Tuesday, June 30, 2009

In a Country Churchard

I knew I was in Northern Ireland and not the Irish Republic when I took a stroll through a graveyard. The difference between the Protestant graveyard and the Catholic ones I was growing accustomed to in the rest of the country was quite surprisingly great, though they were both certainly beautiful. But as I wandered through the northern churchyard, weaving my way around cross after cross, I realized something that surprised me.

I was missing Mary.

Not just her. I was missing the human element that warms the Catholic graveyards I had been exploring in the towns down south, the statues of saints who have lived and died before us who may yet (according to Catholic theology) be actively praying for us who are still alive. A Catholic graveyard is an active place; even in its stillness it is a junction of the living and the even-more-living. And in that intersection, they have faith that the loved ones they bury are not actually gone, not anymore than Mary and the other saints are.

At least, so I gather.

One way or another, the marble crosses in Northern Ireland felt a little bit cold in contrast, as if they proclaimed a disembodied abstraction—an abstraction that was certainly true, and that the abstract pieces of me could touch, and that offered hope of reaching completely when I would eventually become an abstraction too. They were still quite beautiful, and probably a little theologically safer, but a little deader (if I can use that word for a graveyard), certainly a little farther away.

One of the headstones in a little graveyard in the town where Patrick had built his first church comforted its Catholic grievers with these words (right behind a little statue of a praying Mary):
Those who die in grace
go no further than God,
and God is very near.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


As students of literature and linguistics know, you can tell a lot about a culture by its language. In the case of the Irish culture, I am unable in one week to learn Gaelic and assess it that way, but I can at least make some observations about how they use the English language.

From what I can tell, this is the Irish equivalent of the French “parfait,” the British “brilliant,” and the American “fine.” It does not imply grandeur anymore than “parfait” implies perfection, or “brilliant” implies luster or intelligence, or “fine” implies refinement (English nerd note: the OED records the first usage of the word “fine” to mean “satisfactory, acceptable” in 1917... very different than a “fine wine” or a “fine work,” or even telling someone “you’re so fine you blow my mind”).
“I’m grand.”
“That’ll be grand.”
“Come on; you’ll be grand!”
What a happy way to express contentment!

Regard yourself
This seems to be the equivalent of “take care,” and I like it better. The Irish are constantly exhorting me to take regard of myself, which, if they only knew, is a fitting exhortation for me.

They call many things lovely—people, days, places—but I am most intrigued by the usage of the term to describe people. Americans only seem to use it to describe one’s aesthetic appeal, mostly only a woman’s, but for the Irish it is a trait that applies to the ugly or beautiful, male or female. I’d venture to guess (I’m not curious enough to check the OED right now) that their usage is closer to the root, either being “lovable” or “loving,” perhaps. Whatever the actual definition, I am experiencing it here in Ireland through a particularly charming attention to strangers that they show me, somewhat akin to Southern hospitality but with an Irish flavor.
  • My host’s neighbor who exhorted me to call her so she could show me the best beer gardens in Cork for study locations on nice days.
  • The bar staff in a random town who made it their personal mission to hunt down a pleasant and affordable place for me to stay that night.
  • The farm woman who rewarded my purchase at her son’s roadside craft stand by inviting me in for tea, sandwich, salad, and live music.
  • The priest who invited me into the abbey’s visitor center after hours when he needed to leave, trusting me to turn off the lights and close the door on my way out.
  • My host’s landlady who urges me to make good use of her garden and yard whenever I want to over the summer.
Lovely people, all of them.

Why not?
(Musical guide: the first word gets one beat and is sung at a high note, and the second gets two beats, the first significantly low and the second almost as high as the first.)

Whereas we normally use the phrase to imply indifference, they seem to use it to agree to delightful things, as if to say if there is nothing preventing you from having another beer or a brief vacation or a goodnight’s rest at a B&B, then you should enjoy what is before you. I am accustomed to seeing virtue in abstaining from pleasurable indulgences unless given a specific reason for it; they seem to require a specific reason not to.

Beyond describing smallness, the term is somewhat affectionate. A boy who is still a wee lad may be unable to do some things, but you sort of love him for it. It may not be necessarily diminutive at all; I used it to describe my mother the other day:
“Aw, you should see her: she’s a wee little woman in overalls, probably doesn’t weigh more than 110 pounds, and she’s out there directing large men on construction sites and felling huge trees with her chainsaw...”
The lads
I’m picking up that this requires some degree of fraternity, a little more intense than the American “the guys.” It may be closer to “the gang” where the gang can only include male members. It implies loyalty; he may be a terrible person, but if he is one of the lads you will look out for him anyway.

These are very common pronouns that require no excuse for the suffix. I may even suspect that adding “self” actually makes it more formal or polite, though not necessarily. It is just fuller somehow, I suppose.
“I’m grand, and yourself?”
“When Finbar and myself were wee lads on the north side of town...”

Friday, June 19, 2009


It's a little late for Easter, but I wanted to scribble something down here before I take off for summer-in-Ireland round 2. Easter season is over and we are in the long season of Ordinary Time, but we do celebrate the Resurrection every Sunday, and it is always the right season for healing. After this past semester, I need to be remembering that this summer.
Return, our ritual Passover Lamb,
And heal the sacrificial corpse itself,
The very meat that feeds the pilgrims and
Declares their blood-atonement in the wealth
Of their perdition. Whisper to the deaf
Whom you'd have hear that mercy's not enough.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The other end

Though I am somewhat afraid that I will spend purgatory grading high school English papers to atone for this, I thought I’d post a few more grading highlights for this week. I could repeat my dubious moral from last month as an excuse for it. More accurately, I’m feeling somewhat penitent for being angry about my sudden grading bombardment that coincided with a weekend I already knew would be filled with an out-of-town visitor.

Like always, these intercity-high-school papers were terrible, and I was given them less than 48 hours before they needed to be completed. It didn’t help that I spent the first seven years of my adult life wanting to teach intercity kids and I’m still sad that I’m not there right now, so I use my paper comments as my sole opportunity to contribute to the education of kids I imagine have never had their writing taken seriously in their lives. Thus I stayed up past midnight and was up around 4 all weekend trying to redirect sparkling prose like this:
  • “It seemed to me like [Shakespeare] wrote his plays based on what he wanted them to be like.” I read the sentence bewilderedly for a while, trying to find a way to make his statement actually say something.
  • “Shakespeare wrote his many famous plays throughout history.” Wow. I suppose we Renaissance scholars are greedy to keep him to ourselves!
  • “Throughout history, when people read books or watch movies, in the back of their minds they expect a happy ending.” I haven’t checked the ancient Sumerian movie reviews, but my impression is that tragedy was not completely alien to them. Nevertheless, another student went so far as to imply that Shakespeare invented the sad ending.
After spending the weekend angry with the state curriculum that allows these high school seniors to make these kinds of mistakes and with the teacher for giving these to me at the last minute, I met with her yesterday to deliver 14 hours of grading. She used the chance to vent her own frustrations with the infamously corrupt government of the city where she teaches. In this case, due to some absolutely foreseen and unprevented computer issues, the entire county, elementary through high school, lost every bit of data in their entire computer system.
  • Medical records.
  • Transcripts.
  • Honors and awards.
  • Grades.
  • Storage space where the kids would have been storing the drafts they worked on in the computer labs.
Graduation is in two days, and there are kids whose papers I begrudgingly graded this weekend who do not know if they will graduate. Teachers, already infamously underpaid and overworked, have been scrambling for weeks to pull together some semblance of academic records in time for the end of the semester. Students who have spent their lives shafted are finishing this year out a few steps further back.

And I was frustrated because of a few impromptu sleepless nights.

Perhaps there are some valid reasons for me to have been angry at the frantic teacher and the bad papers that kept me from enjoying my weekend with my friend. But anger feels a lot different with a more comprehensive picture of the person on the other end. Perhaps I should try to look for him a little more often.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Outer Fringe

I’ve recently been suffering the repercussions of taking a vacation, and thus have had little time to listen or write (or anything else, for that matter). But there have been a series of intense summer storms in the past few weeks, quite delightful in a region that has recently suffered from a record-breaking drought. For a girl who first encountered God in the (sometimes terrifying) skies that hung over the Midwestern planes or the Southeastern pine forests, there is little that awakens my soul more than some binding lightning or deafening thunder.

In these storms, a passage from Job that I first encountered when I was fifteen during the hurricane season that happened to coincide with the summer I first read through the Bible keeps coming to mind. In the absence of a more beautifully poetic way to express the same thought, I’ll just let Job take it from here. (For Bible geeks out there who are surprised at my sudden use of the NIV, I have to use the words as I first heard them eleven years ago. Don't lynch me.)
The dead are in deep anguish,
those beneath the waters and all that live in them.
Death is naked before God;
Destruction lies uncovered.
He spreads out the northern skies over empty space;
he suspends the earth over nothing.
He wraps up the waters in his clouds,
yet the clouds do not burst under their weight.
He covers the face of the full moon,
spreading his clouds over it.
He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters
for a boundary between light and darkness.
The pillars of the heavens quake,
aghast at his rebuke.
By his power he churned up the sea;
by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces.
By his breath the skies became fair;
his hand pierced the gliding serpent.
And these are but the outer fringe of his works;
how faint the whisper we hear of him!
Who then can understand the thunder of his power?
(This photo, incidentally, comes courtesy of a friend of mine who is currently storm-chasing as she works on her PhD in meteorology. This blogpost goes out to her, with my prayers that lots of minimally-harmful tornadoes fill the end of her trip.)