Thursday, March 17, 2011

Maewyn's Day

Tri-cornered symbol of
                     the Holy Trinity -- remind you anything green?
Are you thinking, "Who's that?"        

'Tis the saint himself, whose day is celebrated today (more in the US than in Ireland, actually). Patrick was born somewhere in Britain; various suggested birthplaces are in Wales, Scotland and England. Patrick, from patrius, means "well-born", and some say it was a title given to him, not his name. You may have seen Maewyn spelled differently--that's a Welsh spelling--but after all, spelling wasn't really tamed into rules until about 100 years ago. If you've ever looked into genealogy sites about name variants, that's one reason why you'll see so many different ones. It's also why place names can vary so wildly in their spelling. For example, the French attempts to pronounce sounds were given different rules than, say, Gaelic or Finnish or Basque or Lenape, so what is rendered as "Reneau" in Paris  could be (and is, by one of my husband's cousins) "Reno" here in the US. Some languages don't even have certain sounds or letters which we English-speakers take for granted...but that is a whole other subject.

As I say when I perform at Irish events, as far as I know, I don't possess a single drop of Irish blood. I just had the good taste to marry two Irishmen--not at the same time, I hasten to add!

Thinking about what I'd post today, mulling over the many Irish tales I love, it is hard to choose just one. That's the problem with repertoire--narrowing it down to enough but not too much to fill a program (although I always have extras ready). I don't usually tell many stories about St. Patrick, other than "St. Patrick and the Peddler" (there's an English version of that, and probably others as well). If I were doing an Irish program today, I'd probably do mostly folktales, and some of the myths about the Tuatha de Dannan or Finn McCool or Cúchulainn, with one or two about the other two major saints of Ireland, contemporaries of his, St. Bridget or Kildare and (my favorite) St. Colmcille [pron. kohlm-kill], aka  Columba, the "dove of the church" who founded the monastery at Iona in Scotland.

 I steadfastly do all I can to avoid telling stories about leprechauns.

Why? Oh, being thrawn, to use my granny's Scottish expression, meaning contrary. Mostly, though, because there are so many other kinds of faery folk in Irish lore: merrows and mermaids, Red Men, banshees, selkies, clurichauns, dullahans, pookas, and wills-o'-the-wisps, to name a few. I do occasionally tell "The Red Silk Purse," another of Joe Healy's, but other tellers do leprechaun tales with so much more enjoyment than I do, and the #1 rule of Successful Storytelling is "Love the story you're telling (or at least like it), because if you don't, your audience won't either." Audiences are quick to pick up on that...a lesson I wish politicians would learn!

No, Barra, resist pursuing that digression, tempting though it is!

Recently a harper mom out in California contacted me through the Harplist asking about materials on Patrick; she was asked to come up with a St. Patrick's Day play for her church, to be put on this coming Sunday. So I have been sort of a consultant via emails across the country, which has been interesting and fun. They came up with such creative solutions to involve as many children of different ages as possible, with a minimum of time, sets, props and costume changes! I am hoping that someone videos it and sends me a copy, or at least a picture of the cast and narrators.

In the '70s, a traveling exhibition, "Irish Treasures from 1500 BC to 500 AD." came from Ireland to (among other cities) Pittsburgh, celebrating the richness of their artistic heritage. While most of Europe was suffering through a period historians named the Dark Ages, Ireland was enjoying a Golden Age, with breathtaking art in metallurgy, jewelry, weapons decorations, book manuscripts and music. One could look at pages from the Book of Kells, for example, and grails, reliquaries, shields, necklaces, bishops' bells and crosiers, and....the Brian Boru harp

At the time, I had not yet gotten a harp of my own. We went twice to see the exhibit at The Carnegie, the second time taking a friend from out of town. I spent both visits gazing raptly at the harp, which normally is displayed in the library at Trinity College, Dublin. Luckily for me, it was displayed here in a freestanding glass case, out in the middle of a room, and I circled it from every angle except from on top and underneath. The guards were watching me closely, because nobody else did more than look for a minute and move on, while I spent most of two hours each time trying not to drool. Both times, when I left, my fingers ached, because I'd kept my hands tightly held behind my back, the better to resist smashing the glass and making off with it. Fellow harpers will understand my desire, commonly known as harplust....

I wanted to hear it! I wanted to touch it! I wanted some time-traveler to appear and tell me the stories about it: who made it, the music played on it, where it had been, who heard it, what occasions it had graced, most of which has been lost to the centuries. What broke my heart was that it seemed mostly unstrung....although I understand that it was strung a few years ago, and Ann Heymann  ( was permitted to play it. There's a recording I'd love to hear! (The videos on the Internet by that name are of a march called "Brian Boru," played on modern harps.)  When I am deeply moved by something, it usually comes out in a poem, so here you are:

Tara Calling

Standing on a city hillside,
many miles, many years from you,
          deep inside my veins
                                                I hear you calling, Tara.

I walk museum galleries
to see some borrowed ancient dreams:
                                 a crusted graal; a king’s gold torque;
                                 enameled cloak-pins which clasped
                                   the shoulders of his fighting-men’
                               glowing pages from Kells and Lindisfarne;

                                                                   and     a silenced   harp.

                             The curves of it, oak and ash, were Celtic beauty.
                             Now   unplucked strings      a reproachful grief.
                             How much of what was    is that harp?
Here there are no ribboned-stone crosses,
          no green-flecked tales of ghostly legend,
                   only echoes:
                                      Who stands now on Tara of the Kings?
                                      Who possesses the Silver Gift?
                                      Where swims the Salmon of Knowledge?
                                      And who walks the halls of fair Kilkenny,
                                            linen-white under the moon’s glow?

My thoughts travel through long silent years,
          time  thicker than hazel hedges,
     joy and grief more muted than
       mist-shrouded hills and bird-haunted shores.

                     Softly the harp-tune wakens,
                     lightly moving emerald leaves:

                                     Who stands on Tara, hill of Kings?
                                     Who sings now of the Silver Gift?
                                     Who seeks the Salmon of Knowledge
                                        among lake-reeds beside white Kilkenny?

                                                                and I hear you calling,
                                                               Tara of the Kings of Eire
                                                                           I hear you calling.

And in the words of an Irish blessing:

May the Irish hills caress you.
May her lakes and rivers bless you.
May the luck of the Irish enfold you.
May the blessings of Saint Patrick behold you!


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