maguires, and one of the party reports) "with kindness, with honour and with welcome". But as the years dragged on neither argument nor appeal could persuade either the Pope or the King of Spain to equip him with the arms and men to regain Ireland from his enemies. Gaelic Ireland was broken and doomed. With O Neill in exile, the spoils could be seized and the proclamations began to fly:"Whereas great scopes and extents of land in the several counties of Armagh, Tyrone, Coleraine, Donegal, Fermanagh, and Cavan are escheated and come to our hands by the attainder of sundry traitors and rebels, we considered how much it would advance the welfare of that kingdom if the said land were planted with colonies of civil men and well-effected in religion; whereupon there was a project conceived for the division of the said lands into proportions, and for the distribution of the same unto undertakers . . ."

That was the beginning of the Plantation of Ulster, which laid the ground for Ireland's present division and for the bitterness which is rending the North of Ireland to this very day.

While his territories and those of his fellow earls were being distributed to those civil men who were well-effected in religion, O Neill died in Rome and was buried at the Church of San Pietro in Montorio on the 20th of July 1616. He never got to Spain, nor did he return to Ireland. Surrounded at all times by spies and informers, his country divided among his enemies and her religion and language outlawed, he continued to petition for help. Though blindness afflicted him and age added to his difficulties, and though neither the Vatican nor Spain could supply him with the men and arms he sought for so persistently, we know, on the evidence of an agent's letter preserved among state papers in Britain, that he clung desperately to hope. The spy wrote that sometimes in the evening after dining, if the aged Prince were warm with wine, his face would glow and he would strike the table and he would say:

Beidh la geal graine go foill in Eirinn!
(There will be a good day yet in Ireland)

There would, indeed. But it was to take another three hundred years.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

In the Glen of the Swallows (poem)

We walked hand-in-hand from the gull-shrieking sea,
until deep in the glens, with the city forgotten,
we lay down in the summer grass, all abuzz with bees,
watching the cloud shadows sweep lazily over the mountains,
over the rounded, ancient, green and saffron mountains.
How could anyone not love Ireland? you breathed,
and you leaned over me then and smiled into my eyes,
And won't you miss us when you leave, both Ireland and me?
You touched my lips softly with your cool slim fingers,
in benediction and farewell: exile, all the many passing years,
how that moment stays with me, how it still brings tears.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Celts III: "Thus Ares Does Homage to the Muses"

The English conquest of Ireland in the seventeenth century marks the end of the independent Celtic kingdoms; let us now travel backwards in time to the beginning, or as near to the beginning as the historical record will allow.

When Hecataeus (c.500-476 BC) of Miletus and Herodotus (c.490-425 BC) of Halicarnassus first mention the "Keltoi" they were already spread in an arc from the Iberian peninsula, through France and Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, northern Italy, and were moving eastwards along the Danube valley towards the Balkans. Herodotus indicates the Celtic homeland as being the upper Danube, around the headwaters of the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhone. Here, Celtic names proliferate. The names of rivers, mountains and towns are still Celtic today but become less so as one radiates away from the centre: the Rhine, Renos, means sea; the Danube, from Danuvius, means swift-flowing (cognate with the Irish "dana") and the Ruhr, from Raura, seems to be named after the Celtic tribe, the Raurici. This was the region, therefore, which was the "cradle" of Celtic civilization and from which the Celts were eventually driven by the arrival of the Germanic people during the first century BC.

We have to piece together the early history of the Celts - their motivations, their attitudes, their social organization and customs and laws - from the hostile viewpoint of the Greeks and the Romans. In trying to understand their way of life we are handicapped by the early prohibition of the Celts against committing their vast stores of knowledge to written record. Julius Caesar, who was to campaign against the Celts in Gaul during the first century BC, commented: "The druids think it unlawful to commit this knowledge of theirs to writing. This is a practice which they have, I think, adopted for two reasons. They do not wish that their system should become commonly known or that their pupils, trusting in written documents, should less carefully cultivate their memory". However, when the insular Celts of Britain and Ireland began to put their knowledge into written form in the Christian era it was not too late to form a perspective, bearing in mind the cultural changes from early times. And we can be wary about taking what the Greeks and Romans say about the Celts as a literal truth.

Rather predictably, the Greeks and Romans represented the Celts as a barbaric people; as basically a fierce warrior society, proud, ignorant, illiterate, taking life cheaply, given to childish amusements and often drunk. In short, they saw themselves as the measure of civilization while the Celts were depicted as exotic barbarians or noble savages. The Celts doubtless had their own opinions of the Greeks and Romans but in keeping with their custom refrained from written comment.

The basis of their society was tribal. By the time the Celtic law systems were codified, with the Irish Brehon Law system being written down in the early Christian era, this tribal system was a highly sophisticated one. The good of the community was the basis of the law - in other words, a primitive but sophisticated form of communism was practiced. Chieftains were elected as were all officers of the tribe. Women emerge in Celtic society with equality of rights. They could inherit, own property and be elected to office, even to the position of leader in times of war, such as Cartimandua of the Brigantes and her more famous compatriot Boudicca of the Iceni. Tacitus observed, "There is no rule of distinction to exclude the female line from the throne or the command of the armies". Of special note was that the Celtic tribes cared for their sick, poor and aged and that, according to Irish records, hospitals, run by the tribes, existed in Ireland around 300 BC, many hundreds of years before St Fabiola founded the first Christian hospital in Rome.

The Celtic tribes varied in size. Some were small, others constituted entire nations. They acted in the main independently of one another and were wont to reject any calls for unity or submission to a centralized political authority that would impinge on their local autonomy. Tribes would often enter into temporary alliances with other tribes but nearly always for a specific purpose and allies could just as readily turn upon one another if their own advantage would seem to warrant it. Warfare and raiding seems to have been endemic although it was largely conducted by a warrior elite as a form of manly sport, hemmed in by certain rules and regulations. Plunder and the taking of hostages for ransom were the main objectives of warfare and we can assume that the number of casualties would have been relatively limited. In fact, the outcome of many tribal clashes was decided by single combat to the death between the leaders or champions of the opposing forces rather than by a pitched battle. Diodorus Siculus (c.60-30 BC) commented: "And when someone accepts their challenge to battle, they proudly recite the deeds of valour of their ancestors and proclaim their own valorous quality, at the same time abusing and making little of their opponent and generally attempting to rob him beforehand of his fighting spirit". In their early conflict with the Celts, some Roman commanders would accept the Celtic form of resolving the battle, but the custom was frowned upon by the Roman senate. Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus (who had received the title Torquatus for taking the hero's torque from the body of a Celt he had slain in single combat) decreed in 340 BC that henceforth no Roman should enter into single combat with a Celt to settle military disputes. One might think that the Celtic method of two men, leaders of the armies, settling the outcome of a military conflict by this means was a little more civilized than the Roman method of total warfare with its burning of crops and villages and the wholesale slaughter of civilians. Presumably Roman commanders had not been enjoying a successful record in such encounters.

Constant raids and attacks upon one another seem to have blinded the various tribes of the Celts to the seriousness of any concerted threat from outside to the Celtic "nation" as a whole. This can be seen by their willingness to join forces with foreign invaders against their rivals as was to occur frequently during the Roman campaigns in Gaul during the first century BC and again at the time of the Norman invasion of Ireland more than a thousand years later. Only when it was too late did the Celts seem to realize that successful military incursions by outsiders into areas under the control of their rivals would eventually come to threaten the survival of their own people as well. Although fiercely independent of one another in a political sense they must certainly have been aware of their common identity in terms of their language, religion and tribal customs; in fact, we know this to be so as the next section of this paper will demonstrate in relation to the druids: nevertheless, this awareness seems to have had little effect in preventing tribes of Celts from joining foreign invaders in preying upon their Celtic neighbours.

It is clear that in the several Celtic areas for which we have evidence the cultivation of literature and learning, and in earlier times of religion, rested upon a highly organized system of professional classes. One learns from Greek and Roman writers (whose information derives mainly from the Greek geographer Poseidonius) that there were three such classes: the druids, the bards, and between them an order that is variously named in the several texts but which seems to have been best known by the Gaulish term "vatis". To the Greeks and Romans, the druids were described as a priesthood, but they fulfilled political functions as well - indeed many tribal chieftains were druids, such as the Gallic chieftains Divitiacos and Dumnorix. It took twenty years to learn all the druidical canon, for the druid functioned not only as minister of religion with its doctrine of immortality and its complete moral system, but also as philosopher, teacher, and natural scientist and keeper of the law and its interpretation. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) reports the druids to have been great natural scientists, with a knowledge of physics and astronomy which they applied in the construction of calendars. The earliest-known surviving Celtic calendar, dated from the first century BC, is the Coligny calendar, now in the Palais des Arts in Lyons, France. It is far more accurate than the rudimentary Julian calendar and has a highly sophisticated five-year synchronization of lunation with the solar year. Turning to warfare, Diodorus Siculus observed that the druids had the power to prevent battles between the Celtic tribes: "And it is not only in the needs of peace but also in war that they (the Celts) carefully obey these men and their song-loving poets, and this is true not only of their friends but of their enemies. For oft-times as armies approached each other in line of battle with their swords drawn and their spears raised for the charge, these men come forth between them and stop the conflict as though they had spellbound some kind of wild animals. Thus, even among the most savage barbarians, anger yields to wisdom and Ares does homage to the Muses."

The "vates" are generally represented as experts in divination, but it is not possible to make any rigid distinction between their functions and those of the druids, and some would argue that they do not constitute a separate class but rather a subordinate division of the druidic order. The bards were a class of poets and minstrels, and in view of the heroic character of Celtic society it is hardly surprising that classical sources should describe them principally as singers of praise-poetry, as did Diodorus Siculus who observed: "They have also lyric poets whom they call bards. They sing to the accompaniment of instruments resembling lyres, sometimes a eulogy and sometimes a satire". The bards were highly trained, a professional group who were the repositories of Celtic history, legends, folklore and poetry and were under the patronage of the chieftains. The tradition, as we have noted, was strictly an oral one, the bards having to commit to memory a vast store of knowledge and be word-perfect in their recitations.

This scheme of things, attested by classical authors, is substantially confirmed by Irish tradition. Again we find a threefold division, here comprising druids (druidh), "filidh", and bards (baird). As in the case of Gaul, here again it is difficult to distinguish rigorously between the intermediate class and the druids; indeed, already by the seventh century AD, the filidh had become virtually the sole inheritors of such druidic functions and privileges as survived the stresses of the first few centuries of Christianity. Whereas the druids, as the foremost representatives of pagan religion, had borne the brunt of the Church's opposition until they finally disappeared as a distinct order, the filidh succeeded in establishing a remarkable modus vivendi with the ecclesiastical authorities which allowed the two bodies separate but complementary spheres of authority and permitted the filidh to continue many of their ancient functions and prerogatives, including some which had formerly belonged to the druids. Thus the filidh, whose title is often translated as "poets", were in fact very much more: they were seers, teachers, advisers of rulers, witnesses of contracts, and down to the seventeenth century when the native order finally collapsed under the imposition of English government, their power of satire remained an effective social sanction. As poets, they also extended their range of interest at the expense of the bards. The Irish bards were once closely associated with the composition of praise-poetry, like their counterparts in Gaul, but gradually the filidh expanded their own role until finally they could claim a virtual monopoly of this important social function. The status of the bards suffered and throughout most of Irish literary history they are presented as an inferior class of rhymers, storytellers and entertainers. In Wales, on the other hand, the term "bardd" survives with enhanced dignity into the historical period, being used as a general title for the learned poets who correspond to the Irish filidh.

The parallels between the Irish and Gaulish systems of learning is not merely one of titles and hierarchical status: it extends also to details of internal organization and practice. According to Caesar the Gaulish druids were both teachers and disciples of learning: distrusting the written word, they memorized vast quantities of poetry, and some continued their studies for as long as twenty years. In Ireland the curriculum of the student filidh extended over a period of at least seven years; and for the rest, Caesar's observations are as relevant for Ireland as for Gaul. He says that the Gaulish druids had at their head one who held chief authority among them and that, at a certain fixed time of the year, they met in assembly at a holy place in the lands of the Carnutes which was regarded as the centre of Gaul. Similarly, the Irish druids, and their successors, the filidh, had a leader elected from their own number, and they were closely associated in tradition with Uisnech, the "navel" of Ireland, the location of the primal fire and reputedly the site of a great assembly ("mórdháil Uisnigh").

In its essentials the system was evidently pan-Celtic. The geographer Strabo (63 BC-AD 24) implies as much, and other evidence confirms it. Druidism probably existed in Galatia (Asia Minor) as well as in Ireland, Britain and Gaul, and one of the key-words of religious ritual, "nemeton", a sacred place, often used more particularly of a sacred grove, is attested in place-names throughout the Celtic world. Again from Strabo we learn that the council of the Galatians met in assembly at a place known as "drunemeton", the oak-sanctuary, which is clearly analogous to the "locus consecratus", consecrated place, where the Gaulish druids foregathered. On a more general level one finds analogous institutions among several other peoples of the Indo-European linguistic group. The privileged priesthood of the druids had its counterpart in the Brahmins of India and the pontiffs of Rome, and it has been shown that these several priestly orders preserved elements of a common Indo-European religious terminology. What is still more important, they maintained, especially in the peripheral areas of India and Ireland, many cultural institutions and traditions bearing the unambiguous marks of a common origin. As late as the seventeenth century the Irish filidh continue usages which find their closest detailed parallel in the sacred texts of the Indian Brahmins: there could be no more eloquent testimony to the conservatism of Irish learned tradition.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The Celts II: "Wild Shamrock Manners and the Cult of Civility"

The Elizabethan mind found the native Irish - described as "mere" in the sense of pure rather than inferior - incomprehensible, and rapidly took refuge in the analysis of barbarism. How could the Irish be both savage and subtle? Both warlike and lazy? At once evidently "inferior" yet possessed of an ungovernable pride? Cowardly, yet of legendary fortitude in the face of death? Socially primitive, but capable of complex litigation? These were the questions that presented English observers with a constant conundrum. The poet Edmund Spenser, himself an English settler in Ireland, witnessed the execution of Murrough O Brien at Limerick, and saw how "an old woman, which was his foster-mother, took up his head whilst he was quartered, and sucked up all the blood running thereout, saying that the earth was not worthy to drink it ...". By Spenser's standards, to behead and quarter Murrough was not barbarous, but to drink his blood was barbarous, and invited such further beheadings and quarterings as might be necessary to put an end to such practices and establish a civil Ireland. To Fynes Moryson, chief secretary to Mountjoy in Ireland from 1600 to 1603, even the names they held "rather seemed the names of devouring giants than Christian subjects." They were dirty, lazy, dishonest and violent. Their laws were unethical and inequitable. Yet these "corrupt customs" had invariably fascinated and drawn in the English who settled in Ireland, "degenerating" them. For this reason, the forms of Irish social and legal life were the subject of much adverse commentary.

Society was based on the "tuath", a tribal or kindred unit of land, not usually more than 300 or 400 square miles. "Clans" did not exist in the Scots sense of areas homogeneously populated by one family. Identity and coherence were dictated by commitment to the land; some kings ritually "wedded" their domains, like Venetian doges. Within the tuath, chieftain, freemen and serfs sustained a mobile structure of client relationships; these were replicated in the links between chieftains and their overlords. There were parallels with feudalism but the great and significant difference, emblematic of all that seemed odd in Irish society, was the contractual and terminable nature of such arrangements. The ultimate nature of authority was essentially temporary; a chieftain had no right of inheritance in his land, which passed by election among his kindred within a four-generation family group. This was the system of "tanistry" so condemned by English observers. A client could attach himself for protection, by a money payment, to a chieftain outside his tuath whereas a chieftain's freedom of action was actually restricted by reliance on levies, as well as dependence on ritual observance (only an O Cahan, for instance, could inaugurate an O Neill). Fluidity, in a word, ruled. Though local autonomies were vital, the main social and institutional features of the Celtic system were surprisingly consistent over the country as a whole.

What struck English observers was the impermanence of a structure where the social foundations of authority and even property were redefined in every generation. They rationalized this as anarchy. In fact, while raiding of rivals was frequent, and violence could erupt at the great gatherings held twice a year to transact business, Gaelic society was well adapted to the mobile Irish way of life and to the powerful Irish sense of family. It was an aristocratic culture, where the lowborn were of little account, and where a chief's authority was sustained by a complex, archaic and variable system of levies and taxation in kind, which presented yet another obstacle to the imposition of English systems. If it was a violent society, the violence was ritualized with certain sophistication. The tradition of war as sport went back to the great cattle raids of Celtic storytelling; and Irish warfare was fairly limited, elitist and restricted. The anarchy that might seem implied by Irish social and legal practice was held in check by the power of tradition, respect for the legal classes and the authority of effective overlords. The "Life of Red Hugh O Donnell" is a contemporary text that reflects the beau ideal of Celtic sovereignty; it thus describes the first year of Red Hugh's kingship in 1592: "He proceeded to govern his principality as was right, preventing theft and evil deeds, banishing rogues and robbers, executing everyone who was plundering and robbing, so that it was not necessary for each one to take care of his herds of cattle but only to bed them down on straw and litter, and the country was without guard or protector, without plundering one by the other, and two enemies slept in the one bed, for fear did not allow them to remember their wrongs against each other. Hugh passed the first year in the very beginning of his sovereignty having large followings, holding meetings, being generous, joyous, roaming, restless, quarrelsome, aggressive, and he was advancing every year in succession till the end of his life came." There were also law-enforcement mechanisms of local custom, at least one of which would have a very long-lived resonance indeed. This was the practice of "fasting upon" an enemy to force him to arbitration - in effect, going on a hunger strike outside his door.

The society, as we have seen, revolved around the laws of the tuath - a commitment to extended family groupings that carried great emotional charge. Thus, though the Irish practice of fostering out their children into other families had parallels in contemporary England, what struck observers was the exceptional depth of the bond created: foster-brothers owed each other a deeper commitment than natural siblings. The family could thus be extended in deliberate directions: another mechanism to this end was the custom of "naming" fathers, whereby a woman might claim paternity, often noble, for her child at any stage of his minority. The convention of tanistry, the election of leaders, might be interpreted in this context, too, with the organization of the family group strengthening itself through redefinition in every generation. But in English eyes the whole system looked like a celebration of anarchy.

The same description would fit the English perception of the Irish legal system, the Brehon laws. These were practiced by a hereditary caste of jurists, a concept that infuriated professionally minded English observers. With their archaic divinations of pragmatic principles and their complex system of fines, the Brehon laws imposed a powerful obstacle to the spread of English law; they sustained an underground existence even in post-Elizabethan times and represented an intuitive, archaic and subtle pattern of life.

To some observers, the foreign nature of this society was appealing, with its wild, often beautiful scenery and style of life both convivial and bizarre. The harpists, storytellers, even the professional gamblers, imparted an exotic flavour to travels in Gaelic lands. This exoticism further manifested itself in long hair, curious jewellery, and flowing clothes, although some saw Irish trews and the uncorseted dress of the women as a deliberate flaunting of sexual temptations. Such judgements, especially regarding the behaviour of women, were affected by English reactions to the fact that Irish women drank alcohol, presided at feasts and - to English discomfiture - greeted strangers with a social kiss. They could keep their own names after marriage, and divorce was easy under Brehon law, with damages materialistically reckoned. The prevalence of probationary marriage and voluntary affiliation ("naming" a father) also conditioned English impressions; marriage and kinship were not what they were in England. There was no taboo on sexual relations within degrees of affinity that would have been frowned upon by English law (or Roman Catholic practice: Jesuits in Ireland found themselves issuing many dispensations on this score). All agreed that, though Irish children were brought up without discipline, Irish women were authoritative within the home, and often outside it; but though some believed sexual licence was common among married women, which surprised one observer "on account of the climate", others found Irish women unreserved but chaste. By and large, observers emphasized national characteristics of sensuality and vehemence.

These qualities were celebrated by the great tradition of Irish bardic culture: the poets sang of heroes and love, which to the English looked like glorifying robbery and licentiousness. Culture seemed to work against civility, wrote Moryson: "Alas! How unlike unto Orpheus, who, with his sweet harp and wholesome precepts of poetry, laboured to reduce the rude and barbarous people from living in woods to dwell civilly in towns and cities, and from wild riot to moral conversation!" The perverseness of bardic influence was all the more infuriating to the English because of the extent of their social power. A thirteenth century poet remarked that immortality was conferred by poets rather than by gods, and this attitude remained. The practice of poetry provided a more everyday power, too, as borne out by an incident of 1599 matter of factly described in the contemporary "Life of Red Hugh O Donnell". O Donnell's army, travelling through Thomond, takes some cattle from the land of the poet Maolin Og, as from everybody else through whose lands they passed. The poet comes to O Donnell, "displays his knowledge and talent in the presence of the prince", and recites him a poem: "recompense for his cattle and flocks was given to the poet with an increase and he took leave of O Donnell and left him his blessing".

Like Brehons, and even doctors, the craft of poetry was hereditary; the presentation of the poetry was archaic and formal, though it retained a devastating directness of expression. By 1600 the poets were capable of attaching themselves to Old English patrons; some of the poetry of this period is even composed by Old English poets. They could be hired to write against the native Irish, and some were cynically prepared to do so. This was a real power: if O Donnell had not restored Maolin Og's cattle to him, and had not left with his blessing, the alternative would have been very serious indeed. A bardic attack was not so much a satire as a curse in verse; so much feared were the poets that some Elizabethan observers thought they were possessed of occult powers.

Exotic social behaviour, bizarre familial customs, the seemingly magical power of poetry - all predisposed the English to view the Irish as pagan; and the state of the Church in Ireland seemed to bear them out. It is a commonplace that the Romans never colonized Ireland; but the more germane point to make is that while Christianity had affected religion, it had not moulded social structure. Priests in Ireland enjoyed respect and status, but social authority lay in other hands. (The Jesuit officers of the Counter-Reformation, already active in Ireland by 1600, found Gaelic Catholicism in some ways unrecognizable.) The Irish interpretation of Catholicism had been adhered to, and Protestantism not much noticed; traditions of asceticism, monasticism and popular respect for the clergy were well adapted to maintaining the old faith - the laxity of local priests notwithstanding. Church lands were part of the archaic structure of landholding, devolving upon episcopal tenants with powerful local families. Moreover, under the Tudors the Reformed Church was inseparably connected with the Anglicizing process. It was generally accepted that the Celtic identity went with a lax and archaic Catholicism. Protestantism never really took root; though in making the point, it should not be forgotten how cautious and uneven the dissemination of the Reformation was, even in England. Ireland could in some ways be seen simply as an extreme case.

Religion would become one conduit of anti-English feeling, and eventually of national identity. The Irish language was in a similar position. Moryson found an antipathy among the Irish to speaking English, even when they could: at an earlier stage of rebellion (1566-67), Shane O Neill was too proud "to writhe his mouth in clattering English". It could be an index of loyalty; O Donnell, invading Connacht in 1595, "spared no male between fifteen and sixty years old who was unable to speak Irish". To speak the language was seen early on as an anti-English identification. In addition, the Celtic identity held to its old modes of clerical learning. Moryson remarks in an aside: "I have seen the chief of a sept ride, with a gentleman of his own name (and so learned he spoke Latin) running barefooted by his stirrup". What struck him was the indignity borne by the "gentleman"; but bare feet mattered less in Ireland, and it seems more noteworthy to us that he spoke Latin. John Harrington (translator of Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso", 1591) provides a more celebrated vignette: the ideal picture of Hugh O Neill entertaining at a "fern table and fern forms, spread under the stately canopy of heaven", discussing Ariosto with his guest, his little sons and their tutor. Stanishurst (fl. 1580s) shows us Irish students sprawled out on straw, learning "to speak Latin like a vulgar language". Alternative educational processes helped reinforce alternative patterns of thought, and drove the wedge between English and Irish perceptions even deeper. A failure of communication established itself early on; that awkward English-Irish interaction that the novelist Elizabeth Bowen would later describe as "a mixture of showing-off and suspicion, worse than sex".

The Tudor state, preoccupied by the priority of uniformity, could not stomach the complex, intuitive and protean way of life of the native Irish. Though it was certainly archaic and inadequate in many ways, judged as an effective form of social organization, it also had qualities of dynamism and sophistication that might have made it capable of adaptation. But by 1600 the gulf was too wide for that.

The strength of England's reaction against Ireland's lack of "civility" stemmed partly from Protestantism, partly from English nationalism, and partly from the spice of attraction mixed with the repulsion roused by what John Derrick (fl. 1578) called "their wild shamrock manners". Irish mores could be useful to the conquest, as in the easy alliance of chiefs against each other: the English ambition was, after all, to create a stable landowning aristocracy as well as English law and a docile Church. But more potent was, first, the dangerous fascination that wild shamrock manners had for those who had settled in the country; and second, the fact that the picture of Irish habits observed by English visitors coincided with contemporary anthropological ideas of savagery.

Thus Celtic society was measured against a standard of outlandish reference, providing an index of comparison for observation of American Indians and Africans on the Gambia River. The English saw the world of cattle raids, Brehons and poets as arrogantly archaic and deliberately mystifying; a world at once bogus and perverse, which could only be civilized by plantation. Moryson and Spenser tried to find classical and barbarian parallels for the Irish, the Scythians being a particular favourite, but comparisons were usually less dignified. Moryson compared staying with the Irish to venturing into a wild beast's cave, where any other animal "might perhaps find meat, but not without danger to be ill entertained, perhaps devoured of his insatiable host". Others, like Harrington, were obviously attracted to the strange country in which they found themselves. There was an heroic, bizarre, seductive and oddly subtle twist to Irish life, echoed, some thought, in the natives' misplaced admiration for sophistry.

It was felt by many that country and people were attractive enough for "civility" to become established. Stanishurst, anti-Gaelic in 1577, had changed his views by 1584; by then, he wanted to clear up erroneous ideas "that the Irish have cast off all humanity, that they wander scattered and dispersed through very dense woods, and generally that they live unrestrainedly in a rough and uncivilized fashion". In a less committed mould, however, there was still at the end of the sixteenth century, a strain in Tudor official thought regarding Ireland that was moderate, if assimilationist. But those on the ground - Humphrey Gilbert, who had completed the ruthless pacification of Munster in 1569; the legendary Lord Grey de Wilton, who had massacred the garrison at Smerwick in 1580; even Sir John Perrot, Lord Deputy in 1584 - implicitly argued for extirpating the unstable elements of Irish society. This is reflected in the nature of Elizabethan warfare, which took a horrific toll of civilians in order to deprive the Irish of food, succour and recruits. The scorched-earth policy in Munster after the Desmond wars in the early 1580s called forth Spenser's famous and chilling description of the rebel remnant: "out of every corner of the woods and glens they came, creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs would not bear them. They looked like anatomies of death; they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves". The description, it should be noted, is given in praise of the effectiveness of Spenser's preferred form of warfare. Irish life was seen by many of the "civilizers" as of little account. Theoretical suggestions were being made in 1599 for transferring the Irish population as a whole to provide a helot class in England; and when Mountjoy was appointed Lord Deputy in 1600, his plan was to make Ireland "a razed table" upon which the Elizabethan state could transcribe a neat pattern. An otherwise humane man, he devastated Ulster in 1601; the ensuing descriptions of starvation and cannibalism made unbearable reading even then. The strategy was spoliation: "when plough and breeding of cattle shall cease, then will the rebellion end".

The concept of the Irish as savages to be civilized or exterminated had in some quarters taken root, and the grisly sportiveness of the elder Essex's massacre on Rathlin Island in 1575 bears this out. By 1600, anti-Catholicism was strongly reinforcing the "civilizing" ethos: the Irish were pagan as well as savage. Moryson produced an argument, in rather defensive terms, that blamed Irish ills on Gaelic perverseness: "They abhor from all things that agree with English civility. Would any man judge these to be born of English parents, or will any man blame us for not esteeming or employing them as English who scorn to be so reputed?" But the results of such an approach troubled some of his contemporaries. Francis Bacon, for one, was advising, even in 1602, that the Irish be treated evenhandedly and impartially, "as if they were one nation" with England. This would remain the panacea of reforming unionists throughout the history of the troubled connection. But it begged the question of different kinds of Irishness, and of the enduring and influential nature of the Celtic inheritance. For Ireland, like Marco Polo's China, would prove time and again "a sea that salts all rivers that run into it."

English observations about the native society they found in Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries give us a glimpse into the way of life of the last of the Celtic tribes under their own rulers. By the close of the seventeenth century the English conquest of Ireland was complete and an ancient way of life had been destroyed, lingering on in fragments into our own age in isolated and inaccessible pockets of the country. The memory of what had been taken from them remained with the people: Ireland was never to reconcile itself to English rule. That, however, is another story.

Low mileage,one careful owner (photo) Posted by Hello

The Celts I: "Abounding in Men and in the Fruits of the Earth"

The Celts were the first European people north of the Alps to emerge into recorded history. During the period of Celtic expansion, Celtic tribes and confederations of tribes spread through the ancient world challenging all who opposed them and settling as the dominant people in the areas they conquered. In this fashion they spread down the Iberian peninsula, into northern Italy and east through what is now Czechoslovakia, along the Danube valley as far as the Black Sea, moving on into Asia Minor, where they established the Galatian state in the third century BC, which state gives us our first information about Celtic political institutions. At one time they dominated the ancient world (see map)from Ireland in the west to Turkey in the east, and from Belgium in the north, south to Spain and Italy. They even made their presence felt in the Egypt of the Ptolemy pharaohs where they attempted a coup d'etat to gain control of the country. They sacked Rome in 390 BC, invaded Greece in 279 BC and destroyed every army the Greek city states could throw against them. Their sophisticated weapons and war chariots devastated all adversaries. According to the Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius: 59 BC-AD 17), at the time when Tarquinius Superbus was King of Rome (c. 534-508 BC), Ambigatos of the Bituriges ruled over a Celtic empire "so abounding in men and in the fruits of the earth that it seemed impossible to govern so great a population."
 
              The Celts were the dominant tribal people of northern Europe for over a thousand years from the time of their earliest-known appearance (c. 1200-1000 BC) to the start of the Christian era, when they were being crushed by the expansion of the Roman Empire from the south and the pressures of German tribes from the north and Dacians in the east. Their civilization began to recede to the north-western seaboard of Europe and to the islands of Britain and Ireland, where Celtic tribes had settled in successive waves from the fifth to the third centuries BC and perhaps for some time before . After the Roman occupation of Britain, the Celts of Ireland, known as the Gaels, lived secure from invasion for another thousand years despite the coastal depredations of the Vikings between the 8th and 11th centuries. Parts of Ireland were subjugated after the coming of the Normans in the 12th century but large areas of the country, most notably Ulster in the north, retained their political and cultural independence throughout the High Middle Ages and the subsequent rise of political dynasties in continental Europe and England. It was a disastrous series of events beginning in the late sixteenth century and culminating with the Williamite wars of the late seventeenth century that finally brought an end to Gaelic civilization in Ireland.
 
              Two thousand years of a Celtic social order in Ireland has left an indelible stamp on the country and its people and explains in large part not only the stubborn resistance of the Irish to three centuries of foreign political control but also their rejection of all concomitant efforts to enforce cultural assimilation. The Irish are an innately conservative people and the political and military process - the talking and the fighting - by which the modern nation was forged drew heavily for its inspiration and support upon their loyalty to a cultural identity that was (and is) firmly rooted in the religion, traditions and customs of the Gaelic past. But cultural nationalism as a political force has scant regard for historical accuracy. The nationalists of the nineteenth century were awash with wolfhounds, round towers, harps and shamrocks and all the other imagery and symbols of a glorified Golden Age in which the functions of mythology (or to put it more crudely, the needs of propaganda) quite often superceded or even actively suppressed the archaeological and historical record. The rather freewheeling attitude of the Celts to sex and the role of women is a case in point. Their easy acceptance of divorce, the property rights of women and the bloodthirsty behaviour of female chieftains -- the warlike Medhbh (Maeve) of Connacht springs immediately to mind as does the 16th century pirate queen Granuaile; in Britain, the most famous examples are Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) who led an uprising against the Romans and Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes -- along with innumerable references in their literature to instances of female (in addition to the more acceptable male) promiscuity, abductions, seductions, illegitimate offspring and the casual cuckolding of older men did not sit at all well with the moral conventions of a later age.
 
              What were they really like? "The modern student," to quote Professor Proinsias MacCana speaking, admittedly, of the Celts of Gaul, "is frequently in the uncomfortable position of having to work from the ambiguous towards the unknown." With the Celts of Ireland we do have the legends and tales of the oral tradition because they were eventually transposed into literature by monastic scribes of the seventh and eighth centuries; in addition, we have the archaeological record of their constructions, inscriptions and artefacts; finally, we have the comments and observations of outsiders who came into contact with them. This last is of particular interest.
 
              The unity of the Celts of antiquity was one of culture rather than of race. Those peoples whom the Greeks and Romans knew as Celts no doubt were sprung from various ethnic origins, but in the view of external observers they had sufficient shared features - in language and nomenclature, social and political institutions, and in their general way of life - to mark them off as a recognizably distinct nation. So far as the Celts of continental Europe are concerned, we must take the commentaries of Poseidonius (c.135-50 BC) and other classical writers largely on trust, since the communities of which they wrote have long since been merged in other socio-cultural groupings. But the insular Celts remain - albeit in reduced circumstances - and their separate traditions, which are important both in their extent and their antiquity, not only reveal a close affinity between the cultures of the Irish and the British Celts, but also corroborate some of the more striking factual comments made by classical authors on the Celts of continental Europe. Moreover, down the ages there is a remarkable consistency in the comments of foreign observers writing about the Celts. Thus, while the popular notion of them as reflected in modern literature has undoubtedly been coloured by eighteenth and nineteenth century romanticism with its susceptibility to mist, magic and melancholy, it certainly did not originate there. In fact, many of the attributes which it abscribes to the Celts - eloquence, lyric genius, volatile temperament, prodigality, reckless bravery, ebullience, contentiousness, and so on - have a much longer lineage, appearing in the accounts by classical authors of two thousand years ago. And how often, when reading the comments of Elizabethan gentlemen on the native Irish, does one experience the odd sensation of having seen a great deal of it before, in Poseidonius and other classical writers to be precise. All of which seems to suggest that ethnological misrepresentations, once born, never die - or alternatively, that such abstractions as the "Celtic character" and the "Celtic temperament" may ultimately have some basis in reality.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Celts - Introduction

INTRODUCTION

This is going to be a very long article in about 5 or 6 parts. It lays no claim to originality; in fact, I have plundered shamelessly throughout, carrying away great tranches of material directly from the pages of my sources. I mention this not as an excuse but as a fact: the purpose of this paper has been to gather information and in the time-honoured fashion of my ancestors I have swooped in, raided, and carried off what I wanted.

My motive was curiosity. I wanted to make sense of the subject and bring together the facts available to me but scattered here and there in a variety of different works. I began with the idea of acquiring material separately and somehow cobbling it together but soon discovered that this would not work. Editing began to impose a certain logic of its own so that a single paragraph can contain sentences taken from several different sources and sections from one paragraph in a given source can show up in widely separate portions of the finished paper. I have neither suppressed nor altered information nor have I edited direct quotes in order to emphasize elements which were not intended in the original. I have inserted occasional transitional paragraphs and some lengthy passages of my own commentary; I have also rewritten or abridged passages from the original when I think my own version is more succinct or an improvement on the writing. Absolutely shameless. I have been a predator, I admit, but a predator with a purpose and maybe even a sense of style. So much for method.

My curiosity about the Celts stems from the fact that I trace my own descent to Celtic ancestors - insofar as any Irish person in the modern day can venture to do so, given the murky genetic stew that prevails on our island. My surname is Gaelic and as a tribal name it can be traced back in at least one (somewhat reliable) account to the third century BC. What happened after that is a matter for conjecture but I do know that my parents and their parents and their parents and grandparents before them were all born in Ireland, that the family name continues, and that's enough to be going on with. In addition, I've been hammered with the sagas and the "glories of the Gael" since I was a child. I've always taken pride in the Celtic past in a fuzzy nationalistic sort of way and I think most of us do in Ireland without any particular need or desire to get into the details. The hijack of the old civilization by Irish Nationalists has encouraged the belief that the Celts and the Irish were interchangeable. There's hardly a flicker of interest in the Scots and the Welsh, for instance, and it was years before I discovered that the Gauls of France and the Iberians of Spain had been Celts as well. This came under the heading of Foreign Affairs. For many of us the statue of the dying Cuchulainn in the GPO sums up our Celtic inheritance, a neat telescoping of the whole tradition from xx BC to 1916: Ireland Reborn, A Nation Once Again!

As proud descendants of the Gael my father's generation (and to a lesser extent my own) were supposed to wear little silver doughnuts on their lapels called "fainne" to show they could speak Irish; they were also supposed to stay away from soccer and cricket and rugby matches since these were "foreign" games; they were to go on their holidays (by bicycle) to the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht to rub shoulders with honest farmers and fisherman, gasping with the poverty but native-speakers all; they were to avoid sex, sin and women (same thing) and stay off the booze, a bit anyway; and when they - and many of my own generation as well - had to go to England because there wasn't a smell of a job at home, they were to live with Irish landladies in Cricklewood or Willesden, wear a suit and tie to Sunday mass, and steer clear of the local women. This was our earnest Irish-Ireland. I think the Celts would have died laughing. Since the war with England we had been subjected to a series of fossilized and xenophobic governments hand-in-glove with a reactionary clergy. Books were banned - all the interesting ones, anyway - and dancing and courting frowned upon. There wasn't a chance of sex outside marriage (they were all in the Legion of Mary) and as late as the 1960s we all played violent sports, drank ourselves silly and got out at the first opportunity. That's all changed, thank God. But I can remember it still and how the respectability lay like a damp fog over everything. You felt you couldn't breathe in the place.


Every successful revolution turns in on itself and ours was no exception. The events were within living memory when I was a child and the hard men of the 20s were still running the show, rigid geriatric old bastards for the most part. DeValera, more dead than alive, was still leading the band, the man who had once said "I have only to look into my own heart to know what the people of Ireland want" and who had then led us into a Civil War to prove it. We hadn't been left with the best of them when the dust had settled and that was a fact: James Connolly was gone, executed after the Rising; Arthur Griffith was dead and so was the man who had done more to pull it off than the whole gang of them put together, Michael Collins. Ireland entered its newly-won freedom under the leadership of the B-Team and it showed, it showed. But weren't we still the reborn Celtic nation, proud sons of the Gael; hadn't we cast off the yoke of the foreign oppressor and hadn't we our own people ruling us again - the inheritors of the dusty old kings? They may have been a pack of eejits, but, by God, they were the home-grown article.

There was a degree of emotional and indeed literal truth to this view. Looked at from a cooler, less nationalistic perspective, however, we were not the only descendants of the Celts at all. They had settled in Ireland, to be sure, but Ireland was only the western branch of a loose federation that had extended as far south as Spain and as far east as Turkey. In addition, it seems almost certain that when the Celts arrived in Ireland they had encountered an even earlier population and, if later history is anything to go by, the Celts had fought and then intermarried with them. These people, also, were our ancestors. The Celts did manage to impose their language and social customs on their predecessors and the Irish-Celtic or Gaelic way of life then survived in Ireland until the beginning of the modern era, chiefly because the country was protected by the sea and distant from the European centre. Celtic civilization continued to flourish in Ireland long after it had disappeared elsewhere so that even in the seventeenth century the Irish people were still readily identifiable with the Celtic tribes of continental Europe at the time of the Romans. But the ideas and social organization and customs of the Celts had never been native to Ireland. The civilization of the Celts had arisen in southern Germany and Switzerland and had been highly developed long before it reached our island.

Our loyalty to the national flag today is a form of tribal nationalism, reduced in scale, sufficient for the World Cup (either football or rugby) and shootouts with British soldiers -- well, at least until the recent ceasefire. Some would argue that our fierce identification with the idea of the Irish nation is very much a modern phenomenon, a product of three centuries of foreign occupation (eight centuries if you count the Normans, but they assimilated into Irish culture, so few of us do) and that it has as much to do with the Celts as the Man in the Moon.

Others would not.

Read on. The material is interesting. See what you make of it.

Jim Larkin in O'Connell Street (photo) Posted by Hello

Sunday, July 18, 2004

The Cage -- John Montague (poem)

My father, the least happy
man I have known. His face
retained the pallor
of those who work underground:
the lost years in Brooklyn
listening to a subway
shudder the earth.

But a traditional Irishman
who (released from his grille
in the Clarke St. I.R.T)
drank neat whiskey, until
he reached the only element
he felt at home in
any longer: brute oblivion.

And yet picked himself
up, most mornings
to march down the street
extending his smile
to all sides of the good
(non-negro) neighbourhood
belled by St Teresa's church.

When he came back
we walked together
across fields of Garvaghey
to see hawthorn on the summer
hedges, as though
he had never left;
a bend of the road

which still sheltered
primroses. But we
did not smile in
the shared complicity
of a dream, for when
weary Odysseus returns
Telemachus must leave.

Often as I descend
into subway or underground
I see his bald head behind
the bars of the small booth;
the mark of an old car
accident beating on his
ghostly forehead.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Louis MacNeice: dangerously good (poem)

MacNeice's vision is dark and caustic; he was born in Black Ulster in the first decade of the 20th century and grew up outside the traditions of the (warring) Catholics and Presbyterians alike. Ireland took hold of him and he could never quite shake it off in spite of schooling in England and a later career with the BBC in London. Ireland was like a monkey on his back and throughout his life and writing he was alternatively trying to murder it or make friends with it: neither approach succeeded. But he goes after the charm and the horror of the place with no holds barred ...

I think this is an absolutely brilliant poem because he understands the deadly cryptic nuances of an extremely layered society and he goes after the meaning of it all with sincerity (no attitudes) and directness and a slight touch of spiritual fear. That makes a lot of sense to any thinking Irish person.

]
from AUTUMN JOURNAL

XVI

Nightmare leaves fatigue:
We envy men of action
Who sleep and wake, murder and intrigue
Without being doubtful, without being haunted.
And I envy the intransigence of my own
Countrymen who shoot to kill and never
See the victim's face become their own
Or find his motive sabotage their motives.
So reading the memoirs of Maud Gonne,
Daughter of an English mother and a soldier father,
I note how a single purpose can be founded on
A jumble of opposites:
Dublin Castle, the vice-regal ball,
The embassies of Europe,
Hatred scribbled on a wall,
Gaols and revolvers.
And I remember when I was little, the fear
Bandied among the servants
That Casement would land at the pier
With a sword and a horde of rebels;
And how we used to expect, at a later date,
When the wind blew from the west, the noise of shooting
Starting in the evening at eight
In Belfast in the York Street district;
And the voodoo of the Orange bands
Drawing an iron net through darkest Ulster,
Flailing the limbo lands -
The linen mills, the long wet grass, the ragged hawthorn.
And one read black where the other read white, his hope
The other man's damnation:
Up the Rebels, To Hell with the Pope,
And God Save - as you prefer - the King or Ireland.
The land of scholars and saints:
Scholars and saints my eye, the land of ambush,
Purblind manifestoes, never-ending complaints,
The born martyr and the gallant ninny;
The grocer drunk with the drum,
The land-owner shot in his bed, the angry voices
Piercing the broken fanlight in the slum,
The shawled woman weeping at the garish altar.
Kathleen ni Houlihan! Why
Must a country, like a ship or a car, be always female,
Mother or sweetheart? A woman passing by,
We did but see her passing.
Passing like a patch of sun on the rainy hill
And yet we love her forever and hate our neighbour
And each one in his will
Binds his heirs to continuance of hatred.
Drums on the haycock, drums on the harvest, black
Drums in the night shaking the windows:
King William is riding his white horse back
To the Boyne on a banner.
Thousands of banners, thousands of white
Horses, thousands of Williams
Waving thousands of swords and ready to fight
Till the blue sea turns to orange.
Such was my country and I thought I was well
Out of it, educated and domiciled in England,
Though yet her name keeps ringing like a bell
In an under-water belfry.
Why do we like being Irish? Partly because
It gives us a hold on the sentimental English
As members of a world that never was,
Baptized with fairy water;
And partly because Ireland is small enough
To be still thought of with a family feeling,
And because the waves are rough
That split her from a more commercial culture;
And because one feels that here at least one can
Do local work which is not at the world's mercy
And that on this tiny stage with luck a man
Might see the end of one particular action.
It is self-deception of course;
There is no immunity in this island either;
A cart that is drawn by somebody else's horse
And carrying goods to somebody else's market.
The bombs in the turnip sack, the sniper from the roof,
Griffith, Connolly, Collins, where have they brought us?
Ourselves alone! Let the round tower stand aloof
In a world of bursting mortar!
Let the school-children fumble their sums
In a half-dead language;
Let the censor be busy on the books, pull down the Georgian slums;
Let the games be played in Gaelic.
Let them grow beet-sugar; let them build
A factory in every hamlet;
Let them pigeon-hole the souls of the killed
Into sheep and goats, patriots and traitors.
And the North, where I was a boy,
Is still the North, veneered with the grime of Glasgow,
Thousands of men whom nobody will employ
Standing at the corners, coughing.
And the street-children play on the wet
Pavement - hopscotch or marbles;
And each rich family boasts a sagging tennis-net
On a spongy lawn beside a dripping shrubbery.
The smoking chimneys hint
At prosperity round the corner
But they make their Ulster linen from foreign lint
And the money that comes in goes out to make more money.
A city built upon mud;
A culture built upon profit;
Free speech nipped in the bud,
The minority always guilty.
Why should I want to go back
To you, Ireland, my Ireland?
The blots on the page are so black
That they cannot be covered with shamrock.
I hate your grandiose airs,
Your sob-stuff, your laugh and your swagger,
Your assumption that everyone cares
Who is the king of your castle.
Castles are out of date,
The tide flows round the children's sandy fancy;
Put up what flag you like, it is too late
To save your soul with bunting.
Odi atque amo:
Shall we cut this name on trees with a rusty dagger?
Her mountains are still blue, her rivers flow
Bubbling over the boulders.
She is both a bore and a bitch;
Better close the horizon,
Send her no more fantasy, no more longings which
Are under a fatal tariff.
For common sense is the vogue
And she gives her children neither sense nor money
Who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue
And a faggot of useless memories.

Three (actually 4) Very Good Poems

THE LAGAN BLACKBIRD
- Anon (7th C.)

The small bird
let a chirp
from its beak:
I heard
woodnotes, whin-
gold, sudden.

PANGUR BAN
(Written by a student of the monastery of Carinthia
on a copy of St Paul's Epistles, in the 8th century)

I and Pangur Ban, my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

(trans. from the Gaelic by Robin Flower)

WINDHARP

The sounds of Ireland,
that restless whispering
you never get away
from, seeping out of
low bushes and grass,
heatherbells and fern,
wrinkling bog pools,
scraping tree branches,
light hunting cloud,
sound hounding sight,
a hand ceaselessly
combing and stroking
the landscape, till
the valley gleams
like the pile upon
a mountain pony's coat.

-John Montague (1929 -


TRADITIONS
I
Our guttural muse
was bulled long ago
by the alliterative tradition,
her uvula grows

vestigial, forgotten
like the coccyx
or a Brigid's Cross
yellowing in some outhouse

while custom, that 'most
sovereign mistress',
beds us down into
the British Isles.

II
We are to be proud
of our Elizabethan English:
'varsity', for example
is grass-roots stuff with us;

we 'deem' or we 'allow'
when we suppose
and some cherished archaisms
are correct Shakespearean.

Not to speak of the furled
consonants of lowlanders
shuttling obstinately
between bawn and mossland.

III
MacMorris, gallivanting
round the Globe, whinged
to courtier and groundling
who had heard tell of us

as going very bare
of learning, as wild hares
as anatomies of death:
'What ish my nation?'

And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, "Ireland,' said Bloom,
'I was born here. Ireland.'

-Seamus Heaney (1939-

Heaney's spareness is not to be confused with simplicity ... and I am not referring solely to the allusions. I started to write a short commentary on this poem which now runs to about 1000 words, about seven times longer than the poem itself!

Also, there is another absolute killer of a poem by Louis MacNeice (1907-63) which sees Ireland through the eyes of the rejected and rejecting. It is bitter, harsh, funny and woefully on-target ... but a bit too long and strong for this post.

Maybe the next?

In Heaney's TRADITIONS the meaning kicks in at different levels as so often happens in his poems. First, let's take a look at the references and allusions in the text.

The opening stanzas refer to the Old Language (Irish Gaelic) but even more specifically to the Gaelic poetic tradition which extended from about the 1st century BC to the 17th century AD when the last of the Gaelic kingdoms was overrun by the English. The earlier nature poetry is amazingly fresh and direct even by modern standards. Flann O Brien characterized early Irish verse-craft when he spoke about its 'steel-pen exactness' and Heaney in one of his essays (The God in the Tree, 1978) spoke of the tang and clarity of a pristine world full of woods and water and birdsong. Wordsworth's phrase 'surprised by joy', he wrote, comes near to catching the way these poems combine suddenness and richness, how the precise compact lines have 'the brightness and hardness of a raindrop winking on a thorn'. The early poetry was part of an oral tradition that was only committed to writing from around the 7th century onwards, two centuries after the advent of Christianity in Ireland (St Patrick is said to have died in 432 AD). Great monasteries had by then been established as centres of learning as well as piety, notably at Clonmacnoise, Clonfert, Kells and Armagh in Ireland, on the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne off the British coast, and as far away as southern Germany and St Gall in Switzerland. The monks in their scriptoriums copied not only the holy texts of the gospels but also transcribed the poetry and epic cycles of the Gaelic oral tradition.

In contrast to the earlier nature poetry, the Irish court poetry of the High Middle Ages became technically overburdened: metre, alliteration and internal rhyming schemes became increasingly complex. The result was a highly polished and skillful poetry conducted by a professional elite. Their patrons paid lavishly for praise poems for themselves and satires (greatly feared!) upon their enemies. The fili ('feely'), as this professional caste of poets were called, wielded enormous social power which the Elizabethan colonists and soldier-adventurers were hard pressed to comprehend when they poured into Ireland during the sixteenth century: they looked upon the fili as 'magicians". The fili died out with their patrons and it is this class to which Heaney alludes when he characterizes their art as vestigial, having outlived its function like the coccyx in the human sleleton or the perishable St Brigid's crosses which are woven out of rushes and routinely replaced like the 'kadomatsu' one sees over doorways every New Year in Japan. The native kings and their poets were replaced, as was the native language, by the invaders from England.

In the second set of stanzas Heaney characterizes the early contact with the English language, which still lives on in Ireland: the pronunciations and expressions found in Elizabethan English (the language of Shakespeare) linger on in the dialects of Irish-English to this day, notably that of Cork City and South Munster. Heaney throws in a few examples and refers also to the 17th century English of the Ulster settlers in the North who lived in Bandit Country among the displaced natives in fortified "bawns" (farmsteads) surrounded by "mosslands" (peat bogs).

In the final set of stanzas he addresses Shakespeare directly, particularly the appearance of the character MacMorris in the play "Henry V'. At the siege of the French city of Harfleur the king's forces are captained by the Englishman Gower, the Welshman Fluellen, the Scotsman Jamy and the Irishman MacMorris. This can be seen as one of the first optimistic attempts to create a backdated unity of purpose among the turbulent and definitely unreconciled peoples of the Two Islands. MacMorris capers about the stage of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (now restored in Southwark) and speaks to 'the courtiers and groundlings' among the audience in an outlandish brogue. He is perhaps the first Stage Irishman. Heaney spears the lie by a caustic reference to the real nature of Irish-English relations at the time. In the aftermath of the recently concluded Desmond Rebellion in Munster the poet Spenser (author of 'The Faerie Queen', himself a settler and an eyewitness) had described the survivors: "They were brought to such wretchedness as that any stony heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs would not bear them. They looked anatomies of death, they spoke like ghosts crying out of their graves ....' The final reference is to Leopold Bloom, the alter ego and father figure to Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's "Ulysses'. Bloom represents the Wandering Jew, an outcast in Europe as in Ireland, a spectator but not a participant in the ethnic and sectarian quarrels between the native Irish (Catholic) and the settlers and rulers (Protestant). In the Cyclops episode of the book Bloom runs into The Citizen, a redneck Irish nationalist, who accuses him of not being Irish. I was born here, says Bloom with simple dignity. I was born in Ireland, I'm Irish.

What is Heaney saying? Quite a lot. On one level he is saying that Irish people have nothing to prove to themselves or others. Being born or just living in the place is all the identity one needs. On another level he is saying that the literature of Ireland has nothing to prove either. Irish writers writing in English need no longer pay lip service to the glories of the Gaelic past - which was the literary stock-in-trade of Yeats and Lady Gregory and all the other predominantly Anglo-Irish writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance between the years 1885-1914 - nor do they need to model their craft on the British literary canon. There is no further need to imitate, lean on or borrow from either tradition in order to find one's identity as an Irish writer.

This poem was written about 25 years ago when Heaney was still (nominally) a British subject. He had been born and still lived in the area of Ireland that remained under the control of the British Crown but his politics and his writing (I urge you to read more of him!) are concerned with the physical attachment to place, not the ephemeral adherence to flags and emblems and the partisan rhetoric of a disputed sovereignty. He refers to the Troubles in his essays and touches on the fear they engender in his poems: he makes no bones about his Catholic Irish background but it is clear that the passion and violence of Ulster politics is an infringement on the life he wants to pursue and a source of exasperation tinged with sorrow... and occasional feelings of depression and guilt. He doesn't have the arrogance and flamboyance of Yeats who set himself up as the Voice of the Unborn Nation. He's a lot more intelligent than Yeats, in fact, which doesn't mean he is the better poet. Perspicacity has little to do with it. He is a different kind of poet altogether. Heaney's Ireland is tactile, visual, actual, the thing-in-itself: the way things look, the way they feel when you touch them, the thoughts they give rise to. He has a fascination with the living water-logged earth of Ireland and the things that are continually dug out of it ... centuries-old butter, wine-flagons and old coins, golden torcs and Celtic jewel-hoards, perfectly preserved human sacrifices ... how strange, how wonderful, how eerie: surely all these things speak to the present; there are connections; we are the inheritors of all this; we are obliged at least to try to understand ... this is Heaney's world, along with his frighteningly comprehensive grasp of his literary forbears, Gaelic Irish as well as English. It's a formidable combination of childhood experience, learning, vision, application and the development of the sweet inexplicable touch of the master ... in about that chronological order.

The Nobel Prizes may shortly go the way of the Oscars and the Emmies, a self-satisfied elite gathering in expensive costumes to select one of their own to praise. For the moment it still has a certain value and when all the necessary but rather puzzling awards to writers in other languages have been absorbed and taken into account, the awards to writers in English remain as a sort of benchmark to those of us who read and think in that language. Joyce, famously, never got one but neither did Graham Greene. Nor did a great number of other influential writers. Yeats was recognized and that was good, he deserved it So were Shaw and Becket, both playwrights from Ireland. But when Heaney got the award in 1995 it was a worldwide recognition that Irish poetry had come out from under the shadow of Yeats and reached a new level of confidence. The nervous and defensive post-colonial assertions of independence are long behind us: Ireland and the Irish, for better or worse, have come barrelling back into the world again with things to say and people to say them. In fact, we've got writers and poets and playwrights lining up in rows and pushing and shoving to say things ... God help us all. Who in this literary nation will drive the buses and collect the garbage? We'll have to import the English .....

Mediterranean Blue I (2000): Greece and Egypt

When setting out upon your way to Ithaca,
Wish always that your course be long,
Wish for many adventures, many good stories ….
And let there be many summer mornings
When with pleasure and with great delight
You enter a harbour for the very first time;

But do not rush your journey.
Better that it should last for many years,
And that when you moor at Ithaca at last,
An old man, enriched by all you have gained,
You do not expect Ithaca to give you further wealth.

For Ithaca has given you the journey.
Without her you would not have set your course.
There is no more she can give.



When you step off a ship in Alexandria a large smiling person by the name of Mohamed Aly Elbehiri or his brother or cousin or nephew will greet you like a long lost relative. 'My dear friend', he will say, 'You are in Egypt for first time, isn't it? Of course you wish to visit Pyramids! I give you driver and car. You ride camel, you see Pyramids, you see Cairo, you eat lunch -- very good foods -- you have wonderful day! You are good fellow, I am good fellow, I give you very very cheap price!'

The amount mentioned is not cheap at all. On the other hand, it is 200 Km from Alexandria to Giza and another 200 Km back to Port Said. What is the point of visiting Egypt if one doesn't clap eyes on the Pyramids and come to grips with a camel? These thoughts must have been printed on my forehead because Mohamed Aly immediately grabbed my arm and pushed me into a waiting car, 'My friend ... please, please. This Ahmed. This very good car, new car, air-conditioning! Ahmed very good man, good driver. In, in! … leg also, please… now I close door. Enjoy, enjoy! Good bye.'

As Ahmed drives you away you begin to feel a little uneasy. This uneasiness is entirely justified, because as the day progresses you discover that Mohammed (tel: Alexandria 4808407/4806909) doesn't believe in paying overheads such as entrance fees, camel hire, meals, drinks … and drivers. Ahmed makes this clear to me over the space of the next ten hours and so do many others in the burgeoning cast of extras on this Grand (One-Day) Egyptian Tour. They all live on tips. You provide the tips.

Before I realized the full depth of the financial horror awaiting me, I asked Ahmed to pull over and find us a decent cup of coffee. We parked in a dusty sidestreet and walked into a place with wooden tables and a tiled floor. There was a row of nargiles (water pipes) parked over the bar like Keep-Bottles. The clientele was entirely male, quietly murmuring to one another at the tables. Occasionally one of the patrons or one of the waiters would kneel on a scrap of rug behind the refrigerator and pray for a bit. The other customers would ignore this person entirely but one of them would always saunter over when the rug was free, as if to a vacant telephone booth, his turn to talk to God. The coffee, when it arrived, was filthy stuff.

Alexandria (Arabic al-Iskandariyah), once the greatest city of the ancient world, was the capital of Egypt from its founding by Alexander the Great in 332 BC until AD 642, when it was conquered by the Arabs. It also played a key role in passing on Hellenic culture to Rome (and other areas of expertise: Cleopatra welcomed both Caesar and Antony to the city she ruled) but by the time Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Alexandria had been reduced to a fishing village. The free port status granted Alexandria by the Ottoman Turks accentuated the cultural ambivalence of the city's location-- it turned its back to Egypt and its face to the Mediterranean. This idea of a free city, open to all manner of men and ideas, was something the Greek Constantine Cavafy, drawing heavily on its legendary past, developed in his poems of the city. This idea of Alexandria was taken further by the English writer Lawrence Durrell in his four-part novel, The Alexandria Quartet.

Durrell observed that the city was shared by 'Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds, … but there are more than five sexes and they communicate in demotic Greek.' Writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he claimed that the different communities 'still live and communicate - Turks with Jews, Arabs and Copts and Syrians with Armenians and Italians and Greeks … ceremonies, marriages and pacts join and divide them'. This is no longer true. Since the 1952 coup when the nationalist Nasser took control in Egypt most of Alexandria's foreign community has departed. Alexandria today is dusty, battered and severely rundown with its minority populations long exiled or existing on the margins of the dominant Islamic Arab culture. It could no longer be a home to Cavafy, for instance, whose poem 'Ithaca' (or, rather, parts of it, very freely translated) stands at the head of this extended article. Constantine Cavafy (1862-1933) was a Pharaonic Greek -- one whose family had taken service under the Ottomans and other rulers of Egypt -- he believed himself a Hellene, one of the descendants of the extended civilization of the great Alexander. He nurtured his dreams and learned his craft as a poet while holding down a job in the Irrigation Department. As a Greek (or Armenian, Turk, Syrian, Copt or Jew), he would not be able to get a civil service job in modern Egypt.

Ahmed and myself barrelled along the dusty highway to the Pyramids of Giza. Air-conditioning was generously provided by the four open windows. We got there, we saw them, we came back. I got up on a camel. I nearly fell off the camel (no joking matter, they are about three metres high) and the heat was desperate. I wore an Arab headdress, I got my photograph taken … and the results were predictably foolish. To rub it in, the camel's name was Michael Jackson. He couldn't sing and he couldn't dance but he was definitely moving to rhythms of his own.

The Pyramids are depressing. They don't give you any sense of spiritual uplift whatsoever. They are large and they obviously took a very long time to build. They will probably last forever. Allowing for the ponderous weight and enormous physical size of these monuments one cannot help but commiserate with the people who had to actually drag these huge stones into the desert and lift them into place. None of this could have been accomplished without slave labour on a grand scale. We condemn the Nazis out of hand for enslaving people from the territories they conquered but because the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs are so distant from us in time we tend to admire them for their ideological monomania (their religion, if you like) while we overlook the human misery they must have caused. The Sphinx, it has to be said, fails to live up to expectations. It looks ten times better in photographs than it does in reality. The thing sits very low on the ground with a battered face and manages to look smug and condescending. Apparently, the French Army used it for artillery practice in 1798. I am convinced they did so from disappointment rather than malice, and probably to wipe that annoying smile off its face. From a distance, it looks like a crumbling Love Hotel, one of the structures you half-register in Japan as you whizz by on the train.

Ahmed and I developed a strange relationship. We were starting to like each other and embarked on several interesting discussions but the question of money always came between us. I didn't fully realize how much Ahmed was depending on a huge tip at the end of the day because of Mohammed Aly's reassuring patter on the docks of Alexandria. I believed what Aly had told me and that was a mistake. He had lied to me because I was a stupid damned tourist. Ahmed was trying to put me straight on the economic realities of Egypt. The way it works is that you don't get paid a salary when you work for somebody else in the tourist trade. The best you can hope for is an opportunity to make money from tips or commissions. And if you do make a lot of money from tips then your boss will demand a percentage or else he will fire you. Here's Ahmed, he's 53, with a wife and two grown children. He lives in an apartment in Alexandria and he is lucky to get a tour about three times a week during the season.

Everything is priced in US Dollars. I never even saw Egyptian money from the time I arrived until the time I left. Not once. People leap at you if they think you have Dollars in your pocket.

Egypt is the cultural centre of the Arabic-speaking world. They have the quickest minds and the best universities; they produce the best newspapers, the best books, the best movies … but they have no oil and therefore no money The two cities I visited (Alexandria, Cairo) were chaotic, overpopulated, congested with traffic, frantic. People were scrambling about the streets with no money or not enough money. Touts prey on tourists because tourists, by definition, carry disposable cash. It's a survival economy. Five civil servants do the job of one person. There were also about five different kinds of police, each with a different uniform and lounging about the place, all bored out of their minds. There were roadblocks on all the major highways and army camps whose walls stretched for four or five kilometres along the side of the highways. Every 100 metres along these walls there was a guard tower. Inside each guard tower was a young soldier with a rifle and a fixed bayonet -- waiting for what? I began to realize that the rule of the Pharaohs was not altogether a thing of the past.

At Port Said I had to deal with young guys in white nylon shirts and mobile phones but also with the older guys manning souvenir stalls which they wheeled to the docks. Egypt is a bit like India in the sense that nobody leaves you alone. Every foreigner stands out like a magnet and they all come after you. I found it a lot easier to get along with the older guys because they had a dry and cynical sense of humour. They knew they were selling a load of junk and they left off harassing you to buy it after the first ten minutes. The young fellows in the nylon shirts, on the other hand, were nervous, distracted, frazzled, somewhat resentful, and you couldn't get through to them at all. Male pride is universal and economic disadvantage only makes things worse.

At the end of the day, I gave a ruinous tip to Ahmed. I believe he wanted more. Too bad: I was already bleeding from a hundred cuts. It was with a sense of relief that I boarded the ship. The ship was beginning to take on the role of Mother. You could run away and play all day but you had to be back on time or else Mommy might leave without you. That was a frightening thought. Egypt had reminded me too much of India, the same human avalanche, the same stirrings of pity, the same feelings of impatience, the resentment at being singled out and targeted, the peremptory tone of command you adopt (I had forgotten all this) just to stop these people from bothering you all the time. It brought back a flood of unwelcome memories. I was ashamed. I was glad to get back on board again. The Raj may be dead and buried but the roles we once thrust upon one another are not so easily laid to rest.

Egypt … that was Monday, July 10th. The previous Monday, July 3rd. I had been in Japan at the End-of-Term Ceremony of my school. We were finishing early for the summer because renovation work had to be done on one of the school buildings. Carpe Diem. On Tuesday the 4th I was at Nagoya Airport and on Wednesday the 5th I was sipping a restorative glass of wine under the shadow of the Acropolis in Athens. I was contemplating a full seven weeks of solo travel. Travelling alone is the best way to go because you don't have to explain anything to anybody. You go where you want. You can wake up in the morning and make a completely new plan. You meet people, you have new ideas, you change your mind about destinations and schedules. Going solo is the only means of modern travel in which you can still apply the latest intelligence reports but it is usually not possible. This journey was going to be the best and probably last opportunity for creative anarchy since the days of my careless misspent youth, fondly but selectively remembered, when I spent months at a time wandering about the known and unknown world with very little money but a great deal of optimism. Luck played an extremely important part in that ill-planned enterprise and I shudder to think of the dangers even now. But I had never felt so free before. It was time to try again.

There was a plan. There has to be a rough framework that you can play around with. I was going to spend two weeks in the eastern Mediterranean visiting as many places as I could; I was going to spend the next two weeks on trains and ferries travelling on a EURAIL Pass through some if not all of its 14 possible countries; and I was definitely going to spend the last three weeks in Ireland. My hometown Dublin was my Ithaca. I certainly didn't expect it to 'give me further wealth' -- quite the opposite -- but I didn't plan to be too much older when I arrived there.

(A fellow Dubliner wrote a very famous book in which all the action takes place in Dublin on one day: June 16, 1904. James Joyce's "Ulysses" is a classic of modern English literature -- with a lot of Dublin in-jokes that fly over the heads of foreign professors -- and each chapter operates on a series of interwoven levels of meaning taking place at the same time. You have to read the book several times before you understand how the different levels are all connected. I STILL do not understand everything that is going on but when I look into this book every few months it makes me laugh, it reminds me of home and I pick up on something new each time. Joyce's chapters follow the same titles and themes of the much earlier work by Homer. In Homer's original (700 BC) we learn of the trials and adventures of Ulysses as he makes his lengthy homeward journey from the Trojan War. It takes him ten years to get back to the real and not imaginary land of Ithaca from whence he had set out as a young man some twenty years before.)

The Internet hadn't existed when I first took to travelling. Now it did and I had arranged a cruise on a ship through the eastern Mediterranean. I managed to get a big reduction on the price (don't ask) and I was ready to go. I spent two days in Athens during a 45 degree heatwave and it was appallingly hot, crowded, noisy but not so bad because of the people. I found that you could get a medium Cola cup of cheap cold beer at McDonald's (!!) in Syntagma Square for 440 Drax (130 Yen); I found it was easy to talk to strangers in shops and restaurants all over the city … including young Theodosius in his newspaper kiosk who plied me with free Heineken's from the fridge while he berated me about world affairs in German, Greek and English. I discovered the music of Anna Vissi, for which I am still grateful. I learned to call the country Hellas, because so many people told me they disliked the words 'Greece' and 'Greeks'. I rediscovered that Athens, heatwave or no heatwave, is a pretty horrible city (many Hellenes would agree) but this is where you start, this is where you begin.

On Saturday the 8th Nikos from Cephalonia drove me to the port of Piraeus in his shiny new Mercedes. Piraeus is the old port of Athens, as familiar to Themistocles and Pericles as it is to the modern traveller. There I boarded a towering new ship called the 'Olympic Voyager' and embarked on a dazzling strange new world that had maritime echoes (the sea never changes) of the 1920s or 1930s. I had never been on a cruise ship before and was (temporarily) impressed by all the middle-aged Americans I met who were on their 4th, 10th, or 14th cruise. Some of them seemed to do it every year. Within two days it became apparent that they were more interested in the comforts of the ship than the places we were going to. To me the ship was a means of transport. Yet you couldn't help but get involved in the social patterns on board and as a member of this enclosed community I met people, shared meals and drinks, traded stories and made a number of new acquaintances. Quite a lot of things happened during the voyage, but none was compelling: there were no murders, no suicides, no dramatic confrontations. Some people got drunk. Other people said silly things. A novelist might have delighted in the subtle social interplays but I was content to let them go by.

The real delight was in watching the sea from the after-deck, late at night. There we would sit, five or six of us, with several bottles of wine. The great inky sky was overhead crowded with stars and the churning wake of the ship was racing through an indigo sea. There was no horizon, there was nothing to see and you felt like jumping overboard. It would be a clean quick and silent death, perhaps better than the one in store for us. I resisted the temptation. I had a return ticket.