Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Emerald Isle

What Ireland does best is celebrate its history, which is ever-present, and this is a year of celebration. On a recent visit to the country to visit family, we luxuriated in the charm and beauty of the country, and in its past.
At Dublin's General Post Office, for example, there are many interactive displays illustrating the Easter Rising of 100 years ago. The highlight is a blood-stirring film recounting the events. As I left the small theatre, I wished I had been part of that rebellion, bloodshed and all. Much more is happening in that city. A new museum, the Little Museum of Dublin, gives excellent guided tours of its exhibits, to talk about the city and its story.

Another must-see is the Epic Ireland digital museum, which tells the story of Irish diaspora. One in every six Irish-born people alive in the world today lives outside Ireland – a staggering statistic, but in 1890 it was even higher: two in every five. One of the interactive exhibits illustrates emigration over more than a millennium.

Dublin has long been considered the centre of Irish literature and the arts, and in November 1991 the Dublin Writers Museum opened as a showcase of this literary culture. I'll return to this amazing story in my comments about Lady Gregory, below. If you have an interest in Irish literature, don't miss this absorbing museum.

Also worth a look in Dublin are the fantastic collections in the Chester Beatty Library. Mining magnate Alfred Chester Beatty established this amazing place by bequest in 1950. The feature exhibit at the moment year is an atonishing 16th century Qu'ran,  now under restoration. The accompanying exhibits are mostly displays from the other world religions. Each exhibit is superb.

If you are going to Galway, see Trad on the Prom, one of the best-ever musicals using traditional Irish folk tunes and dance. It's the best piece of Irish theatre since Michael Flattley's Lord of the Dance. Didn't see that one? Here's the Finale; it's definitely worth a look. 

Back to the matter of Irish history, there are other outings I highly recommend.

Brú na Bóinne: 
On a recent trip to the Emerald Isle, we visited two ancient structures – megalithic (“large stone”) and Neolithic – which UNESCO has designated World Heritage sites – in northeast Ireland. They were remarkable. Five thousand years ago, small people in stature – 5 feet, 2 inches or 1.57 metres – used nothing more than their muscles to transport over long distances great numbers of rocks weighing many tonnes each to create these two extraordinary sites. 

They built fantastic structures (probably based on sun/season religions), and decorated them with remarkable abstract art, like that in the photo, above.

Apparently constructed as tombs, one of the structures we visited may have been the largest building on the planet when completed – certainly nothing of that size has been discovered yet. It remained the largest man-made building in Ireland until after the Norman invasion. It has since been the object of a 40-year restoration project. For a detailed discussion, take a look at this commentary.

The site we visited was near the battleground of the Battle of the Boyne – a dot on the map, but a piece of history that had profound implications. In that battle, William of Orange (aka King William III of England, Ireland, and Scotland from 1689 until his death) defeated the Irish forces.

The Irish were still rebelling against the atrocities of Britain’s “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell, the victor of the English Civil Wars, who spent nine months (1649–50) subduing Irish resistance to English rule. 

Convinced that God was behind his victories, Cromwell – he’s famous for telling the Irish to go “to Hell or to Connaught” (Connaught being in the West Country, where the land is not too good) – did not do too well for all that. He died in 1658 and was buried with kings in Westminster Abbey.  But by 1660, Charles II (29 May 1630 – 6 February 1685) was monarch of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland. He recalled Cromwell’s activities in the Civil Wars, had body was exhumed from the Abbey, and his head placed on a pole for all to see.

King William was a Protestant fanatic who set out to convert the people from Catholicism, and his efforts continued the damage which the Lord Protector had started. The result was centuries of religious conflict within that lovely island nation.

Only the spread of secularism may finally be putting those issues to rest. “When you go to church in Ireland,” my wife tells me, “you don't often see anyone under sixty.” 

Loughrea: We based ourselves in Loughrea (the name comes from the Irish “Baile Locha Riach,” which means the town of the Grey Lake) – a central location from which to explore the country. This town had quite an interesting history. For one, it was from this village that William III’s military commanders assigned lands stolen from the Irish to his favourites, thereby creating landed gentry loyal to the British crown.

Ironically, though, it was in the same town that the Irish Revival began, 300 years after the British invasion. The occasion was the construction St. Brendan's Cathedral in the town, construction of which began in 1897. The “jewel in the crown of the Celtic Revival,” the Cathedral lies on the northern shore of beautiful the lake after which the town got its name.

The International Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century sought to reunite the artist and the craftsman. It was born out of a reaction to the mass production of the industrial era and found fertile ground in Ireland during the Celtic Revival period (1880 - 1930). St. Brendan's was the first building in Ireland so comprehensively decorated by the artistic movement of the era.

Coole Park: We also visited the park created at the site of Lady Gregory’s former home. I didn't realize how huge an impact she had as a playwright in the Irish Literary Revival. With William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn, she co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre, and wrote numerous short works for both companies.

Born into a class that identified closely with British rule, her conversion to cultural nationalism, as evidenced by her writings, was emblematic of many of the political struggles to occur in Ireland during her lifetime.

The walled garden at Coole Park contains a famous autograph tree - a copper beech in which many of the leading figures of the Literary Revival carved their names. Besides Lady Gregory herself, the old tree's trunk shows the names of William Butler Yeats, Edward Martyn, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey.

The beauty of the swans in the turlough (a geologically complex lake) at Coole Park inspired the Yeats poem The Wild Swans at Coole. Yeats’ home was nearby.

“Coole Park, 1929,” one of his poems, describes the park as a symbol for the revival of Irish literature:
Here traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand, 
When all these rooms and passages are gone
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
 And saplings root among the broken stone.

After the Irish Civil War (1922–23), Lady Gregory sold the estate to the Irish government, but retained life tenancy. After she died in 1932, an auction emptied the mansion of its furnishings.

By the 1960s the state had allowed the house to fall into ruin. Today, all that remains is the plinth on which it stood. The state has since turned the grounds into a lovely park, well worth the visit. Like most of Ireland, the place is beautiful. Cool.

Religious ruins: Another interesting – and photogenic – place to visit is the now-ruined monastery of Clonmacnoise. It’s in County Offaly on the River Shannon, south of the town of Athlone. Founded in 544 by St. Ciarán, as the story goes, the ruins are a silent tribute to the intensity of the monks and their mission.

The strategic location of the monastery helped it become a major centre of religion, learning, craftsmanship, and trade; it became one of the most famous in Ireland, visited by scholars from all over Europe. Many of the high kings of Tara and Connaught were buried there.

To better understand the endless religious ruins around the country, you might want to read How the Irish Saved Civilization, a charming book by Thomas Cahill. Here’s a New York Times book review.

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