A Poem for the Day.

photo of opened book

Photo by Sofia Garza on Pexels.com

“God ran away

When we imprisoned her

And put her in a box

named church.

God would have none

Of our labels and

Our limitations

And she said,

“I will escape and plant myself

In a simpler, poorer soil

where those who hear, will hear.

I will become a God- believable,

Because I am free

And go where I will.

My goodness will be found

In my freedom and

The freedom I offer to all-

regardless of colour, sex or status,

regardless of power or money”

 

Edwina Gately ‘I hear a seed growing’.

 

A foreign country?

smart

A few days ago I received an unexpected letter in the post. It was a copy of a small collection of my poetry that I had put together for a couple of friends nearly forty years ago. They had decided to keep the originals but thought I would be interested in a copy – the thing is that I cannot even remember giving the original to them in the first place!!

This started me thinking about the past and how in the words of the novelist L.P. Hartley “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” – although it is possible to meet up with friends you have not seen for ages and almost take up where you left off the past is still past, it may be a shared fund of memory (and embarrassment!) it is still past and gone. In a historical sense I have long been of the opinion that we are to some extent imprisoned by the past, as a culture we know how important it is to learn from the mistakes of the past but we don’t seem to learn and instead we fetishise the past as a template for the answer to questions we face in the present. Wise historians point out that although there is really nothing new under the sun and although there are abundant lessons to be learned from the past the correlation between past events and present questions is never exact. The swing to the populist right in many countries is lamentable but it is not simply a replay of the 1930’s in Europe.

On a personal level retirement gives space to reflect on the past (but not to overthink it) – for me the smell of new leather takes me right back to my first day in secondary school and listening to Santana’s first album takes me right back to the small record shop near my school and my saved up pocket money that bought the (vinyl) record. There is something distinctly Proustian about the action of these past memories. In some sense my past is all around me; in the collection of poems put together for friends, in the cache of photographs perused again after moving house and, of course, in the way that memory is triggered by seeming random events. It is there in rediscovered friendships and accidental memories – there perhaps as a resource or to raise a smile but a place that can never be returned to or lived in once again!

My past is also all around me as many of my favourite records are re -released in new and shiny forms. The Beatles 1969 album ‘Abbey Road’ has undergone this process recently (following hard on the heels of ‘The Beatles’ last year). Listening to these records is amazing (apart from the technical legerdemain!) and takes me back to another time and place – as far as ‘The Beatles’ album is concerned the cover of my original vinyl copy was scratched by the handlebar of my bike as I took it to a friend’s house). But the fact that ‘Abbey Road’ has reached number one in the charts must say something not just about its value as an artefact from 50 years ago but about its current value and genius in ‘the musical world’!

The past is a tantalising place but when I visit it I know I cannot stay there – life pushes on and its impetus cannot be denied. My past has made me the person I am in so many ways; in terms of faith and experience but I am not the young man in the photo above. The late and lamented saxophonist Michael Brecker once said something like “I like to look back, but not too far”, he was speaking of the jazz tradition – another place where the past is important – but it seems to me that those wise words can be applied to any consideration of the past. There are lessons there, and, in the personal sense, a lot of good memories but it has gone and if dwelt on too much can be seductive and self defeating. Perhaps we are all a bit like Indiana Jones at the end of ‘The Last Crusade’ where he has to let go of the Holy Grail to save his life and that of his father and friends. Keeping the past where it belongs means we learn its lessons and cherish the memories and still ride off into the sunset.

What’s in a Name?

smart

My given name is Joseph but the only people who called me by that name were firstly my mother, to whom I was always ‘Joseph’ and not Joe, or Jo as some have had it. The other is a very old friend who calls me Joseph when I have done something ridiculous. For years I was ‘junior’ to my father who was Joseph senior following (I think) what I understood to be a working class tradition that the eldest son should carry the father’s name. And when I started work selling paint and wallpaper in the 1970’s I was known as ‘Joe’ by many, or ‘Joe Jnr’ or even ‘Joss’ by some by now long dead customer whom I saw most days.

A name is a fascinating thing and a cursory web search reveals that my name has a Jewish origin from the Hebrew ‘Yosef’ which means ‘he will add’. In the Hebrew scriptures Joseph is the eleventh son of Jacob and the first with his wife Rachel. In the stories in Genesis chapters 37 to 50 Joseph starts as a dreamer who arouses (deserved) jealousy amongst his brothers, is sold into slavery by those brothers and rises to prominence as a chief adviser to the Egyptian Pharaoh. Along the way he experienced further confinement with “a cupbearer and a baker”, the racy episode involving the wife of the Egyptian official Potiphar and his return to the status of a dreamer who influences the status of Egyptian society. The name is also given to the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus and his part in this story has always struck me a deeply unfair – the paternity of Jesus may be the subject of much discussion but his Davidic lineage is established through Joseph, and Joseph’s courage in the stories around the birth of Jesus is undeniable. Yet he disappears from the narrative with unseemly haste, remaining like an echo of deeper tradition as the fame of the carpenter of Nazareth  grows and grows. His mention in the Letter to the Hebrews as an example of faith seems a paltry return for his heroism and courage. However, another Joseph, this one from Arimathea who also appears in the gospels is another character who shows courage and sympathy in the darkest hours of the life of the family of Jesus of Nazareth. In the Middle Ages Joseph was a common Jewish name but less frequent among Christians. But the name returned to popularity in Spain and Italy, and the Protestant Reformation ensured its popularity as a name taken by rulers of the Holy Roman Empire.

But being named for such important people gives me a sense of pride – a name that speaks of faith, courage, humility and the willingness to be almost ‘airbrushed’ out of faith history. But my name became mine through a choice made by my parents, whether through conscious choice, or working class ‘tradition’. It is my name and there is in a sense nothing I can do about it, what I can do is to live up the best values associated with this name. These values of courage, faith, patience and trust remain of perennial value – whatever stories you tell and whatever name you bear!!

(This post comes from another suggestion from my daughter Rebecca and her pot of suggestions for writing subjects. Thanks!).  

Early Autumn.

selective focus photography of brown leafed trees

Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

I was at my first meeting of a local poetry group and after a very enjoyable session reading from and discussing Northern Irish poets the conversation turned to what the next session should focus on. Someone suggested ‘autumn’ as the trees are starting to turn and the days are turning chillier – the reply to this suggestion set me thinking – someone said “once you’ve said “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” you’ve just about said all there is to say about autumn”. This seemed to me to sell, not only John Keats’ poem ‘To Autumn’ short, but also this season too. Keats writes about the bounty of autumn and the third stanza of his poem celebrates the “songs” of autumn; lambs “loud bleat”, “Hedge crickets sing” and the “red – breast whistles from a garden croft”. The poem may say all there is to say about autumn but it can and should give pause to think about where this season sits in the landscape of the year.

Hereabouts it has recently been Harvest Festival time, a time where congregations have to be gently diverted from nostalgia for a vanished agrarian paradise towards a proper theological consideration of stewardship and thanksgiving in this threatened world. Also it seemed like only yesterday that local beaches were packed with holidaying families and their cars but now the scents of many barbecues have been supplanted by the sharp, stinging salt smell of the incoming tide. The trees are beginning their journey from almost uniform green to shimmering browns and golden ochre, it is strange and a little ironic that it takes the arrival of autumn to reveal the sheer beauty and variety of what look like commonplace trees. I think that Tolkien had it right when he created the Ents in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and gave trees a life and a spirituality of their own – there is a deep life here that we often only glimpse as autumn moves in. There is a subtlety in autumn that the heat of summer cannot convey – the autumn sun seems more refreshing because its heat has a sharper, more astringent feel to it. I also think that autumn brings in its wake an opportunity to ‘see’ what is going on around us instead of simply ‘looking’ at the world. From the shiny conker on my bedside table to the small mushrooms in our back lawn, from the sharp, smoky breath of morning to the condensate fog on our windows – early autumn preaches bounty and change. The herald of winter with a voice of its own the season has much to say and carries, as do all seasons, a reminder of our responsibility towards the earth as stewards and givers of thanks.

The words ‘Early Autumn’ also remind me of the song of the same name, originally recorded by Woody Herman in 1949 and later given lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Herman’s recording gave an unforgettable solo to tenor player Stan Getz. Like this season there is  a sort of bracing  hesitancy in this solo, as Getz demonstrates his talent for playing light and heavy almost at the same time. Gary Giddins describes this sound as “like a cool, burbling stream, disarmed – almost feminine – but sure”. In Stan Getz’s sound this is a signal of transition from the harder bop of his early playing to the mature styles of his later career. But like all artistic transitions it can be savoured for the delights it brings. Autumn may well be a signpost on the way to the chillier embrace of winter, but it has delights of its own to be savoured and enjoyed.

The last words here go to another poet writing about autumn. This is Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Fall Song’;

“Another year gone, leaving everywhere

It’s rich spiced residues; vines, leaves,

The uneaten fruits crumbling damply

in the shadows, dampening back

From the particular island

of this summer, this NOW that is nowhere

except underfoot moldering

in that black, subterranean castle

of unobservable mysteries – roots and sealed seeds

of the wanderings of water. This I try to remember

when time’s measure painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing to stay –

how everything lives, shifting

from one bright vision to another forever

in these momentary pastures”.

(My daughter Rebecca suggested I should write about the current season, and introduced me to Mary Oliver’s poems – something I feel deeply grateful for. John Keats’ ‘To Autumn’ is much anthologised and Gary Giddins’ comment on the artistry of Stan Getz comes from his essay in the book ‘Visions of Jazz’ published by the Oxford University Press in 1998. ‘Early Autumn’ by the Woody Herman Orchestra is also widely available).

 

 

From darkness to light.

asphalt dark dawn endless

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

During our recent trip to County Mayo we listened to Stephen Fry reading ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. When we discussed this with my family we talked about the way that the books became gradually darker – even though the first book has its share of darker moments. This made me think of the current trend towards the dark. Venerable comic book heroes now appear in ‘graphic novels’ in often markedly darker incarnations. Every television drama, film and soap opera has to carry its requisite ‘darker’ themes (even though my family recommend both ‘Killing Eve’ and ‘Luther’ I have still not managed to watch either of them!) – it seems as though the dark is a ‘comfortable’ place to be for a great deal of what passes for popular entertainment.

Don’t get me wrong, I am alive to the fact of a lot of this being ‘fiction’, but fiction, like any creative endeavour is a reflection of contemporary times. Although the jury is out as to whether life mirrors art or vice versa it is true that the world seems to have become a darker, more violent place where many seem to reach for violence as the way of solving the simplest of problems. Yet darkness is important, imagine trying to get proper rest without the night falling! Without the dark we might never recognise the light, and in literature darkness and light often exist in a uneasy tension and many great works of literature (including  the Bible) feature a journey from darkness to light and these words are often used to illustrate an inner, spiritual journey as much as a physical journey towards the dawn. Maybe, in a sense, all journeys, either inner or outer, begin in the dark of ignorance as we learn new things as we go. I heard the novelist Salman Rushdie describing the novel as “a journey towards the truth”, and it struck me that that comment could be glossed to suggest that literature is a journey towards light, the light of understanding and the broadening of experience. But there is a cost to this process, be it Christian’s journey to the Celestial City in Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, or Jacob’s wrestling with the mysterious stranger by the ford of Jabbok in Genesis, or the odyssey of the two policemen Rustin Cole and Martin Hart in the first season of ‘True Detective’. Everyone has to contend with darkness and, if necessary fight against it, as Bruce Cockburn put it in his song ‘Lovers in a Dangerous Time’; “you have to kick at the darkness until it bleeds light”.

As a person of faith I often find myself lamenting the way that the church itself has been as agent of darkness, wilfully enforcing ignorance and blind faith in contrast to the light of understanding and rationality. But like much in life this is not the whole picture – in its better moments the church has also stood up against darkness and ignorance and brought light into some very dark places. It is a shame that so often we forget that other story where we are told that the light came into the world and the dark could not over come it, or, in some translations, understand it.

All that Jazz…..

man playing saxophone

Photo by bruce mars on Pexels.com

For those of you who read the by line above and think of the Kander/ Ebb/ Fosse musical ‘Chicago’ from the 1970’s that’s OK, but this post seeks to reflect on a question that was put to me by a friend a long time ago – we were talking about what we were listening to then and I answered “a lot of jazz”, and he said “why jazz?”. I remember thinking (as I have since), should I give him the long answer or the short one. The short one would have to do with the way good jazz makes me feel; exhilarated and filled with a sense of adventure, it swings and is filled with a funkiness that is hard to beat, and if you are in the mood you can even dance to it! The long answer is too long and far too nerdy to go into here!

But the expression ‘all that jazz’ can be a euphemism for something other than music. The mighty Google informs me that the expression “was used informally to mean ‘meaningless talk’ within a decade of the word’s first appearance in its musical sense”. Yet for me, the first time I heard jazz was an experience that was far from meaningless, I have written here before about my introduction to jazz through the fusion/ jazz rock that achieved great popularity in the 1970’s but it wasn’t long before I was listening to everything from King Oliver to Duke Ellington and others too numerous to mention. I learned that a lot of people would ask “why jazz?”, my parents (even though jazz was in the Frank Sinatra and Vic Damone records my father listened to, and there was also Tommy Dorsey), and my friends in the midst of the rock/ blues/ singer song writer years. I kept marshalling my arguments, pointing out that jazz, along with blues, was the root of a lot of popular music, and that jazz musicians could take music into new places because of their proficiency and improvisational abilities (it’s no coincidence that so many jazz musicians continue to earn good money as first call session musicians on many a pop record!).

In the end it does all comes down to taste but I do find myself getting slightly annoyed when jazz is downplayed or ignored, dismissed as wilfully obscure or as overly intellectual, yes, listening to jazz demands a great deal from the listener but the rewards are generous and this music is just as important as other expressions of popular culture. As a fully paid up member of the ‘angry old man’ brigade I fume (quietly) when the BBC cuts it’s meagre jazz output yet again and jazz is sidelined in favour of classical music or the latest auto tuned pop sensation. But the music remains in all its glory, whether on vinyl or compact disc, or streamed to your favourite device. I would dare to call it more than music, it is a heartbeat that speaks in history of the struggles of a people and which also allows musicians and listeners to reach further and aim higher. OK rant over!!!

(This post was fuelled by Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock and Duke Ellington – I want to recommend particularly Herbie’s 1999 album ‘The New Standard’ where he and a crack band of contemporary jazz musicians interpret songs by Peter Gabriel, Don Henley, Paul Simon and Lennon and McCartney. It is, as one critic puts it, well worth investigating!).

Compassion.

hands people friends communication

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was listening to the radio the other day and I heard the English singer songwriter Billy Bragg talking about how empathy was an important in the creation of songs – he suggested that even if the song was in a different language it was still possible to be moved by the performance. He then said something that set me thinking; he suggested that in these days there was what he called “a war on empathy”. As a bit of a word nerd I looked at various definitions of the word and the omniscient Wikipedia I came across this; “Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is feeling from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position”, or to put in another way you must walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand their position. The word ‘compassion’ is closely associated with this word – the ability to ‘suffer with’ another person and to be alongside them in whatever they were experiencing. As a working minister this was often the best that I could offer the people I came across in whatever situation they faced – it seemed to me that what most of these people wanted were not answers but some sense that someone else was alongside them.

But a ‘war on empathy’? It seems to me that we are living through a particularly cruel time – violence of varying kinds comes and goes whether it be through jealousy, crime or state sponsored activity. But what stands out is a marked lack of compassion – we have a species of ‘leader’ these days who seem to pride themselves in a lack of compassion for the weakest and the marginalised in our midst – and often populations seem to become complicit in this. It can be argued that this has always been the case we just know more about it these days but it seems to me that it is worse at present because our knowledge is greater as is the simultaneous realisation of our inability to address it or to call it out – the bully pulpit always shouts the loudest and those who stand up seem to be paying a higher price today than ever!

In this (still) United Kingdom we are living through a particularly difficult time, but whatever happens in our relationship with the European Union after October 31st this year, it will have little effect on our political class – they will ride it out (and possibly grow richer because of it!) – but those at the bottom of our society  will feel the harsh effects of what I believe is the fruit of untruths and manipulation on a massive scale. So I would argue that we need a return to empathy and compassion – the ability to feel alongside others and to act on the strength of that feeling. It may not be fiscally prudent or politically expedient but it will be human – and the human project is more than just figures on paper or facts in a government project.

I write from a Christian perspective, aware of the lack of compassion often shown by Christians, but also aware of the way that, on this subject, my faith is in accord with all the other world faiths, after all the Golden Rule is not golden for nothing! I am also aware of something that G.K. Chesterton wrote; “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried”. I am also aware of Jesus of Nazareth and the more I read the gospels the more subversive a figure I find him – he lived and spoke into a cruel and largely unforgiving imperial environment and as the gospels remind us “the common people heard him gladly”. His passion for God’s just and gentle rule took him to the cross and beyond and he left a compassionate template for all those who claim to follow him. This can be dismissed as a ‘social gospel’ but it has, on balance, changed human experience for the better. And to the voices of Jesus and Gilbert Keith I want to add Todd Rundgren and his song ‘Compassion’, the closing lyric goes like this;

“Open up your heart
So you can start to feel compassion
Get down on your knees
Pray to heaven for compassion
Everybody needs compassion
If you want to be healed
Then you know you got to feel compassion”.

(G.K. Chesterton’s remark comes from a collection of his essays called ‘What’s Wrong With the World?’ published in 1910. Todd R’s song appears on his album ‘Healing’ from 1981).

Serenity……

img_20190726_211729.jpg

“God grant me the serenity/ to accept the things I cannot change; / courage to change the things I can; / and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; / Enjoying one moment at a time; /Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; / Taking as He did,this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; / Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; / That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him / Forever in the next / Amen”.

This ‘serenity’ prayer is attributed to the American theologian Reinold Neibuhr. It was first noted in a notebook by one of his students and it has been used in various contexts through the years. It stands on one of my bookshelves and someone obviously thought enough of it to laminate it. I look at it most mornings as I get dressed and its words never cease to give me pause for thought. There is so much wisdom here that it is hard to take it all in, except possibly by reading it slowly and, prayerfully. The thought that “accepting the things I cannot change” is an invitation to a sort of quietism is immediately dispelled by the next’ “”courage to change the things I can”. How often do I challenge the things that make me uncomfortable? The casual racism and Christian arrogance that is often the common currency of much of life? What would the world really be like if these things were never called out and the monsters who have seized the ‘high ground’ of our common discourse were never held to account?

The prayer continues with more wisdom, “living one day at a time”, “Enjoying one moment at a time”, this is a discipline I struggle with yet this day and this moment is all I really have and they must be savoured. What would life look like if every moment was truly sacramental? And this world has to be taken as it is, not as I would like it to be (even though it is the province of grumpy old people everywhere to moan about how things are not the way they were!). And surrendering to God’s will takes a lot of faith, but I can sometimes glimpse the sense in these words, if God is alongside me struggling to make sense of what is going on then surely I am in good company. But this perspective is so fleeting it is hard to hold on to – like every moment these flashes of illumination have to be savoured as they pass for to try to hold on them is a foolish pastime.

And as for the final words in this prayer, well eternity is written about a great deal and I have used a lot of these words in the pursuance of a public ministry, but in the end this has to be taken on faith. None of us knows how the human journey will continue, but continue it will as everything returns to the benevolent hand that welcomed it in to existence in the first place.

A postscript; as I finished this post I came across the following thought from Thomas Merton quoted in Richard Rohr’s book ‘The Universal Christ’ and I thought it spoke to what I was reflecting on here; “No despair can alter the reality of things nor stain the joy of the cosmic dance, which is always there”.

And all that remains is to put on your dancing shoes!!!

(I am indebted to Kurt Elling’s album ‘The Questions’ which was playing as I wrote this post. The photograph was taken on Portstewart promenade in Northern Ireland on a summer evening in this year of grace 2019).

Joni and the Machines.

audio audio mixer controls electronics

Photo by David Bartus on Pexels.com

Following a favourite recording artist can lead to some interesting places. This thought is in some respect a variation on the famous (or infamous!) ‘difficult third album’ syndrome – you know – a singer or band has a hit album, then they repeat the formula for the second but decide to spread their wings and ‘get creative’ for the third which bombs initially but then finds a new audience years later and receives retrospective acclaim. And sometimes favourite artists travel into a strange and difficult place where all the familiar signposts seem to have been removed. Think Dylan going electric (to cries of ‘Judas’) in the 1960’s, or Miles moving from the period that produced ‘Kind of Blue’ and his collaborations with Coltrane and Gil Evans to the sometimes shapeless studio jams that feature on ‘Bitches Brew’ – it can often be a difficult path to follow.

When I think of Joni Mitchell I think of ‘For the Roses’ which was the first of her records that I bought – hearing it made me immediately want to get her earlier releases starting with ‘Songs to a Seagull’ and ‘Blue’ (another favourite). There was something about ‘Roses’ that intrigued me – here was what looked like a conventional singer songwriter flirting with jazz (‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’), radio friendly pop (‘You Turn Me On I’m A Radio’) and bringing Stephen Stills in as a ‘rock band’ on ‘The Blonde in the Bleachers’. A look at the players involved here gave a massive clue to her next stylistic leap – Stills and band mate Graham Nash mixed with members of the (formerly Jazz) Crusaders and pointed on to ‘Court and Spark’ and the albums that followed. But then in the 1980’s she also embraced a shift towards the greater use of technology in a series of records she made for David Geffen’s label. In a recent article in The Guardian 19 of Joni’s albums were ranked and three of the four Geffen albums were, respectively, 19 (‘Dog Eat Dog), 18 (‘Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm’) and 17 (‘Wild Things Run Fast’) and the fourth (‘Night Ride Home’) was 12th. The writer remarked of 1985’s ‘Dog Eat Dog’ “She is virtually unrecognisable here subsumed by a homogenised 80’s sound that leaves you pining for the astral lifelines of her earlier work”, and asking rhetorically, “is any Mitchell fan truly comfortable with her 80’s output?”.

I have been listening to these records again and whilst I agree with much of what the above writer says about their clanking, synthesised sound palette I think that in places it is quite effective. For example, the ticking (synth?) pattern behind ‘The Three Great Stimulants’ for example, like a time bomb behind the world weary lyric, or the sound collage effects on ‘Fiction’, and the role of Rod Steiger as a crazed televangelist on ‘Tax Free’ (all from ‘Dog Eat Dog’). There are other examples of what I have called ‘Joni and The Machines’ on other record of this period – ‘sound collages’ and sequencers appear on ‘Chalk Mark’, the Native American voice that opens ‘Lakota’ recalls the Burundi tribesmen she recorded for ‘The Jungle Line’ from ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ and, amongst the personnel synth pop maestro Thomas Dolby is present in various capacities. But for all the synclaviers and Fairlight CMI’s I find it interesting that each of these albums ends on a much more ‘organic’ note – witness ‘Impossible Dreamer’ and ‘Lucky Girl’ (both featuring the agile reeds of Wayne Shorter) from ‘Dog’, ‘A Bird That Whistles’ from ‘Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm’, her reading of 1 Corinthians 13 ‘Love’ that closes ‘Wild Things’ and possibly my favourite Joni song ‘Two Grey Rooms’ from ‘Night Ride Home’ featuring a gorgeous string arrangement by Jeremy Lubbock.

The glories of her ‘orchestral’ albums ‘Both Sides Now’ (2000) and the wonderful ‘Travelogue’ (2002) were yet to come but the four Geffen records remain intriguing -sometimes they don’t work but they contain songs and treatments that are worth re -evaluating, and Joni Mitchell is always worth listening to, no matter what period you choose!!

(The Guardian’s writer Kat Lister ranked Joni’s albums on the 15th of August – I read the article online in a County Mayo hotel).

 

 

 

 

Along the Pirate Coast.

smart

We have just spent four days staying near Achill Island in County Mayo. In the picture, the cloud rolling down the hill opposite this former pirate castle at Kildavnet is just a slight suggestion of the climate. We have visited twice this year (previously on St. Patrick’s weekend) and as they say here in the north of Ireland it didn’t take time to rain – in fact there were times when I was convinced that the wind was going to blow the roof off the house where we were staying. This has reminded me more than once of lines from one of Ted Hughes’ poems ‘Wind’;

“This house has been far out at sea all night, / the woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills/ Winds stampeding the fields under the window/ Floundering back astride and blinding wet/ ‘Til day rose”. 

To say that this coast is wild is an understatement – the coastal scenery is amazing and stories abound – from the exploits of the 16th century pirate queen Grace O’Malley (who stayed in this castle and took on the might of the Elizabethan navy) to the many wrecked ships from the Spanish Armada and more modern shipping disasters this coast has witnessed it’s fair share of tragedy. If the wind will allow, you can stand above some of these cliffs and try to imagine what it must be like to live off the sea and trade and fight on it.

Thinking about this coast also set me looking for other poems about the protean nature of the sea. I came across these words from ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Walt Whitman (the poem called ‘Or From That Sea of Time’);

“Currents of starting a Continent new,
Overtures sent to the solid out of the liquid,
Fusion of ocean and land–tender and pensive waves,
(Not safe and peaceful only–waves rous’d and ominous too.
Out of the depths, the storm’s abysms–Who knows whence? Death’s
waves,
Raging over the vast, with many a broken spar and tatter’d sail.)”

For me, there is also a sense that this wildness is a part of the Irish character, a quality that always speaks truth to power and does not sit well with the idea of colonisation – even though like other parts of these islands that aberration has been part of life. Yet the land and the sea remain, a restless mystery and a protean miracle, feeling the wind and the rain may feel like a 21st century inconvenience but it is something that reminds me of the created glory of the world. This glory is a constant even though it sometimes feels like it is running through our fingers like sand.

(Thanks to the Henry’s for the use of their house, and the view over the island – weather permitting!!).