Sunday, July 31, 2011


This, ladies and gentlemen, is my first sestina. My apologies if it's a bit abstruse... the form took over, and I could only try to keep up with it.

The Summer breathes in rain and limestone crumbs
And nestles in the nettles for a rest
Beneath wool blankets of her heavy peace.
I sought her once, but found my eyes were blind
And feet too young to tread her ancient stones,
The incarnations of the stuff of Time.

But Summer’s chief possession is her time,
The time it takes for sprouts to grow from crumbs
Or walls to churn the weight of their own stones.
So in the pilgrimage that she calls “rest”
I rubbed my muddy eyes that lingered blind
And let her redefine the Irish “peace.”

And on the way I met a man, a piece
Of tender paper passing like the time
Between his brittle fingers with his blind
Routine of ritual tobacco crumbs.
He grinned a “Tóg go bóg é”—take a rest—
And perched to smoke his sculpture on the stones.

And as a child I might have cast some stones
Or at the least recited off a piece
Of dime-store jargon hoarded with the rest
Of my resourcefulness I lost in time.
Yet now I sat a spell to cull his crumbs,
Just old enough at least to know I’m blind.

For if there’s grace enough to heal the blind,
It tumbles down like execution stones
Beneath the slab where dogs can gather crumbs.
And on the coast of Inis Oírr there’s Peace
That soaks the rain of Irish summer-time
And trembles in the wind just like the rest

Of us. And we who take the yoke of rest
And find that mud and spittle leave us blind
May learn to see trees walking over time
(If trees could grow in Cheathrú Rua stones),
Or pass the sacramental sign of Peace
As if the dust were Eucharistic crumbs.

For here time passes like the pilgrim’s rest
And falls like sandwich crumbs that tumble blind
On stones that catch as many grains of peace.

Caoineadh Phádraig Shéamais

The story is told of a father and son in a small village outside of Galway who were crossing a channel late at night to get barley to make poitín, Irish moonshine. When they loaded the small boat and prepared to return home, a storm started to gather and they decided that the boat, laden with the barley, would not make it to the other side with both passengers. The father told the son to cross in the boat and walked several miles alone to a place he could walk across. When he reached the place the boat would have landed, he saw neither son or boat. The next day they found the shattered pieces of the boat and the dead body of his son.

For the next week as his wife and daughter sang keenings over the body of the young man, the father was entirely silent, eating nothing and talking to no one. His friends and family worried that he would follow his son to the grave in sorrow, but they could do nothing to ease his pain. Then one day as the daughter was walking by the river, she heard her father singing this song:
An chéad Mháirt de fhomhar ba bhrónach turseach mo scéal.
Lámh thapa a bhí cróga ag gabháil romham ar leaba na n-éag.
Ar charraig na nDeor is dó gur chaill mé mo radharc
Is go dté mé faoi fhód is ní thógfad m’aigne i do dhéidh.

Tá do mháthair is Niall faoi chian ‘s is fada leo an lá.
D’fhág tú osna ina gcliabh nach leigheasann dochtúir nó lia.
Ar sholáthair mé riamh is bíodh sé ‘lig cruinn i mo láimh,
go dtabharfainn é uaim ach fuascledh—Paidí bheith slán.

The first Tuesday of September sad and sorrowful was my plight:
The brave able hand going before me to the bed of death

On the Rock of Tears I lost my sight.
Till I go to my grave I’ll not lift my spirit after you.

Your mother and Niall are sorrowing and the day is long for them.

You left them a heavy heart that no doctor or physician can cure.

All that I ever earned, were it all gathered in my hand,

I would give it in ransom—that Paddy be safe.*
Never having heard her father sing before, the girl worried that his grief was driving him further from his sanity. She went to a friend of his and related the tale.

“Oh, don’t you worry,” the old man assured the girl. “If he’s singing, he’ll get better.” The father’s song, painful and agonizing though it might have been, was a sign of life in him, evidence of healing.

“When I heard that story,” the Irishman told me, “the pain of the father was so fresh in the words that I assumed it was a recent incident. I asked the storyteller if he had known Pádraig Shéamais or his father. The man shook his head, and I later learned that the incident had happened in 1811.”

*Text and translation by Breandán Ó Madagáin, author of Caointe agus Seancheolta Eile: Keening and other Old Irish Musics

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Notes from the Gaeltacht

If anyone has been wondering about the recent lack of posts, be aware that I’ve been in the middle of another summer language course, again in Ireland, this time for a living language that actually makes sense to study here: Irish. Oh yeah.

When my brain settles down a bit I might write something more interesting. For now I’ll just throw out some brief anecdotes from the Gaeltacht:

The Irish for “I’m sorry” is Tá brón orm, which literally translates as “There is sadness upon me.” I find it a lovely image.

The Irish for “Hello” is Dia dhuit, which means “God be with you.” As the Irish never like to be shown up in anything, even a greeting, the proper response is Dia ‘s Muire dhuit, “God and Mary be with you.” If more greetings are required afterwards, it continues Dia ‘s Muire dhuit is Pádraig, Dia ‘s Muire dhuit is Pádraig is Bríd, and Dia ‘s Muire dhuit is Pádraig is Bríd is Colmcille. I’m not sure what you do after using up the major Irish saints.

As the weather is generally terrible (a dhiabhail! – “Oh the devil!), one cannot comment on the rare beautiful day without inserting a buíochas le Dia! (“Thanks be to God!”) for good measure to avoid jinxing it. I imagine this involves a good healthy combination of devotion, superstition, and thoughtless convention, but it’s fun for a stranger to the language for sure.

A person with dark hair (like me) is called a dubh (“black”) person. To describe a person of African ancestry, on the other hand, they would use the word gorm (“blue”). Having always found the terms “black,” “white,” “red,” and “yellow” to describe skin color to be a bit ludicrous, I find this extremity almost delightful.

And, most illuminating for my fourth summer in Ireland, the Irish language does not have the words “yes” or “no.” The general rule seems to be: Ask a simple question, get a long-winded response. This also seems to explain the almost universal difficulty the Irish seem to have for committing to or refusing anything.

That’s all for tonight, but until next time always remember, Is minic a gheibhean beal oscailt diog dunta! (“An open mouth often catches a closed fist!”), a good reminder for people of any culture!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Eyes of Redemption

Right before I went out of town last week, a year into home-ownership, I got a hefty check in the mail from my mortgage company, along with an explanation that my mortgage was going down a considerable amount due to a correction in their prior over-estimation of my property value. According to the state, it seems, I live in a rather worthless area of a rather worthless city. It was a striking assessment because, a year into home-ownership, I still find myself quite charmed with the neighborhood.

“I think you have a rather idealized image of the neighborhood,” one of my more disillusioned friends once suggested. I didn’t argue. All is reasons for disillusionment (e.g. here and here) seemed equally valid as mine for fondness (e.g. here and here), and I didn’t feel that I had the right to assert my optimism over his pessimism.

I also didn’t argue because I’ve been told that with regard to another little city in Ireland many times before by various less enchanted friends. Three years after my first visit to Cork, I returned this past weekend for my fourth summer visit, and the residents cannot believe I would willingly spend so many vacations here. I seem to have a history of falling in love with odd places.

I don’t want to discredit the suggestion that I may over-idealize certain places, but it may be that (ideally, at least) the Christian does so in general, not because he is delusional but because he sees the world through eyes of redemption. Perhaps there is a way that my neighborhood can be seen in the light of the original goodness of creation and the hope of the New Creation that has begun already and will be completed in the future Resurrection. Perhaps in that light the robberies and drugs and even the gunshots cannot dampen its beauty.

Either way, I returned to Cork last week with a smile on my face, and I’m sure I’ll return to my neighborhood in five weeks time similarly smiling. If these be eyes of redemption, the world sure looks lovely through them.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Flow gently, stream where heroes gathered stones
And I a rock or two to throw; for there
Be giants in my soul, and I have thrown
The first of many stones and stumbled where
The saints once fell as Saul looked on and smiled.
For waters cure the cripple, spittle eyes,
Yet I have stumbled on the very wild
Stones I threw, blind after seven tries.

So flow from hidden springs I cannot see
And wash the mud or scales that still remain,
And if I don't have faith enough to part the sea
With budding rods, then be at least my cane.
For you provided blindness to the ones
Who otherwise would cast a thousand stones.