Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Friday, April 28, 2017

That Which is Imagined...

I have a relatively new colleague who's pretty much the embodiment of the SJW (social justice warrior). Her views on nearly all matters social and political are the diametric opposite of mine. Nevertheless we get on quite well (at least, I think we do) and we often joke about the ideological chasm between us.


Last week we were talking about fiction, and she said something that interested me: "I'm only really interested in fiction that has some supernatural or fantastic element". (I forget her exact words, but that was the gist.)

I told her I pretty much agreed with her, and I added a theory of my own: "Realism is a modern invention. Most stories throughout history were fantasy stories." She agreed with this.

This exchange is of great interest to me because of the lady's political and social views. I don't think she's religious at all, although I don't know. But she's extremely progressive, and even joked that if she was going to give a house a name she might call it Progressia.

I take this as support for one of my own views-- my view that art and literature, indeed the entire world of the imagination, thrives on legend, mythology, magic, mysticism, and so forth.

And this is one of the reasons I feel that Ireland's Gaelic Revival was abandoned too soon. Far too soon. In fact, I don't see why it had to be abandoned at all.

I'm using "Gaelic Revival" in a broad sense, to include what is often called the Celtic Revival or Celtic Renaissance as well. From the late nineteenth century, writers and artists (and not only Irish writers and artists) began to draw on Irish mythology, folklore and legend. Common to most of these artistic effusions was a strain of mysticism-- often termed 'the Celtic twilight."

Now, don't get me wrong. I like to think I'm a writer myself (don't laugh), and I know that writers are anarchic creatures, and that the muse is a flighty gal. I love these lines from Louis Macneice, and I think they apply:

Minx or mother, old witch, young coquette,
And often as not a nun, the Muse will never
Conform to type; she uses a finer net
Than the fishing laws allow; she is not clever
So much as cunning, she often walks alone
Sleep means as much to her as high endeavour
And she can stare for hours at a polished stone
And see all heaven reflected in a table;
At times she is monolingual, monotone
At others mistress of the Tower of Babel...

Yes, the muse is flighty, and artists are flightier, and there's nothing surer than that one generation of artists are going to react against a previous generation-- and not only out of perversity, but out of genuine artistic "reflexes".

But the reaction against the Gaelic Revival  is old news now. Very old news. Surely the revival of the revival is long overdue?

The thing is, the tropes used in the Gaelic Revival are capable of infinite variation. That's what art is all about. Irish mythology, early Irish Christianity, Irish folklore, Irish rural life and folkways...there are so many ways these could be used. Fantasy and supernatural horror and science-fiction are particularly rich fields in which this idiom could be employed. (I realize this has been done, but only sporadically. The recent film Zonad was an interesting and amusing example.)

The title of this blog post is "town and country" because I passed through the street of Dublin city centre today and it got me thinking about Dublin, about the city, and about the country.

I've lived in Dublin all my life. It might be expected that I would echo the sentiments of Donagh MacDonagh in his famous (and excellent) poem Dublin Made Me:

Dublin made me and no little town
With the country closing in on its streets;
The cattle walking proudly on its pavements,

The jobbers, the gombeenmen, and the cheats

Devouring the fair-day between them,
A public-house to half a hundred men;
And the teacher, the solicitor and the bank-clerk
In the hotel bar drinking for ten...


But I never did. In fact, I always disliked the sentiments of that poem. From summer visits to my aunt's farm in Limerick, or perhaps just from my own intuition, I'd always firmly believed that the country was better than the town or city....more Irish, more traditional, more spiritual, more aesthetic, more folkloric, more everything that matters. I've believed that since, and I believe it now.

The Gaelic Revival was very much preoccupied with rural themes, and one of the reasons for its eventual decline was that Ireland was becoming a more urban and suburban society, and it was felt that the Irish artist was like the yokel who had moved to the capital in Housman's poem:

From the wash the laundress sends
My collars home with ravelled ends:
I must fit, now these are frayed,

My neck with new ones London-made.

Homespun collars, homespun hearts,
Wear to rags in foreign parts.

Mine at least's as good as done,
And I must get a London one.

(Or a Dublin one, in this case.)

But why should this be so? I never finished Clive Barker's massive fantasy novel Weaveworld, but one line in it-- a line that someone finds written on a book of fairy stories-- moved me profoundly, and still does. It was: That which is imagined need never be lost.

The fact that most of us, and (in the absence of a successful Back to the Land movement) presumably an ever-increasing number of us, live in cities and suburbs doesn't mean that we have to stop feeding our imagination on the countryside and rural ways of life. I actually think it makes it even more important that we preserve a connection with the countryside and its rhythms, even if it's only an imaginative connection. We can take Robbie Burns's lines as our inspiration:

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here

My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

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