Archive for the Literature Category

The Strand at Lough Beg – Seamus Heaney

Posted in History, Poetry, Television with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2020 by telescoper

Last night I watched a harrowing but compelling film called Unquiet Graves which is about the activities of the Glenanne gang, a loyalist paramilitary group which carried out in excess of 120 murders during the 1970s including the horrific bombings in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974. Many members of this gang were serving members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment which ensured that these heinous crimes were never properly investigated and in many cases the families of the victims are still waiting for justice.

The film makes very difficult viewing but is a timely reminder of a terrible period in Irish history and gives reason to reflect on the importance of the Belfast Agreement that brought peace to a part of the world that so recently stood on the brink of civil war.

One of the victims of the Glenanne gang was a young man called Colum McCartney, a cousin of the poet Seamus Heaney. Colum’s car was stopped not far from Armagh by men in army uniforms. He was made to get out and kneel, and then he was shot in the back of the head. His companion, who tried to run away, was shot in the back as he fled. Seamus Heaney composed this poignant elegy to his murdered relative.

In Memory of Colum McCartney

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

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

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

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

The Ghost Room in Maynooth

Posted in History, Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , , on September 9, 2020 by telescoper

I stumbled across this rather macabre post about Maynooth University and thought I’d share it….don’t have nightmares!

That reminds me of this poem by Emily Dickinson:

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

Far safer, of a midnight meeting
External ghost,
Than an interior confronting
That whiter host.

Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter
In lonesome place.

Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’s least.

The prudent carries a revolver,
He bolts the door,
O’erlooking a superior spectre
More near.

Come Here To Me!

Path leading down to the College Graveyard at Saint Patrick’s College. (Carax)

Just on the outskirts of Dublin lies the historic university town of Maynooth. It is the home of Ireland’s main Roman Catholic seminary, St Patrick’s College, which has been churning out priests since 1795.

One particular room in the college has been associated with demonic apparitions, suicide and paranormal activity for over 150 years.

In the mid 19th century in Room Two of Rhetoric House, two young seminarists took their own lives, nineteen years apart, and the room has been the source of many tales ever since.

Rhetoric House in the South Campus, built in 1834, was formerly a residential house for trainee priests. It now hosts the Department of History.

Rhetoric House, Maynooth (

On 1 March 1841, a young student from Limerick by the name of Sean O’Grady (b. 1820) jumped out of room and fell…

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Further in Summer than the Birds – Emily Dickinson

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on August 31, 2020 by telescoper

Further in Summer than the Birds –
Pathetic from the Grass –
A minor Nation celebrates
It’s unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen –
So gradual the Grace
A gentle Custom it becomes –
Enlarging Loneliness –

Antiquest felt at Noon –
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify –

Remit as yet no Grace –
No furrow on the Glow,
But a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now –

by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)


Trustan with Usolde

Posted in Literature, Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2020 by telescoper

It is, I think, fairly well known that physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired to pick the name quark for the name of a type of subatomic particle by a passage from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce:

— Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

What is perhaps less well known is the identity of “Muster Mark” in that quote. In fact it is King Mark of Cornwall, husband of Queen Iseult in the legend of Tristan and Iseult. The Iseult in that legend is Irish. She has has an affair with Tristan, nephew of King Mark, with tragic consequences. This legend appears in many literary forms including, most famously, Richard Wagner’s Opera Tristan und Isolde. It also comes up frequently in Finnegans Wake including this passage on the same page (in the edition I have) as the Muster Mark quote above:

That song sang seaswans.
The winging ones. Seahawk, seagull, curlew and plover, kestrel
and capercallzie. All the birds of the sea they trolled out rightbold
when they smacked the big kuss of Trustan with Usolde.

See how Joyce plays with the substitution of “u” for “i” here as in “Muster”. Either that or the “I” key on his typewriter didn’t work properly. Or he had fat fingers and kept hitting the wrong key; U and I are next door on the keyboard.

Incidentally there is a small village in Dublin called Chapelizod which is where a church was built dedicated to Queen Iseult. Whether there is any real connection between this place and the historical Iseult is very doubtful.

Now, where was I. Oh yes. Back to Opera.

Years ago, when I lived in Nottingham, on a warm summer evening I decided to listen to some of the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from Glyndebourne. I made myself a cocktail and took the radio out into the garden with the intention of listening to a bit of it before going out for the evening. This was back in the days when I actually used to go out on the town on Saturday nights; now I’m too old for that sort of thing.

Anyway, I was hooked right from the Prelude. Act I came and went and I decided to make some dinner in the interval, opened a bottle of wine, and returned to listen to the rest of it. The glorious music washed over me in the sultry twilight. Darkness fell, a second bottle of wine was opened, and still I listened – no doubt to the consternation of my neighbours. The final Liebestod was so beautiful I almost cried. Eventually I retreated to the house having experienced my first all-out Wagner trip.

My enjoyment of that occasion was of course helped by the fact I could get up and walk around occasionally, as well as by the liberal intake of fine wine. Nevertheless I do think Tristan and Isolde works very well on the radio – nothing very much happens on stage anyway (especially in Act II) so you can just let the music work it’s magic.

The reason for all this rambling is that there is a special broadcast of Tristan und Isolde on RTÉ Lyric FM. This performance, recorded in 2012, features as Isolde the celebrated dramatic soprano Miriam Murphy who very sadly passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. Tonight’s programme is a tribute to her memory. I believe Miriam Murphy is the only Irish soprano to have sung the role of Isolde. I’ve heard a few clips from it and her voice sounds amazing.

The Opera is preceded on the radio by a documentary about the production, the first in Ireland for 50 years and the first by a brand new company based in Ireland. I think James Joyce would have approved.

So that’s my Saturday evening sorted out!

Update: I listened to the broadcast and it is an astonishingly wonderful performance by Miriam Murphy.

The Mystery of Meaning

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on July 31, 2020 by telescoper

Contrary to the expectation I expressed yesterday when posting an obscure article about the chord changes in Duke Jordan’s Jordu, I got the following alert from WordPress:

Usually I get a bit nervous when there’s a spike in my stats. I tend to imagine I’ve posted something controversial and the people checking it out are all lawyers. As it turns out the destination of most of the traffic was not the piece I had just posted but an old post about a poem, Meaning by Czeslaw Milosz. Here is the poem:

When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add Up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.
– And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?
– Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.

I have no idea why there was a sudden surge in interest yesterday – most of it from the USA – in this particular poem. I’d guess that it may have featured in a TV broadcast, as that sort of thing has in the past caused sudden increases in traffic to posts about music.

If anyone can solve the mystery of Meaning I’d be very grateful to hear through the comments box.

Update: Mystery solved. The poem was read by the Reverend James Lawson at the funeral of civil rights campaigner John Lewis. Many thanks to the commenter below for this information.

Stars, by Emily Brontë

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on July 30, 2020 by telescoper

Ah! why, because the dazzling sun
Restored our Earth to joy,
Have you departed, every one,
And left a desert sky?

All through the night, your glorious eyes
Were gazing down in mine,
And, with a full heart’s thankful sighs,
I blessed that watch divine.

I was at peace, and drank your beams
As they were life to me;
And revelled in my changeful dreams,
Like petrel on the sea.

Thought followed thought, star followed star,
Through boundless regions, on;
While one sweet influence, near and far,
Thrilled through, and proved us one!

Why did the morning dawn to break
So great, so pure, a spell;
And scorch with fire the tranquil cheek,
Where your cool radiance fell?

Blood-red, he rose, and, arrow-straight,
His fierce beams struck my brow;
The soul of nature sprang, elate,
But mine sank sad and low!

My lids closed down, yet through their veil
I saw him, blazing, still,
And steep in gold the misty dale,
And flash upon the hill.

I turned me to the pillow, then,
To call back night, and see
Your worlds of solemn light, again,
Throb with my heart, and me!

It would not do—the pillow glowed,
And glowed both roof and floor;
And birds sang loudly in the wood,
And fresh winds shook the door;

The curtains waved, the wakened flies
Were murmuring round my room,
Imprisoned there, till I should rise,
And give them leave to roam.

Oh, stars, and dreams, and gentle night;
Oh, night and stars, return!
And hide me from the hostile light
That does not warm, but burn;

That drains the blood of suffering men;
Drinks tears, instead of dew;
Let me sleep through his blinding reign,
And only wake with you!

by Emily Brontë (1818-1848; she was born on 30th July)

Reading Finnegans Wake

Posted in Literature, Maynooth with tags , on July 25, 2020 by telescoper

Doing my bit to support local businesses as they come out of lockdown I decided to order a book from the excellent independent bookshop on Main Street. You can’t browse there yet but you can order books for collection.

I went to collect my order yesterday. I was worried that they might be struggling for business but the place was chock-a-block with packs of school books ready for collection ahead of the new school year.

I picked up this bit of light reading:

I disagree with people who say that Ulysses is a difficult read, but Finnegans Wake is certainly a challenge. The lady in the bookshop said “Good luck with it!” as she handed it to me…

Alfred Hitchcock once claimed that “puns are the highest form of literature” and one of the features of Finnegans Wake is the constant stream of puns (in different languages). It seems that almost every sentence contains some form of double meaning too. Finnegans Wake may be hard going but it’s very playful, not only with linguistic meaning but with the sounds that words make, which can be delightful in itself independently of what they’re supposed to mean.

I’ve always thought of Finnegans Wake not so much as a novel but as as a very long poem to be read out loud. Indeed here is a strange but fascinating clip of Joyce himself reading an excerpt. Note the attention he pays to the rhythm:

I’ve set myself the target of reading 10 pages a day, which means it will take me a couple of months to finish it. I’ll try reading some bits out to myself, though I can’t do the accent…

On Grinds

Posted in Literature, mathematics with tags , , , , on July 24, 2020 by telescoper

When I moved to Ireland a couple of years ago, one of the words I discovered had a usage with which I was unfamiliar was grind. My first encounter with this word was after a lecture on vector calculus when a student asked if I knew of anyone who could offer him grinds. I didn’t know what he meant but was sure it wasn’t the meaning that sprang first into my mind so I just said no, I had just arrived in Ireland so didn’t know of anyone. I resisted the temptation to suggest he try finding an appropriate person via Grindr.

I only found out later that grinds are a form of private tuition and they are quite a big industry in Ireland, particularly at secondary school level. School students whose parents can afford it often take grinds in particular subjects to improve their performance on the Leaving Certificate. It seems to be less common for third level students to pay for grinds, but it does happen. More frequently university students actually offer grinds to local schoolkids as a kind of part-time employment to help them through college.

The word grind can also refer to a private tutor, i.e. you can have a maths grind. It can also be used as a verb, in which sense it means `to instil or teach by persistent repetition’.

This sense of the word grind may be in use in the United Kingdom but I have never come across it before, and it seems to me to be specific to Ireland.

All of which brings me back to vector calculus, via Charles Dickens.

In Hard Times by Charles Dickens there is a character by the name of Mr Thomas Gradgrind, a grimly utilitarain school superintendent who insisted on teaching only facts.

Thomas Gradgrind (engraving by Sol Eytinge, 1867).

If there is a Mr Gradgrind, why is there neither a Mr Divgrind nor a Mr Curlgrind?

Poppies in July – Sylvia Plath

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on July 10, 2020 by telescoper

Little poppies, little hell flames,
Do you do no harm?

You flicker. I cannot touch you.
I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns

And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.

A mouth just bloodied.
Little bloody skirts!

There are fumes I cannot touch.
Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?

If I could bleed, or sleep! –
If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!

Or your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule,
Dulling and stilling.

But colorless. Colorless.

by Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)


June Thunder, by Louis Macneice

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on June 18, 2020 by telescoper

The Junes were free and full, driving through tiny
Roads, the mudguards brushing the cowparsley,
Through fields of mustard and under boldly embattled
Mays and chestnuts

Or between beeches verdurous and voluptuous
Or where broom and gorse beflagged the chalkland–
All the flare and gusto of the unenduring
Joys of a season

Now returned but I note as more appropriate
To the maturer mood impending thunder
With an indigo sky and the garden hushed except for
The treetops moving.

Then the curtains in my room blow suddenly inward,
The shrubbery rustles, birds fly heavily homeward,
The white flowers fade to nothing on the trees and rain comes
Down like a dropscene.

Now there comes catharsis, the cleansing downpour
Breaking the blossoms of our overdated fancies
Our old sentimentality and whimsicality
Loves of the morning.

Blackness at half-past eight, the night’s precursor,
Clouds like falling masonry and lightning’s lavish
Annunciation, the sword of the mad archangel
Flashed from the scabbard.

If only you would come and dare the crystal
Rampart of the rain and the bottomless moat of thunder,
If only now you would come I should be happy
Now if now only.

by Louis Macneice (1907-1963)