Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody

     Sé mo laoch, mo Ghile Mear,
    ‘Sé mo Chaesar, Ghile Mear,
    Suan ná séan ní bhfuaireas féin
    Ó chuaigh i gcéin mo Ghile Mear

The song begins as the camera focuses on the face of the singer. A soft and confident tenor, he gently leans into a long-gone poet’s Gaelic verse. The camera pulls back to reveal a phalanx of young people behind him. They are dressed plainly. The lads in dark suits and open-neck, white shirts, and most sport five o’clock shadows. The lassies in dark dresses, blouses and pants. They join the soloist, quietly at first, but rising soon in unison. A bodhran kicks in, sharp and deliberate. The young folk stand still, yet their heads nod almost imperceptibly to the bodhran’s driving beat, and the song lifts off and soars. The camera pans across the choir, focusing on their faces, and particularly, their eyes – almost all of them clear and blue. The joy in the eyes, their smiles, and their voices is there for all to see and hear. Their voices rise, and then gradually fall, as if to glide to a gentle landing. The choir hums softly as the singer gently repeats the last line. Ó chuaigh i gcéin mo Ghile Mear.  And it is done.

Mo Ghile Mear is a paradoxical, quixotic song that is at once romantic and political. If you have but a drop of Celtic blood in your veins or a rebel heart in your breast, you will fall under its spell.

Variously translated as “my gallant hero”, “my gallant star”, and “my dashing darling”, Mo Ghile Mear is a Jacobite love song that is as much about politics as about romance. Inspired as it was was by the Jacobite Rising against Protestant England’s rule in 1745, romance and politics do indeed unite in heroic, insurrectionary failure.

it was written in Gaelic by poet Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill after the battle of Culloden which dashed for two and a half centuries the Scots’ dreams of independence. Composed in the convention of Aisling (Gaelic for “dream” or “vision”) poetry, it is a lament by the Gaelic goddess Éire for Bonnie Prince Charlie, Charles Stuart, the “Young Pretender” to the Protestant Hanoverian English throne that once belonged to the Roman Catholic Stuart clan, and who after the bloody failure of the ’45, fled into exile in France. And that’s where he remained, although his last resting place is in the crypt of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome – an ironic ending for this could’ve been champion of Catholic hopes.

Bonny Prince Charlie had many romantic and rousing songs written about him. But in reality he wasn’t the dashing, gallant leader that the songs portrayed and that the Scots and their Celtic Irish allies yearned for – most certainly not the Caesar of this song. He was an indecisive and vacillating leader, who thought himself much cleverer and popular than he actually was, and when the going got rough, he got going – and left the the Scots and Irish who supported him with blood and treasure to the tender mercies of the Sassenach foe.

And yet, the songs live on to this day, most notably in The Skye Boat Song, Will Ye No Come Back Again. The old and well-recorded favourite Óró sé do bheatha ‘bhaile has also been associated with the Jacobite cause as Séarlas Óg (“Young Charles” in Gaelic). The poet Padraig Pearse, leader of the doomed intifada we know as the Easter Rising of 1916, added new verses, and so the song entered the rebel canon.

Mo Ghile Mear differs from more conventional Aisling poems in which the poet is asleep or otherwise minding his own business when he experiences a dream or vision of a fair maid. In this cerebral wet dream, the poet personifies Éire – Ireland, the country itself – as a woman who once was a fair maiden but is now a widow. Her husband, the “Gallant” whatever is not dead but, but he is far away. As a consequence the land is failing and nature itself is in decline.

Popular since the 18th century, song has come to international attention in our own drear times – largely due to a host of recordings, and accompanying You Tube interest.

Iconic chanteuse Mary Black presents the song as a gentle, sad air. Sting famously recorded it with the renowned Celtic ensemble The Chieftains, and they give an understated and fair account of themselves, although the reinvented English lyrics turn “Our Hero” into a dashing cavalier”, swords and harps and all, far removed from original dream song. It is an easy song to overcook,  but Sting managed to resist the temptation. Not so that be-kilted posse Celtic Thunder who ramp up the Celtic bombast, reinventing the English lyrics as a curiously anachronistic, latter-day “rebel song” – “Hail the Hero”, the Battle Hymn of the Irish Republic, with a massive Irish flag waving o’er them all. What would The Minstrel Boy have thought about this?

Then there is the overreach of the much-loved and very popular, kitsch-laden, outings of Celtic Woman, invariably staged to maximum visual effect and capacity audiences at fantastically photogenic Irish castles. These handsome, well-dressed colleens do not crimp on the gowns, choirs, drums and bagpipes. Their Gaelic rewrite, transforms our “dashing darling” into a lovelorn mariner, replete with waves and tides, sails and sunsets. The ladies’ latest outing, with a relatively new lineup, sustains the razzmatazz with the eponymous “gallant star” resurrected as a martial beacon for “freedom’s sons”. It would seem that maritime motif of the girls’ original rendering was superfluous on an album that included My Heart Will Go On, from that damp, tearjerking,   blockbuster, “Titanic”. Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes the pipes are calling!

That such liberties are taken with the lyrics is no big thing, however. Old Seán Clárach would probably agree that his original Aisling poem would be a wee bit archaic in this day and age, and that the undefeated despair, hope and longing of Éire’s dream were no longer relevant in a free, democratic and relatively prosperous (that is, post GFC) Ireland. He would no doubt have updated his verse, just as Padraig Pearse did with his song in 1916, substituting a 16th Century Irish pirate, the “great sea warrior” Gráinne Mhaol for the foreign born Charlie (so the ladies of Celtic Woman were not that far off-track with their nautical rewrite after all). But this mythologizing of Ireland’s heroes too often comes across as self-reverentially corny.

Cynics might blame the atmospheric, anthemic stadium rock of Bono and U2 for this commercialization of Irish music. Others blame Enya’s symphonic, new age outings once she put  behind her the Connemara mist and moodiness of her Clannad siblings. But I reckon that hitherto timeless, soulful and folksey Irish music has been like this since the Riverdance crew first stamped their collective hard shoes during the intermission of the Eurovision Song Contest and stole the show. But most Irish folk blame Michael Flatley, as the authoritative Waterford Whisperer made clear.

Meanwhile, in my opinion, the most sensitive, beautiful and indeed, rousing rendition of Mo Ghile Mear is the one described at the head of this post. No naff English lyrics are required. The original words of the Gaelic poem resonate powerfully through the hall.

It is sung by the Choral Scholars of University College, Dublin, an amateur, mostly acapella bunch of Irish students. These young folk formally audition for a scholarship with the ensemble. There is little glamour or artifice, no fireworks or vocal gymnastics. Plainly dressed, they look like folk you would pass on the streets of Dublin or Galway. Mark Waters, the portly lead singer would never get a gig in an Irish boy band, but wouldn’t look out of place in a church choir. The drama is achieved by inflection, modulation and tone, the lighting and way the choir is physically arranged in an eerily martial wedge, their only movement being that almost imperceptible nod of their heads in time with the lone bodran’s beat as the song builds momentum.

Listen, and listen again. It is a gem.

And here are the Choral Students again:

 

TheChoral Scholars of University College, Dublin

And here are the recordings I referred to above. Enjoy.:

 

 

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Deep In The Heart of Texas

America’s Future is Texas, by Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, July 10 &17, 2017:

“Texas is as politically divided as the rest of the U.S., but a recurrent crop of crackpots and ideologues has fed its reputation for proud know-nothingism and retrograde thinking”.
This is a cracker. And a must-read for political junkies and all who are fascinated and frightened by the absurdities of recent US politics”.

This is a cracker. And a must-read for political junkies and all who are fascinated and frightened by the absurdities of recent US politics.

I haven’t enjoyed a lengthy American “fly on the wall” opinion piece since Variety despatched a writer to spend time with Lyndsay Lohan on the set of the The Canyons, her doomed porno-thriller (in case you are tempted, and it is indeed a hoot, there’s a link to it below).

Lawrence Wright’s piece reads like a tragicomical dystopian thriller, and indeed, Thomas Pynchon and Michael Chabon would find some great storylines here. His tale becomes increasingly surreal as the author charts the passions, policies and personalities that collude and collide in this chronicle of the recent legislative session of Texas’ State House.

It is full of stories short and tall, quips and quotes, and daring and dastardly deeds that would be hilarious and worthy of the best political satires if only they were not actually true! An Austin newspaper columnist recounts the story of an absconding representative: the police “tracked him to earth at his momma’s house, where he was found hiding in the stereo cabinet.” She added, “He always did want to be the Speaker.” A wannabe Republican candidate for the State Board of Education posts on Facebook that Barack Obama had worked as a male prostitute in his twenties: “That is how he paid for his drugs,” she reasons, (and) went on to assert that climate change is a “ridiculous hoax,” and that dinosaurs are extinct because the ones on Noah’s Ark were too young to reproduce”. Another representative tweets: “Top priority for Travis GOP: beautiful Big Titty women!!” A former governor once said of then presidential nominee, George H. W. Bush. “He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” She wore designer suits but picked her teeth, and she cleaned her fingernails with a Swiss Army knife. Successively opposing the placing of a Christmas manger scene in the state capitol, she said ““I’m afraid so…and it’s a shame, because it’s about the only time we ever had three wise men in the capitol.”

These are a selection of the more anodyne tales. Many others are downright scary, and one shakes one head in disbelief at what legislators and elected officials think and do. To bowdlerize the Bard, “what brave, bad world that has such people in it”.

“Texans…are hardly monolithic. The state is as politically divided as the rest of the nation. One can drive across it and be in two different states at the same time: FM Texas and AM Texas. FM Texas is the silky voice of city dwellers, the kingdom of NPR. It is progressive, blue, reasonable, secular, and smug—almost like California. AM Texas speaks to the suburbs and the rural areas: Trumpland. It’s endless bluster and endless ads. Paranoia and piety are the main items on the menu”.

Accordingly, Wright presses all the red (and blue) buttons that inspire, ignite and implode, delight, dismay and divide US politics and society, including in no particular order:

Abortion, gender and toilets. Obamacare, health insurance, and death panels (rememeber those?). Public schools, vouchers, and toilets. Gerrymandering, voter registration and electoral fraud. Lobbyists, political donations, and corruption. Immigration, Muslims, latinos, and sanctuary cities. Guns of all calibers, mass-shootings and pig hunting. Budgets, appropriations, and toilets. Donald Trump, the religious right, and the liberal menace – and, yes, toilets. You have to read the article if you want to understand how things always seem to come back to the rest room.

Maternal mortality rates (up), foster-care and child protection (down). The Poo Poo Choo Choo (really!), texting whilst driving, the right to say Happy Christmas instead of Happy Holiday, and a proposed law to fine masturbation outside of a woman’s parts or of a medical faculty – “an act against an unborn child, and failing to preserve the sanctity of life”. There’s the heroes : William Travis, Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, and, naturally, the Alamo (see below). Famous Texans Willie Nelson, Marty Robbins, and Kinky Friedman (and his band, the Texas Jewboys) get cameos, and Bruce Springsteen, a passing reference. But no Jimmy Webb or Galveston (Wichita is in Kansas in case you ask, and Phoenix is in Arizona), whilst Oklahoma is a refuge for dissenting Democrat legislators. And, whatever “they” do, “don’t California Texas!”

You will be amazed and horrified in equal measure as Lawrence Wright connects these dizzying dots. I never thought that politics could be so exciting. It makes the schoolyard bluster and the minor party shenanigans of our Australian Parliament seem like Children’s Play Time.

As we often say DownUnder: “Only in America Texas!”

And for some light relief (no pun intended) here’s Lindsay Lohan’s adventures in PornoLand.

In the dark times will there also be singing?

“In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Berthold Brecht

This selection of poetry compiled by Gerry Cordon of Liverpool around the theme of “undefeated despair” reminds me of Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the old Baptist hymn:

” My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, thought far off hymn
That hails the new creation
Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?”

Also by Gerry Cordon, a commemoration of the centenary of the death of war poet Wilfred Owen : Dulce et ducorum est.

Here is the wondrous Éabha McMahon of Celtic Woman:

 

That's How The Light Gets In

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath…

View original post 1,467 more words

Laugh Out Loud! What are “the funniest books ever”?

The listing and rating of comedy books – any books, really, and indeed, “best of” lists of anything, be it music or movies, holiday choices or cheeses, is a highly selective and subjective exercise that says more about the compilers of the lists than about the quality of the books themselves. A demonstration of their erudition, perhaps, and their eclectic tastes? Or is it pomposity and pretentiousness, or worse, that put-down so beloved nowadays of shock-jocks, populists and self-styled”outsiders”: elitism.

Huffington Post published a list entitled “46 Hilarious Books Guaranteed To Make You Laugh Out Loud”. Now, how presumptuous is that? “Hilarious”. “Guaranteed”. “Make you laugh”. Says who? Esquire listed “the funniest books ever“, and The Telegraph presented “the fifteen best comedy books of all time“. And recently, there was he worthy Guardian wrangling famous authors into the paddock: “I fell out of bed laughing‘. “Funniest”. “Best”. Oh well!

I must confess that whilst I have heard of most of the books in these lists, I have read only a handful. And with the exception of Catch 22, The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy, I would not rank these in a list of my own – which I will get to shortly.

Humour, comedy, call it what you will, is a funny business. Sorry. Bad pun.

There is a wide gap between a wry grin and a guffaw. One man’s cringe is another man’s belly laugh. And whilst whoopee cushions are anachronisms, remembered only by over-sixties, some folk actually DO like fart jokes. And age is no barrier – last week in Big W, I marveled (I think “winced with incredulity” is more apt) at a “fart blaster”, a promotional spin-off from the Despicable Me film franchise.

Humour works in many ways and on many levels. Sometimes, it doesn’t work at all. I recall my schooldays back in England, and being obliged to write essays explaining and analyzing the humour in Henry IV Part One (a title that doesn’t suggest a lot of laughs, although this is the play that gave  world that lovable old rogue Sir John Falstaff and his motley crew) , The Pickwick Papers, and the plays of George Bernard Shaw (I can still sing all the songs from My Fair Lady). Like numberless students before me, I tried unsuccessfully to explain to “Sir” that I just didn’t find them “funny”. As did most of my classmates. So we settled for memorizing the different “types” of “humour” (as if being “funny” was not really a part of it). These were usually words of Greek and Latin origin (these old folk invented it, you see – the classical “commedia” that is ), and classifying the Bard, Boz and GBS according to this scholarly taxonomy. Which, incidentally, is summarized beautifully in Monty Python’s classic Piranha Brothers sketch as an a witness describes the negotiating techniques of the demented and dangerous Douglas Dinsdale:

“Well, I was terrified. Everyone was terrified of Doug. I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of Doug…He used… sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, pathos, puns, parody, litotes and… satire. He was vicious”.

Some may find the concept and realization of this ice-thinly disguised and ridiculous send-up of the notorious and seriously brutal Kray Brothers to be in dubious taste (it would never get up today, what with political correctness and defamation laws). But that was the way the Python crew worked. You really had to “get” it. The same could be said of its predecessors, The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was, and Pete and Dud’s Not Only But Also. And it’s successors, The Young Ones, Bottom, Black Adder, and Ab Fab. What is hilarious to some is puerile to others. What is deep and meaningful to serious aficionados is lightweight, trite and pointless to high and low-brow grumps alike – who “just don’t get it”.

And “getting it” too is selective and subjective. Some people “get” Woody Allen, and see all his stuff (and believe me, it can be patchy, and as he gets older, you do have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince of the Annie Hall and Manhattan days), and others just don’t see the point (quite apart from expressing discomfort with his private life). So you can see how subjective it all is.

Humour in radio, film and television is in the eye, ear and imagination of the beholder. It is audiovisual as well as textual, the one often illustrating and enhancing the other. Expressing humour on the printed page is an altogether different and difficult endeavour.

Which brings me back to books, and to those lists.

I could never get into the lightweight upper-class comedies of manners so beloved of many English people, the Jeeveses and the Woosters and the Three Men in a Boat, or the precocious, neurotic memories of New York Jewish writers and intellectuals (although I do “get” Woody, as   I  mentioned earlier, I couldn’t abide Portnoy’s Complaint), nor the chatty, revelatory memoirs and faux-memoirs of celebrities of stage, screen and standup  (I did however enjoy David Niven’s Bring on the Empty Horses, back in the day, and Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs). Yet these and their ilk would appear to dominate the “best comedy books” lists. And I wondered why classics like Cervante’s Don Quixote and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, surreal and eccentric as they are, didn’t make the team – nor old George Bernard or the now rehabilitated Oscar Wilde. But then again, these worthies were so weighed down with social and political comment that the humour often got side-tracked. I mean, who wants to hear about madness and despair, class prejudice, the privileged few and the downtrodden masses? Who needs to read about what happens when “the white knight is talking backwards and the Red Queen’s off her head”. Sorry about that, but I couldn’t resist bringing Grace Slick into this.. “Remember! What te dormouse said”:

Back to those lists. Compiled several years apart, they contain quite a few of the same titles. Which might suggest one of several things: that intelligent, well-read, journalists and reviewers  are into much the same kind of books as their peers; that their literary tastes are not at all like mine – I am very much a “I like what I like” person, are many other readers; and that people who put together such lists google others’ lists in order to draw up their own – so perhaps there are some lazy compilers out there who have not even read the books that they are listing.

Anyhow, in no particular order, here are my top five:

1. Jospeh Heller, Catch 22
The adventures of an American airman who maintains his sanity in an insane WW2 by endeavouring by fair means or foul to get discharged from the forces on grounds of insanity, and gives the world an iconic catchphrase for paradoxical double-binds and vicious circles. It was mean to be “Catch 18”, but Heller was gazzumped by Leon Uris’ Warsaw Ghetto soap opera Mila 18.

2. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Oedipa Maas returns home from a Tupperware party to discover that she has been appointed executrix of a former lover’s estate, and embarks on a strangely strange quest in which she encounters an exotic bunch of people with equally exotic names, like fascist Mike Fallopian, philatelist Ghengis Cohen, and a shrink named Doctor Hilarius.

3. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
An alternative history set in the Yishuv of Sitka, Alaska where the Jews of Palestine were settled after being expelled by the victorious Arabs in 1948, as alcoholic detective Meyer Landsmen struggles with his personal demons, broken relationships, Hassidic gangsters, Jewish-Inuit mixed-bloods, and timeless  Jewish customs and traditions whilst investigating a gruesome mob murder.

4. David Barret’s Penguin Books translation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs and Other Plays Written by an Old Greek in the Fourth Century BC, these camp and corny, political satires, replete with cross-dressing, bawdy repartee, catchy choruses, and yes, fart jokes, are sharp and acerbic, and readily applicable to the politics of today. “Not my circus”, his over-the-top characters seem to say, “not my monkeys”.

5. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment.
Impoverished, arrogant, misanthropic, know-it-all Russian student plots the perfect murder. And, doesn’t get away with it.  Just kidding.

Seriously though, here is number five:

5. George McDonald Fraser, The General Danced at Dawn
GMF Is better know for his Flashman books, in which the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” roves and rogers his way through the late nineteenth century, managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another. But Fraser’s semi-autographical memoir as a young officer in Egypt during WW2, recounted in a series of short stories, is an absolute delight. The title story of The General Danced At Dawn contains one of my unforgettable “almost pissed myself laughing” moments. It goes like this:

The inspecting General MacCrimmon is unimpressed with the Battalion until he watches a display of the regiment’s officers performing Highland dancing. He joins in, becoming more and more excited, and recruiting more and more soldiers and passers-by to join in, by dawn the next morning, a mob of Highlanders, Fusiliers who share their base, military policemen, Egyptian locals, an Italian cafe proprietor, a some Senussi Arabs from the west in burnouses, and three German prisoners of war make history by dancing ‘a one hundred and twenty-eightsome reel’. The General’s inspection report “congratulated the battalion, and highly commended the pipe-sergeant on the standard of the officers’ dancing.” The pipey’s opinion was that as a dancer, the General was “no’ bad … for a Campbell.

I “got it”. And still smile whenever recall that strange ceilidh.

Didn’t I say that lists can be selective and subjective.

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