Monday, January 18, 2010

Dead Irish Writers

As aforementioned, lately I've been working my way through seasons of The West Wing on my laptop, once I put Sonshine to bed each night .

Tonight, a cozy fire crackles away as I snuggle under a blanket and watch parts of the third season. Episode 16 is entitled Dead Irish Writers and encompasses the First Lady's birthday party, the dream of a dying, eminent physicist, Donna becoming Canadian (briefly), and the request by the British government, via their Ambassador to the United States, that the White House not allow the leader of Sinn Féin to visit the President for a talk. Joyce is quoted as having written, "history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake" and Eugene O'Neill as having penned, "there is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now."

I feed another log to the fire and dwell upon my dwelling, this farmhouse, again. My home. My heart sighs.

When I was 24, I spent six weeks in Ireland prior to attending a course on 'Yeats and Irish Poets After Him' at St. Catherine's College, Cambridge University toward my degree back in Canada. I had applied for Summer Studies in English Literature and felt truly excited to study Yeats, whom I worshipped. He was my mother's favourite poet and she introduced him to me long before I would study him or any other Irish poet/writer. Growing up, our home had hung on its walls a painting of the Sacred Heart and, alongside it, a framed poem entitled, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Naturally, there was confusion on my part as to which held the higher footing.

In 2000, my former spouse and I decide to leave Toronto for greener pastures, literally and figuratively. The day I walk into this farmhouse I know I will live here. It isn't that the house is older than Canada itself. Nor that its picturesque views from the back deck over rolling fields remind me somewhat of Ireland. The reason I know I will live in this house is because, upon entering the kitchen, I discover pages of Yeats' poetry have been glued to the wall. The owner had torn the pages from a book in her father-in-law's collection and pasted them for wallpaper. I remember standing open-mouthed, unable to speak, my heart rising into my throat, tears forming near my lashes. Apparently, what helps our bid is that the owner, a poet herself, is pleased as punch to learn we have zero intention of removing the pages of poetry once she sells the place. Ten years later, the pages have yellowed but still hang above the island where guests chop vegetables, sip wine and become enamoured of Yeats' exquisite verse.

One morning, a few Thanksgivings ago, I awake early to start the turkey. It is 6 a.m. when I sit myself at the table with a pot on my lap and a bag of potatoes and begin to peel. This simple act: the dipping of potato in water, the knife smoothly scraping back the skin, poking out the eyes, cutting them in halves, then quarters. A spud in the hand, the dirt of earth still clinging to it, is so decent and firm a thing. I recall taking a deep breath of satisfaction over this humble domestic duty. It occurs to me it is something my mother has done herself many a morning in the wee hours; something my grandmother has done and her mother before her. And hers. Talk about a 'root' vegetable. I feel their wizened hands guiding mine as the skins fall in strips into the compost bucket. Did you know that the ASL sign for Ireland is a potato? And this home was built a mere 15 years after the Great Famine began back 'home', in Eire. Just to think on that...

On my kitchen island hang three pieces of slate salvaged from the roofs of derelict cottages in Ireland, once the homes to past generations of Irish people, now dead and gone. Slate roofs replace the thatched cottages of an even older generation; the kind of cottage my mother's Uncle Jim would bicycle the countryside to photograph in the early 1900s, one of which hangs in my dining room. Shellacked to the slate are images of three dead Irish writers: James Joyce, Sean O'Casey and William Butler Yeats. My aunt sent them across the pond to me as a housewarming gift since she knows my love of Irish history and Celtic mythology, something each of these writers were well versed in themselves, no pun intended. And warm my house, they do, indeed.

I am thinking ahead to the spring when I must leave this farmhouse I love. I wonder what connection I will have to my next home. What will draw me to it? What will speak to me when I wander through its rooms, gaze out its windows? What might grab my heart? Evoke tears? I've no idea yet what will be the deciding factor for me.

But one thing I do know: as soon as I am settled, I intend to rise early one morning in that house and peel some potatoes. To feel grounded. To give a nod to my own roots. I know then I'll feel at home, again.

(Plus, I have a book or two of Yeats' poetry under my arm for wallpapering.)

This one goes out to my wee Irish mother and all the mothers before her; for my father's mother whom I never knew, who died when he was only 9 years of age. And for my wee Irish son who, somewhat miraculously, made an Irish mother out of me. For the homes we've each evolved from over generations. For the homes we and our children and our children's children will make. All the potatoes yet to be peeled. The Innisfrees yet to manifest in our deep heart's core:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

~William Butler Yeats~

Music: Troy, Sinéad O'Connor


Cabo said...


I should stir myself awake beyond midnight more often.

Loved this post! Thank you for sharing it. :)

"And where is there hope or deed as fair?"

Anonymous said...
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Brian Miller said...

really a beautiful post...i love that you have poetry on the inspiring...and the peace of peeling potatoes...this too i understand. you will find your connections again, but the memories will live on...

Anonymous said...

Exquisite... I have to read and re-read this one, savor the peaceful feeling you imparted simply in writing about it.

I have memories of potato fields, acres and acres, of planting and harvesting, putting up the crops for winter... and the way the potato starch made my hands feel funny when I'd rise before dawn to make breakfast on the farm.

May you take these memories wherever you go- and create so many more...

sweetwilliam said...

Thank you for visiting our blog, because it was such a joy finding yours and reading your lovely words and entering your space for as while -

JeffScape said...

Hmm... is there anything you can do to help protect the Yeats pages? Some kind of book-paper-friendly coating?

No, I've not read Fall On Your Knees, but checked out the description and will pick it up as I clear my book queue.

Cam said...

Thank you!!

These words, this story, just completely draws you in.

What sweet serendipity to find the writings on the wall... ;)

I hope that your next sanctuary provides you as much serenity as the farmhouse has.


Mimi said...

Nancy, this post has me almost in tears! You do have a very strong connection to Ireland, don't you?

Your writing around peeling potatoes is very moving- I had never before thought of it in this way, and the reference to "root" vegetable resonates very much with my thinking aromatherapy-wise- oils from plants with strong roots are good for grounding you in times of turbulence. Amazing!
I too love Yeats' peotry; my favourite is "The song of Wandering Aengus"- I just adore those lines "tread softly, because you tread on my dreams".
I'm so glad I found your blog!

Mimi said...

Forgot to say, you might enjoy a post I did on potatoes- it's under August 2009 and called "new Crop" if you've time to come over and look. Sorry, I still haven't got round to learning about putting links in comments!

the b in subtle said...

wow. everytime i read even one comment, i feel less alone out here. it amazes me that complete strangers enter my head and read my thoughts i'm putting down over here. i feel so comforted that, after reading what i write, some of you feel moved to write YOUR thoughts. i can't honestly do justice to how much it's appreciated.

Michael: stirring oneself beyond midnight is often a rewarding thing, i find. ;) you quote The Hosting of the Sidhe. The "Sidhe" (pronounced "shee") were the faery race. I wrote about 'em here. 'Naimh', by the by, (pronounced neeve) was one of the names i was considering had Lochie been a girl...

Brian - thank you. i know they will. in my former apartment, i had lines from one of my fav poets by e.e. cummings on my kitchen cupboards - i'd painted them there. love poetry. specially in the kitchen, the 'heart' of each home, yeah?

Ti - thank you. neat that you lived on a farm. then you know whereof i speak (write). no wonder you're so grounded. only a person so grounded can climb mountains like you do!

Paula (sweetwilliam) - thanks for visiting and returning the "following" - i'm truly enjoying your beautiful blog.

Jeff - you've given me an idea for a future post - thanks! i thought about getting something to protect the pages, but i kinda love that they're not shiny or shellacked in anyway and that they're yellowing with age/time. It goes well with how old this farmhouse is...

Thanks Cam - i trust that it will. There is a spirit inside this house (literally and figuratively there is). I hope the next home will harbor a good one, too, to welcome us both in and keep us company on cold, wintry days by the firelight.

Mimi - thank you so much for BOTH your posts. He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven is one of my VERY favourites. Yeats is quite the poet. I will be happy to check out your past blog. How you link is very easy. Go to the old post by clicking on its title and then copy the URL that shows up above (the link of that page). Then when you're typing a comment you type the following (ignoring the spaces except when i write space it means put one in):

past post or whatever word/title/phrase you want to link goes here< /a >.

hopefully this works - remember between these symbols '<' and '>' not to put spaces where i've put them except where i've written out the word space. the URL that you paste goes in between the quotes after a href= okay? hope that helps. this guy gives a basic tutorial here if that helps (i did a tech diploma in web page design after coding HTML for about 10 years - i took my first course in it back in '95 when the internet was kinda new for ordinary people not working for the government or army. we had to code everything in raw HTML so it's something i learned a long time ago if you have any questions. anyhow...thanks for your beautiful words

the b in subtle said...

MIMI - you're going to have to go to the tutorial link - it's making some of the stuff disappear on here that i typed to you. (sorry) but it's pretty basic - look for "adding links to other pages"

Mimi said...

Nancy, thank you so much, you're a real sweetheart, can't believe all the trouble you've gone to.
Ok,tutorial it is, and I'll let you know how I get on.

johnny said...

THANKS! ...another gem.....
i have loved ol' Yeats since I read that poem in a book...(cannot recall the title...but it ends:
"Be careful how you tread,
for you tread on my dreams...")

...oh yah, and didn't he write the drinking song?:
"wine comes in at the lips,
love comes in at the eye.."...??


the b in subtle said...

yep that be Yeats. "i lift the glass to my lips, i look at you and i sigh." He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven is one of my very favourites and is up on my wall:

HAD I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

genius, indeed.

Ciara said...

' decent and firm a thing.'

Oh my heart...

How did I miss this post? Nancy, you brought tears to my eyes. There is so much in this incredible post I will have to read and reread it again.

Your words about peeling potatoes, it being a 'root' vegetable, and the wizened hands of The Grandmothers guiding yours, how they moved me. I have never thought about the potato like that before! Although I relate to the feeling completely, as making bread has always invoked those very thoughts in me. But somehow, the potato makes so much more sense.

Everything about this post, the weaving of all these links, Yeats, the story of your farmhouse, peeling potatoes, that incredible, and so very familiar photo of the old house, right down to your own leanabh beag, everything is as though woven with magic.

Definitely going onto my 'favourite posts' folder!

Thank you, dear heart, for this piece of wonder and delight.

C x