Love, life, death and lots of alcohol! Yeah the sort of themes you expect to hear on a Celtic-Punk album but in the hands of German band Tir Nan Og on their new album Sing, Ye Bastards! these traditional themes are anything but traditional!
Apparently the Subjunctive Mood is disappearing from modern languages, including the Indo-European groups of Celtic, Germanic, Nordic, Romance and Slavonic. The Subjunctive is the grammatical mood by which we expressed wishes and desires, with an underlying feeling that their realisation was uncertain. But why is the Subjunctive disappearing? I think that its disappearance reflects a profound change in our general thinking, a definite shift towards a scientific view of the world.
“Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as: wish, emotion, possibility, judgement, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred; the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language.” (Wikipedia)
Firstly, let’s look at relatively common phrases where we find the Subjunctive Mood and in English, these are not as common as in other Indo-European languages such as Irish and Castillian (Spanish), for example.
In its article on the grammatical use of the subjunctive mood in English, the online Collins Dictionary gives, among others, these examples:
Heavenforbidthat that should happen to me.
Sufficeit to say he escaped with only a caution.
As an antidote to monarchical and religious expression, I give you the example Long live the Revolution! which is also in the subjunctive mood.
Often we can arrive at the subjunctive form by beginning the sentence with the word “May”: e.g May God bless you; May Heaven help us; May Heaven forbid. Sometimes when we use “May” we have to change the order of words a little: May it suffice to say from Suffice it to say; May you go with God from Go with God; May the Revolution live long from Long live the Revolution! And sometimes the May or even more words might have disappeared in common modern usage but be understood as in (May) thy Kingdom come1 and (May you be) welcome or (May) God speed (you).
Certainly the calling or greeting of Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year heard and read everywhere around this time of year were originally preceded by May you have a ….
Well and good2 but what has that to do with the “profound change in our general thinking, a definite shift towards a scientific view of the world” which I interpreted as the cause of the disappearance of the subjunctive?
Well, although the use of the subjunctive expressed a wish about the outcome of which we were not certain, it seems clear that its use was believed to have power. So to wish someone to (May you) go with God in English ((Que) Vaya con Dios3 in Castillian and still common in most of South and Central America and in the USA Southwest4) expressed a feeling that by saying those words, one could invoke protection upon the person leaving. Go5 dté tú slán, an equivalent in Irish but without any mention of God, one can find in the last line of the chorus in the Irish Jacobite song Siúil a Ghrá. And when we did not wish someone well, we might express a curse, invoking ill upon them: May you go to Hell! May you never prosper!
Uncertain as the outcome of expressing a wish for another, whether good or ill, was believed to be in more ancient times, we are fairly convinced today that it is empty of any predictive or enforcement power, i.e we can’t make it happen by wishing alone. The only power left in the words is in the expression of emotion for us and to convey a strong wish of good (even if only socially conventional) or conversely an intense dislike towards the object of the phrases.
So when we wish someone well today we are only expressing a positive regard (whether strongly emotional or only as a social convention) and similarly the reverse with an ill-wish. Gone is the belief that the use of the words themselves had any power at all over the outcome. If we were to say nowadays May you go to Hell or the truncated Go to Hell, we would do so without the slightest belief that we can somehow convey the person to that destination6 by the use of those words – we’d merely be saying something like “I really dislike (or hate) you” or perhaps “I am angry with you at the moment”. To really express a malevolent feeling, we might instead use “I hope” but again with without any expectation of realisation, as when Bob Dylan sang to the Masters of War:
“I hope that you die
and your death will come soon”.
Today, we find the remains of the Subjunctive mostly in prayers and greetings7 and to some extent in curses and in prayers. In religion, the traditional forms of prayer tend to be preserved, whether through strong devotion, convention or habit. The survival of the Subjunctive in greetings is probably retained through the inertia of convention. We also find its survival in a few grammatical constructions and in the feeling that “I wish I were in Carrickfergus8” is somehow better than the more commonly-heard “I wish I was in Carrickfergus”.
In general we no longer believe in the power of invocation, in making things happen by expressing a wish for them in a certain verbal way. We know now or believe that to make something happen, that we need to act. Even if wishful thinking can still be seen in much of political and social expression, that is more a reflection of a reluctance to confront reality or of hope for the future, rather than a real belief in the power of expression in verbal form. A scientific outlook has replaced that of the religious, of the otherworld, giving us a stronger intellectual tool to govern our actions, to bring a wish to reality.
As with the study of history, the study of language tells us a lot about who we were and who we are now — and helps us to speculate on who we are becoming.
1go dtaga do Ríocht in Irish, from The Lord’s Prayer of Christians.
2 Or the full Conditional Mood: That may be all well and good 🙂
3“May you go with God” — the subjunctive mood – compare with Ve te con Dios (“Go with God”), the imperative mood.
5The Irish word Go (pronounced as guh might be in English) in the Subjunctive precedes the verb to correspond to the use of the word May in English we saw earlier. In Irish, the name for the group of greetings is Beannachtaí which interestingly translates as “Blessings”.
6If we even believe any more in the existence of that place.
7And since greetings are important for social communication the Subjunctive often gives the learner of a language some difficulty, as in the Irish Go raibh maith agat, for example.
8A line in a centuries-old macaronic Irish song (i.e a verse in Irish followed by one in English etc), Do Bhí Bean Uasal or in English, Carrickfergus. Sadly most people are probably completely unaware of the verses in Irish.
“Mo Ghile Mear”, lyrics composed later in the the 18th Century lamenting the failing of an earlier Rising, a traditional Irish air at least generations old, combined in the 1970s, sung today in great style.
I have not researched the origins of this myself but the theme is well-known, so from relying on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: “Mo Ghile Mear” (translated “My Gallant Darling”, “My Spirited Lad” and variants) is an Irish song. The modern form of the song was composed in the early 1970s by Dónal Ó Liatháin (1934–2008), using a traditional air collected in Cúil Aodha, County Cork, and lyrics selected from Irish-language poems by Seán “Clárach” Mac Domhnaill (1691–1754).
The lyrics are partially based on Bímse Buan ar Buairt Gach Ló (“My Heart is Sore with Sorrow Deep” (but “Gach Ló” means “every day” and there is no mention of “My Heart” in the title – D. Breatnach), c. 1746), a lament of the failure of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The original poem is in the voice of the personification of Ireland, Éire, lamenting the exile of Bonnie Prince Charlie.Mo ghile mear is a term applied to the Pretender in numerous Jacobite songs of the period. O’Daly (1866) reports that many of the Irish Jacobite songs were set to the tune The White Cockade. This is in origin a love song of the 17th century, the “White Cockade” (cnotadh bán) being an ornament of ribbons worn by young women, but the term was re-interpreted to mean a military cockade in the Jacobite context.
Another part of the lyrics is based in an earlier Jacobite poem by Mac Domhnaill. This was published in Edward Walsh‘s Irish Popular Songs (Dublin, 1847) under the title of “Air Bharr na gCnoc ‘san Ime gCéin — Over the Hills and Far Away”. Walsh notes that this poem was “said to be the first Jacobite effort” by Mac Domhnaill, written during the Jacobite rising of 1715, so that here the exiled hero is the “Old Pretender”, James Francis Edward Stuart.
The composition of the modern song is associated with composer Seán Ó Riada, who established an Irish-language choir inCúil Aodha, County Cork, in the 1960s. The tune to which it is now set was collected by Ó Riada from an elderly resident of Cúil Aodha called Domhnall Ó Buachalla. Ó Riada died prematurely in 1971, and the song was composed about a year after his death, in c. 1972, with Ó Riada himself now becoming the departed hero lamented in the text. The point of departure for the song was the tape recording of Domhnall Ó Buachalla singing the tune. Ó Riada’s son Peadar suggested to Dónal Ó Liatháin that he should make a song from this melody.
Ó Liatháin decided to select verses from Mac Domhnaill’s poem and set them to the tune. He chose those that were the most “universal”, so that the modern song is no longer an explicit reference to the Jacobite rising but in its origin a lament for the death of Seán Ó Riada.
THIS RENDITION is to my mind and ear an excellent one in traditional-type arrangement and voices (not to mention looks of certain of the singers) and all involved are to be commended. I have not always liked the group’s rendition but this is just wonderful.
In history, we fought in Ireland for two foreign royals at two different times and on each occasion they left us in the lurch.
No, that title is not a cryptic clue for a crossword but instead refers to a very common and much-despised plant with a truly remarkable story. A plant that has found amazing ways of propagation and distribution.
The week before last I saw my first dandelion of this year in bloom in Dublin. On a cold, dark and wet day, it had its sunny bloom shining on a bit of waste ground. And not far from it, a coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)in bloom too, a relative in the same genus sometimes confused with the dandelion, also in bloom. But this is the story of the ubiquitous dandelion, which we knew as “Piss (or Wet) the Bed”, from a mistaken belief that keeping the blooms in one’s bedroom would make one void one’s bladder while sleeping.
We have two common species of dandelion in Ireland, T. vulgaris and T. officinalis, Caisearbhán and Caisearbhán Caol Dearg (?) respectively in Irish. They belong to the genus or larger family of Asteraceae, one of the two largest genera of the flower family, including so many species, from the diminutive daisy to the giant sunflower.
It is an important early source of pollen and nectar for insects in this latitude, when not many other blooms are about.
The name “dandelion” is a rendition of the pronunciation in French of “dents de lion”, i.e “lion’s teeth”, said to refer to the serration of the leaves reminding people of lion’s teeth. Well, perhaps of a cartoon or heraldic lion, or one as imagined by Europeans who had never seen the animal.
As the season progresses, soon those cheerful yellow blooms will be seen everywhere, on roadside verges and waste ground, in gardens and fields, in woodlands, on hillsides ….. Except in bogs and strangely in some parts of the Burren1, there is hardly a place where it cannot be found, which makes us see it as common and perhaps view it with disdain.
But it is far from being an everyday plant.
PUFF CLOCK AND PARACHUTE BABIES
As children, we thought to tell the time by blowing on the fluffy balls that develop from the bloom in late Summer or Autumn, each puff being an hour and the correct time being the number of puffs to blow the last seed parachute away. It seems unlikely such an impractical idea would have occurred to us and we only did so because we had been told about it by adults.
But there is some wonder in those fluffy balls, full of separate parachutes, each bearing one seed. This is possible because what I have been deliberately calling a “bloom” rather than a “flower” is, properly speaking, a capitulum, a head actually containing many, many little flowers, or florets – and each one of those will bear a seed. It is a wonderful arrangement capable of producing a multiplicity of seeds even if parts of the bloom are damaged.
Each floret grows a silky “parachute”, the plant not only using the wind for seed dispersal (as do grasses with pollen) but developing such a means of delivery to cover great distance.
Upon hitting disturbed ground or even a crevice with soil, the seed takes quickly – the dandelion’s children are great opportunists — and sends down a long taproot, while above ground, leaves grow in a rosette shape upon rosette, later sending out hollow stalks that will bear the bloom of florets. Each bloom “responds to changes in light, in fine weather stretching the florets to the sun and following its course across the sky, or closing the head up as soon as rain threatens, opening also for sunrise and closing at evening.”1 As the florets die, their bracts close and the seeds and parachutes develop inside; then their surrounding bracts drop, allowing the expansion of the full ball of silky parachutes – i.e the maximum possible number of seed-carriers.
When the seeds have gone with the wind, the hollow stem dries up and falls away. The tap-root regularly shrinks and pulls the rosette of leaves tight to the ground: maximum absorption of sun and moisture but also maximum possible cover on ground, making it difficult for other plants to compete close to it.
Unless I dreamed it, somewhere I came across a phrase and image that I considered very democratic but have not been able to find it since. I had thought it spoken by a Shakespearian character but no search has turned it up. As I recall it, a worker or person of “low” social status says that his blood is as good as any royal person’s, for “a king on the march scatters his seed like a dandelion”!
To the average flower or vegetable gardener, the dandelion is an invasive noxious weed, rapidly colonising newly-dug, hoed or even raked soil and competing with what it is desired to grow. And the fact that hoeing the leaves off even a couple of times will not kill the plant, the root sending out new shoots, makes it worse. Using a rotavator chops up the tap root but many of the resulting sections can regenerate and start a new plant.
All this is amazing enough, were it not for the plant’s sex life – or absence of it!
SEEDS WITHOUT SEX
Most flowers, blossoms and blooms exchange pollen, usually with the assistance of pollinators – generally insects and in particular, bees. This fertilises the plants and causes the production of seeds, whether in the form of fruit or nuts or just plain “seeds”. The shape and colour of the bloom attracts the pollinator, knowing that inside there is nectar and pollen to be eaten (or collected, in the case of bees).
Well, dandelion blooms contain nectar and are visited by many insects, including bees – but the plants don’t exchange pollen in order to produce seeds. They produce the seeds alright, as we have seen – but asexually. Without sex. So why produce blooms and nectar at all?
Each new plant is a copy of the parent but no breeding occurs. Another mystery: there are a huge number of different microspecies of dandelion, differing in sometimes minute ways from one another and living and seeding in the same general area (more than 70 in Co. Dublin alone3). ‘In the British Isles alone, 234 microspecies are recognised in nine loosely defined sections, of which 40 are “probably endemic.”4
Let’s imagine an ancestral dandelion plant – how did it come to produce all these micro-species, seeding true but each separate and without cross-breeding? Botanists don’t seem to know: ‘the humble dandelion is, indeed, as the new Webb’s An Irish Flora confirms, “a very difficult genus”, its flowers not always to be told apart, even in the hand. The American ecologist Paul Ehrlich once described the reproductive policy of dandelions as “perhaps the greatest mystery in the world of plant sex”.‘5
FOOD, DRINK, DYE …. AND RUBBER?
All over Europe and Asia the plant has been known for culinary and/ or medicinal qualities but rather than just quote hearsay and unverified publications, I prefer to pass over most of the detail of these alleged qualities as the subject requires more research than I am prepared to undertake at this time.
All of the dandelion plant is edible1, except perhaps the bloom-stem: root, leaves, buds and blooms. Which is probably how this native Eurasian plant came to colonise America (though North America does have its own native species too) – brought there as a culinary plant by European colonists. The green leaves are likely to be too bitter for many tastes unless blanched first – i.e covered to deny them sun for a week or so, when they will turn yellow and lose much of their bitterness but still remain crisp.
Dandelion wine has been made from the flowers (a gallon of flowers for a gallon of wine7, but some other ingredients must be added, as with all European plants with the exception of the grape or the gooseberry). A mildly-fermented drink, dandelion and burdock8, has also been made from a combination of the dandelion flowers and burdock roots.
The flowers have also been dried, then ground into a powder to make a light yellow dye but I lack information on its colourfastness.
The white sticky liquid (latex) in the stems and along the main rib of the larger leaves has been said to remove warts but having tried it myself without success I doubt this claim. Furthermore, I believe the remedy may be confused with a similar-looking white sap from a completely different plant, the petty spurge (also known as “milkweed” and other common names), Euphorbia peplus, which I have found efficacious. However, the white sap in the dandelion has been developed by selective cultivation in one species to replicate the latex of the rubber tree9 and dandelion rubber may one day become a familiar product.
Soon, this seemingly ubiquitous flower of many “cousins” and many uses, an opportunist colonist with thousands of daughters sailing the wind, will be brightening our ways everywhere. Once we know even some of its qualities, can we ever again look at the dandelion with disdain?
1In New Atlas of British Irish Flora, quoted by Michael Viney, “Pissey beds lion’s tooth” etc (see Sources, References)
2Ibid, also Taraxacum – ‘A very difficult genus of a multitude forms, which set seed without pollinating, and never, therefore, interbreed.’ An Irish Flora by D A Webb, Sc.D. 1977, quoted in Wildflowers of Ireland (References, Sources).
We now approach the festival called Christmas. A Christian festival, apparently, celebrating the birth of Christ, the baby Jesus.
Away in a manger
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down His sweet head
The stars in the sky
Look down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay
Such a sweet, holy image.
But actually, when we look around us, it seems more like a festival of the pagan gods: Bacchus, the god of alcohol and of Mammon, the god of wealth. Bacchus, because in non-Moslem countries, drinking of alcohol will be for most a big component of the festival. Whiskey, brandy, wine and beer will be bought to stock up the house. Alcohol will be drunk at Christmas parties (including office parties, where for months afterwards some people will regret what they did or said – or even what they didn’t do or say).
Alcohol will be not just drunk but also put into some of the traditional food and even poured over it.
Then Mammon. Well, you can see the retail businesses stocking up for weeks or even months ahead of the festival which, after all, was only supposed to be a one or at most a two-day event. Giving and receiving gifts has now become part of the festival and in most cases, gifts have to be bought. Which is a really big gift to the retail businesses and thence, really a sacrifice to Mammon.
In the Christian gospels of both Matthew and Luke, it is written that one “cannot serve both Mammon and God” — which goes to show how little they understood capitalism, where Mammon IS God. A theologian of the Fourth Century saw Mammon as a personification of Beelzebub, which in his time was another name for Satan or the Devil.
Interestingly, Protestant Christianity, which some credit as having invented capitalism, at the same time regarded Mammon, or said they did, as “one of the Seven Princes of Hell”.
Now, Santa Claus is also a big part of the Christmas festival, especially in western countries, a much more acceptable face than that of greedy Mammon and alcoholic Bacchus, right?
But originally, the Christians saw him a representation of St. Nicholas, 4th Century Bishop of the Greek city of Myra, a location now in Turkey. He was he patron saint of archers, repentant thieves, sailors and prostitutes. The prostitutes probably had to be repentant ones, of course! The sailors, who probably had at least as much recourse to prostitutes as had any other calling, were apparently not required to be repentant – to be in danger on the sea was enough.
But St. Nicholas was also the patron saint of children, pawnbrokers and brewers, so we can see how close he was getting there to the modern spirit of Christmas.
Now, the Christmas Tree, der tannenbaum, so much a part of the symbolism of modern western Christmas, came to us from Germany, as did the sled and the reindeer. The reindeer are not autochthonous or endemic in historic times to Germany, so they must have been brought in their myths from Scandinavia from where originally, the Germanic tribes came from. In turn, the Christmas Tree, Yule Log, reindeer and sled were exported from Germany to England in the reign of Queen Victoria, by her consort Prince Albert, who was German. And since the English ruled all of us in Victoria and Albert’s time, the Christmas Tree came to us too, to the cities first and then slowly spreading through the rural areas.
When you think about it, this German-English worship of the tree was a bit ironic, since the English had wiped out most of our forests already and were still cutting down our remaining trees in Queen Victoria’s time.
And Victoria, through Albert, gave us the Santa Clause we know and love today. A jolly man, well fed, white beard, twinkly eyes, dressed all in red with white trim ….
Now, wait a minute! It turns out he wasn’t always dressed in red. Originally, he was dressed in a brown, or green cloak. He was, originally among the Germanic people, a god of the forests – hence the evergreen Christmas tree. And like any sensible woodsman, he dressed in appropriate colours, brown or green. Neither Albert nor Victoria ever represented him as dressed in red. So how did it become so that we are incapable of seeing him today in any other colour than red? Well, it turns out that Coca Cola is the responsible party.
Yes, although it was the cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1870s United States who first portrayed Santa in a red suit with a belt but it was Coca Cola, in their advertising campaign of 1931 and onwards who made his clothes red world-wide. Coca Cola is a drink served cold and almost undrinkable when warm and who needs a cold drink in cold weather? I guess Coca Cola needed a warm image to make it still attractive in winter. So therefore the warm, jolly man dressed in red, with a bottle of Coca Cola in his hand.
Coca Cola brand is worth about $74 billion dollars today, far ahead of any other cold drinks product. Which I guess brings us back to …. yes, Mammon.
You can mix the drink with a number of alcoholic beverages too, so tipping a nod – and a glass – to Bacchus.
Now, the German Santa Claus, this originally woodland god, is also thought to have been something like Thor, a god of fire and lightning. So can it be any coincidence that two of his reindeer are called Donner and Blitzen, i.e “Thunder” and “Lightning”? Of course not!
Although we see the image of Santa Claus everywhere and even pretend Santa Clauses all over our city streets, everyone knows that nobody sees the real Santa Claus. Children have to be asleep when he arrives to distribute his presents and somehow adults don’t see him either.
Which I suppose is a good thing …. I mean if you found an intruder in your house at night, not to mention near your children, you’d be liable to whack him with a hurley (that’s an Irish cultural reference) …. or a baseball bat (that’s a U S cultural reference) …. or stab him with a sharp kitchen knife (that’s an international cultural reference).
It was bad enough when somehow that portly – not to say fat – man could somehow come down your chimney and go up again, without waking anyone … but now he can get in your house or flat even when you don’t have a chimney.
Which is at least creepy, if not downright scary.
Let’s lighten the mood and sing together:
You better watch out You better not cry You better not pout I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is comin’ to town
Santa Claus is comin’ to town
He’s making a list
He’s checking it twice
He’s gonna find out
Who’s naughty or nice
Santa Claus is comin’ to town
Santa Claus is comin’ to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
Yes, lovely, lovely.
“You better be good, you better be nice, I’m not telling you twice” — Is it just me, or is that not downright threatening? And he knows when we’re sleeping or awake? He has our children under surveillance? In some kind of list?
HO! HO! HO! IN MORALITY PLAYS
Morality Plays were a genre of theatrical performances of the medieval and Tudor eras in which a character was tempted by a personification of Vice. Now Vice (not unlike a lot of police Vice Squads), was often seen as the epitome of evil, corruption and greed – in other words, the Devil. The playwrights tended to portray the Devil as somewhat of a comical character, perhaps to keep their audiences entertained (or to disarm them). So the character who played the Devil would announce his arrival with a stage laugh: “Ho, Ho, Ho!”
You can probably see where I’m going with this.
Nowadays, we tend to see the Devil portrayed in black but in earlier times, he was more often seen as coloured in red. The colour in which Coca Cola just happens to have dressed Santa too.
The German or Nordic Santa was originally a god of fire also, while even the modern Santa drives a magical chariot pulled by horned beasts and he is portrayed all in red. Traditionally, the Devil is seen as residing in Hell, a supposed place of eternal flames below ground. What does Santa Claus give to children who have not been good? A lump of coal! In other words, a mineral from underground that can burn to make fire.
Santa Claus is supposed to be modeled on St. Nicholas …. and what is the popular abbreviated version of Nicholas, i.e the nickname? Yes, Nick.
And the common name for the Devil, Mammon, Beelzebub, Satan ….. Old Nick!
Introduction and translation by Diarmuid Breatnach
The San Fermines Festival in Iruña (Pamplona in Castillian) is renowned around much of the world for its colour and also danger with the running (corrida) of the bulls. But for many years it has been the occasion and site of sharp political struggle and there have been other dangers too.
ANTI-BASQUE NATIONALISM IN NAFARROA
Although the city is Basque, centre of the medieval kingdom of Nafarroa (Navarre), it was run for decades by UPN (Union of Navarrese People), what some considered the Basque version of the Partido Popular, post-Franco Spanish political party founded by the Dictator’s supporters. Although in 2008 UPN broke from its fraternal relations with the PP, the party remains Spanish-unionist and conservative, strongly opposed to Basque independentism and wishing to remain separate from the rest of the Basque Country, whether the other three southern provinces or the three across the French border.
During the Spanish Republic of 1936, the ruling political interests in Nafarroa broke with the Basque nationalists and opted for supporting the military-fascist coup of Franco and the other three generals – the reactionary Nafarroan Carlists murdered 3,000 Basque nationalists, republicans, communists, anarchists and social democrats in their province alone. They also took part in fighting as part of the military-fascist forces.
For many years, the first day of the San Fermines festival has been the scene of struggle between those who sought to bring the Basque national flag, the Ikurriña, into the main square, to be present during the launch of the week of festivities. And beatings and for Basque independentists have resulted, even fines and jail sentences, especially when they have been successful.
But in the elections of 2015, a coalition of political parties of Basque independentism, nationalism, and left-social democracy took power in the Navarrese regional Government and began to change matters on a number of fronts. In 2017 the Ikurrina was flown from the official balcony and the the Spanish Government Delegation in the region took a judicial case against those responsible and the same people in 2018, EH Bildu, refrained from flying it, displaying instead a bare flagpole. However, that coalition lost its majority of seats in the elections this year and the UPN came back into power, with the resumption of ‘business as usual’.
ASSAULT AND RAPE
In recent years, another menace has come to the fore, with some men assaulting women in the press of the crowd. Most horrifying was the multiple rape of an 18-year-old woman on July 7th, during the San Fermines festival of 2016. The woman, who approached a few men to help her find her way and was apparently under the influence of intoxicants, was led into a doorway, her phone taken off her and raped in a number of ways by each, who also videoed the event and put it up on the Internet. Due to the description to the Nafarroan police by the victim and their promotion of their act on social media, the perpetrators were soon arrested. But they were tried not for the more serious crime of rape but for sexual abuse, because she appeared not to resist and therefore no violence was necessary to restrain her – a feature of Spanish law.
The group of five violators and rapists had given themselves the boastful title of La Manada (the Wolf-Pack) contained a Spanish Army soldier and a Spanish Guardia Civil policeman among its members. And they on a previous occasion filmed themselves having sex with an intoxicated woman on the flat bed of a truck and put that too out on social media.
The Pack claimed that their victim was willing but found it difficult to explain that she had only met them seven minutes before the assaults or their taking of her mobile phone and some other matters and were found guilty and sentenced to nine years jail but allowed bail when they appealed. Since their appeal might find them not guilty, one might argue that they were entitled to bail while awaiting the hearing.
BASQUE AND CATALAN INDEPENDENTISM V. RAPE
However, the youth from Alsasua (Basque town in Nafarroa), who were accused of assaulting off-duty Guardia Civil policemen who entered a Basque independentist late-night bar as a provocation in October 2016, were not only kept in jail while awaiting trial in Madrid but also four of them while awaiting an appeal hearing (against sentences of between two and 13 years jail!). And the Catalan independence grass-roots campaign leaders and elected politicians who were charged with sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds for organising a referendum on independence in October 2017, were kept in jail until their trial and are there still, now awaiting judgement. They include one who was elected an MP while in jail and another who was elected an MEP (Jordi Sanchez and Oriol Junqueras).
Many aspects of the Manada case led to an outcry over the whole Spanish state. Although the Prosecution had asked for sentences of 22 year and 10 months, they were sentenced to nine year jail. On December 5th 2018 their sentences were confirmed to those nine years, although two judges on the panel disagreed, wishing for sentences of a little over 14 years as they felt that there had been intimidation and coercion, there had been “degrading acts” and she had been left half-naked on the ground with her mobile phone taken (and memory cards removed). The five-judge panel however ordered the first court that tried them to issue another sentence for the filming and publishing of the rape as her privacy had been violated. The Defence lawyer has indicated that his clients would appeal the sentence as did also the City of Iruna (Pamplona).
THE BATTLE OF THE FLAGS
Translation of short article in Publico.es
In the end, the ikurriña was present. The images of the first Sanfermines after the return of the Right to the City Council of Pamplona are already crossing the world and they do it with the ikurriña and the flag of Navarre displayed among the public. The earlier threats of Mayor Enrique Maya (UPN) had no effect, nor did the police deployment in the surrounding area.
Under an intense sun and in a crowded square, the txupinazo (firing of ceremonial rocket — Translator) of the Sanfermines – the act that marks the beginning of the festivities — took place at 12.00 o’clock. Minutes before, (many of) the attendees managed to deploy a ikurriña of great proportions, accompanied by the Flag of Navarra. A white placard also appeared in which the return of the ETA prisoners was demanded (i.e end of the dispersal of independentist prisoners all over the Spanish state — Trans).
“UPN, kanpora” (UPN, out!) was heard in the square when the Mayor was on the balcony. A few days before, Maya had issued a notice announcing that entering with fabric of large proportions was strictly forbidden, citing security reasons. However, the same Councilor said shortly after in an interview in the newspaper El Mundo that there would also be “a device” to prevent the EH Bildu councilors unfurling the Basque flag on the balcony of the town hall.
POLICE SEIZURE OF FLAGS
One hour before the txupinazo, journalist Gara Aritz Intxusta reported by Twitter that local police had seized “150 small ikurriñas that were going to be used in a kalejira” (festival parade) that was going to be performed in the streets of the city to protest against the Mayor’s party.
of daring event as the hour for the launch approached, Basque independentists in “disguise” of anglers, cast a line across from the rooftop on one side of the square to the other and then a stronger line was taken across with a giant ikurrina attached. One can see earlier, police rushing to confiscate a flag or banner and a giant political prisoners’ banner being held above many in the crowd. In 2013 the UPN Mayor deliberately delayed the launch past the traditional hour of noon so as to give secret police time to cut the line and not to have it happening with the Ikurrina hanging over the square.
This is an article about grammar, religion and politics. While the last two are often discussed in the same conversation, grammar is usually absent as a subject. But it has its place here.
SWEARING AND CURSING
“Don’t curse!” or “Don’t swear!” a parent or an elder might have said to us when we were children or teenagers. And particularly when we were teenagers we did exactly what we had been told not to, certainly the boys, in a mistaken sign of manhood. As a verse in the English folk song The Shoals of Herring has it, in fact:
“Well you’re up on deck, you’re a fisherman,
You can swear and show a manly bearing,
Take a turn on deck with the other fellows
As you hunt the bonny shoals of herring.”
A related admonition was against “taking the Lord’s name in vain”, which was a prohibition of blasphemy, the misuse of Yahweh’s name, taken from Exodus 20.7: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord they God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain.” 1
So most of us grew up thinking that swearing and cursing were the same thing and more or less careful about which company in which to use those words – or not. But we were mistaken, cursing and swearing are not the same thing at all.
We are familiar with swearing in some formal settings, such as courts of law, for example: “I swear by almighty God that the evidence I give shall be the truth, the whole truth ….”2 and also with swearing for entry into some organisations (frequently the armed forces).
“Bejaysus”, common in Dublin, is from “by Jesus” and “bedad” is probably a disguised “by God”. The Cockney’s “Blimey” was originally “May God blind me” (e.g “if I am not telling the truth”).
The use of “Bloody” in informal society was often a swearing upon the “blood of Christ” or, strangely sometimes, the blood of “Mary”, the mother of Christ in the religions of “the Book” (Bible, Talmud or Koran). Of course “bloody” could be used pejoratively in the sense of “blood-stained”3, in which case it was not swearing but might still raise objections in some quarters of society, or descriptive of a massacre as in “Bloody Sunday”4.
In fact, swearing is to call a divine Power to witness the truth of what we are saying (in courts of law, for example) and that we intend to carry out the expectations of the organisation (e.g in the armed forces). In swearing, we utter an “oath”. Nowadays, most people who are not highly religious probably attach little importance to the form of words, though some institutions persevere with them. But in older times and not even so long ago, most people viewed an oath as a very important thing.
To break an oath of allegiance in some countries and in some periods incurred severe penalties, including death. “Oath-breaker” was an epithet that might be attached to the name of an “outlaw”, one who had broken his oath of service to a Saxon, Norman or English Lord in the Middle Ages.
The required Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown, simultaneously to the Head of the Anglican Church, prevented many Catholics for centuries from entry into many professions and from being elected as a public representative. And the British Crown was itself particularly worried for centuries by alternative “oath-bound societies” that were seeking united workers’ actions, such as agrarian defence organisations and trade unions, or equality and improvement in social conditions, for example political organisations. Laws were passed against the dispensing and swearing of such oaths.
Cursing, although it may sometimes “take the Lord’s name in vain”, is something else completely. We know in Ireland of the “Curse of Cromwell” but more frequent probably was Mallacht na bPréacháin “the Curse of the crows”, which wished upon the victim a childless land, to be inherited only by the crows. Scread mhaidne was another ill-wish to lay upon someone, that he or she may die in agony, screaming into the morning. Ná feice tú Dia sounded less terrifying but might have been more frightening for a very religious person: “May you (never) see God!”.
“Damn” and “Goddamn” are abbreviations of “May God damn …” (“you, her, it, them” etc) and to utter them in many circles in the USA is considered evidence of bad rearing. They are curses which are also oaths, in calling upon the Devine being to add power to the curse.
Typically, curses and oath-curses use the subjunctive in grammar and, although seemingly strange, this connects them to blessings and greetings. Go raibh maith agat (may you have good”) is the Irish for “thank you” and Go mba hé duit (“may it be [the same] for you”) is the reply to the Irish greetings Sé do bheatha or Móra duit.Slán abhaile (“Safe home”) is an abbreviation of Go dtéigh tú slán etc (“May you go safely home”). All of these are in the subjunctive form of speech. Vaya con Dios (“May you go with God”) is a castillian-language (Spanish) farewell wish we might come across in tales set in the south-west USA or in Latin America; that is also in the subjunctive. In fact “farewell” was “fare thee well” and probably originally, “May thee fare well”. Instead of the “Go to Hell” or “I hope you break your neck” one might hear today, centuries ago one would have heard “May you go to Hell” or “May you break your neck”.
This constant use of the subjunctive to wish well or ill upon others suggests to me that it was widely believed, at some stage in society, at least in most European societies, that one could make something happen by using a certain form of words. That form was the subjunctive; however, according to many who study language, the subjunctive is disappearing in European language and remains most in use preserved in everyday greetings and well-wishes – and the occasional curse.
It seems to me that the reason for this gradual disappearance is that we no longer believe we can make things happen by the way that we say them. We may wish them – and show the object person that we wish them – but we can’t make them happen. Nor can we expect a thing to happen with anything like a confidence that invoking a God will bring the wish, for good or ill, to fruition.
Earlier in this discussion I touched on oath-bound societies and the apprehension with which they were often regarded by those in power. Well, the Fenians were such an organisation. Formed on St. Patrick’s Day 1858, in Ireland as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and in the USA as the Irish Fenian Brotherhood, it was a popular movement until the Irish Civil War (1919-1922). Because of their revolutionary credentials and democratic program, they were accepted into the International Workingmen’s Association (the First Socialist International 1864-1889). As a true Republican organisation, they sought the separation of Church and State5 and in that, apparently incurred the wrath of Pope Pius IX (Giovanni Maria Mastai-Feretti, ruled from 1846 to his death in 1878). He excommunicated the Fenians.
Although a significant number of Fenians (particularly in the leadership) were of Protestant background (Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Unitarian), most of the Fenians had been brought up in the religious faith of the majority in Ireland, Catholicism. Not only would excommunication be painful to Catholic Fenians but could also lead to their being shunned by other Catholics who might otherwise have supported them. In the end this did not occur to anything like the extent that would have pleased the Catholic Church hierarchy or the British rulers of Ireland, as Irish Catholics have historically shown an ability to set to one side the teachings of the Church when they appear in contradiction to their struggle for national self-determination.
But obviously the public excommunication did the movement some harm and hurt many Fenians who were also strongly Catholic, such as John O’Mahony, co-founder in the USA, who left the Fenians as he approached his death so that he might be administered the last rites of the Church6.
In an Irish secondary school run by the Christian Brothers, we were taught that the opposition of the Catholic Church to the Fenians (and presumably to the subsequent Republican military organisations), rather than being due to their struggle for Irish independence, was the secret organisation’s dispensing and repetition of an oath of allegiance. Perhaps we were too ill-informed (I know that I was) to bring up the question of oaths given in other circumstances, such as in giving evidence in court or in military service, circumstances with which the Church appeared to have no problem.
Had one of us done so, our Christian Brother teachers might have replied that what was wrong was “taking the Lord’s name in vain” and explained that “in vain” did not, in the English at the time of translation of Bible texts, mean only “for no important purpose” but also “for no good purpose” and that would of course have included “for an evil purpose”.
Had we questioned what the “evil purpose” might have been in the case of the Fenians, we would have put our teachers in some difficulty.
What for example in the two versions of the Fenian Oath recorded, might be considered “evil”?
“I, A.B., do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will do my utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to make Ireland an independent democratic republic; that I will yield implicit obedience, in all things not contrary to the law of God, to the commands of my superior officers; and that I shall preserve inviolable secrecy regarding all the transactions of this secret society that may be confided to me. So help me God! Amen.”
“I, A.B., in the presence of Almighty God, do solemnly swear allegiance to the Irish Republic, now virtually established; and that I will do my very utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to defend its independence and integrity; and, finally, that I will yield implicit obedience in all things, not contrary to the laws of God, to the commands of my superior officers. So help me God! Amen.”
Would a Christian brother have admitted opposition, not only by himself but by the Catholic Church, the dogma of which he was explaining, to the establishment of an “Irish Republic”, or even to “an independent democratic republic”? And if not, what then? The use of armed force, i.e violence? Since when has the Catholic Church hierarchy been against violence in or of itself? Did it not support some side in most inter-European wars and Spanish, French and Portuguese colonial wars? In fact, did the Catholic hierarchy not itself initiate some wars and did the Vatican not have its own army, as pointed out by Fr. Sean McManus in the USA7?
If the objection were not to “a democratic Republic”, against which Pius IX was definitely set, in that he opposed the separation of Church and State, then surely the only honest reply could have been: “The Catholic Church hierarchy in Ireland made a deal first with the British occupation that if they gave Catholics equal rights and let us build up our power here, we would not support their overthrow. Since then we made a similar deal with the Irish State and its rulers. And we intend to honour that deal.”
2In the courts of many countries one is now permitted to use the words “I affirm that the evidence I shall give …” and one may sometimes be asked by the presiding judge whether one is an atheist, or agnostic – presumably as otherwise the failure to “swear by Almighty God” might be regarded as suspect.
3“Bloody Queen Mary” was an example, Mary Tudor, Mary I Queen of England (1560-1558; ruled ’53-’58), who had nearly 300 Protestants burned at the stake for “heresy”. )
4In Irish history, three are generally recognised: Dublin 1913, Dublin 1920 and Derry 1972.
5Not all organisations dubbing themselves “Republican” do in fact uphold this principle and in fact it could be said that the Irish Republican movement from the early 20th Century until its end did not generally do so, in that it rarely confronted the Church on its social policies or interference in lay matters, except when the Church condemned Republican actions. Also a great many Republican commemorations included the officiating of a member of the Catholic clergy.
6See the Irish Echo article in Links & References.
People visit the Basque Country for different reasons — among the touristic reasons are cuisine, folk culture and beach-type tourism including surfing. For some there may be business reasons and possibly on the other end of the spectrum from them there is the political aspect – interest in and solidarity with their struggle for independence and to a lesser extent perhaps, socialism. Eco-tourism and archaeological interest are probably not high on the list for most people but I’d suggest it would be worthwhile to include sites dealing with such aspects in any itinerary.
Many Basques would tell you that their country has a long way to go in environmentally-friendly practices – or at least in those less harmful to the environment; if true, it serves to illustrate just how far behind the desirable are the practices common in Ireland. Everywhere in Basque village or town, one sees the recycling containers in their five different colours for paper, plastic, metal, glass and organic waste. One frequent complaint is about timber-production forestation practices and though much of the Basque country is green with trees, many of those trees are conifersor, even worse, Basques will say, eucalypts in mono-cultural acres. The latter are indeed widespread and are said to suck the moisture out of the soil so that after they are felled, little else can grow there.
Environmentally-friendly timber production is less intensive and more diverse in species, less harmful to biodiversity of plant and animal life and more protective of the soil from erosion, flooding and desiccation. But to business — and therefore mainstream political interests — it is slower in turnover of profit. The perils of this concentration on early profit gain have been underlined this year with the infestation of the main crop pines, the “Monterey pine” (Pinus radiata) by the ‘Mycosphaerella dearnessii’ fungi and ‘Mycosphaerella pini’, said to have originated in Central America, which turns the foliage (needles) brown, eventually leading to the destruction of the tree.
That all said, at grassroots (forgive the unintended pun) and often municipal level, there is great interest and support for biodiversity in the Basque Country and discussion around the subject is much more socially widespread than one would find in Ireland or in most of Britain (though perhaps not in some other parts of Europe). There are many national parks and reserves of great beauty and even city Basques tend to have a culture of collecting edible fungi in the woods in the autumn and of hill-walking or mountain-climbing at various times of the year. And small farms can be found dotted throughout the countryside.
Education about the environment for adults, children and even tourists is taken seriously and, apart from schools, centres promoting environmental care can be found in many areas. One such site of interest is the bio-diversity and heritage centre of Madariaga, the Ekoetxea, in the Axpe de Busturia area between the towns of Bermeo and Gernika These are interesting towns in themselves of the coast of Bizkaia (Biscay) province and Gernika was of course made famous by its bombing by the Nazi Luftwaffe, in the service of the fascist generals (Franco et al) in 1937, during what probably most people call the the Spanish Civil War and others, the Iberian Anti-Fascist War. Bus and train services connects both towns and pass through Busturia, both services having a stop or station in Axpe. The bus and train services run at mostly half-hourly intervals, the train all the way to Bilbao, on a single track for much of the line, up and down trains alternating.
I dropped in to a charming tavern in Axpe named after the Basque flower, Eguzkilore: literally “Sun Flower”. This is not the “sunflower” which Van Gogh famously painted, so named because it turns to follow the sun through its journey across the sky; the Basque flower (Carlina acaulis)is a member of the thistle family and is thought to resemble an idealised image of the sun. Dried specimens are often found hanging over the front door of Basque houses as a good-luck symbol, quite probably a remnant of pagan sun-worship (like the Irish “St. Bridget’s Cross” and indeed the traditional Basque symbol of the lauburru is very like that Irish symbol too and interestingly, the Basque tradition related to me was that it was borrowed from the Iberian Celts).
The Eguzkilore tavern is owned by a friendly young couple, a Catalan woman and Basque man: he of course speaks Euskera and Castillian (Spanish) fluently, whereas she is fluent in Catalan, Castillian and English, speaks Euskera well and smatterings of other languages. Although I know from experience that their cuisine is excellent, I ordered only a simple kafe esnea there and after finishing it and a chat, set off up the road to the Madariaga Ekoetxea (“eco-house”), an easy walk of perhaps fifteen minutes. Turning left at the roundabout at the crest of the hill the centre was easily visible by the clock-bell tower and the taller viewing tower.
This latter was a defensive construction quite similar to the keeps constructed in Britain and Ireland by the Norman invaders, livestock quartered below and people living on floors above; one of the staff told me that it had been inhabited until the 1930s. Now the floors have been ripped out except for the top one, accessible by a short journey in a lift and once there one can view around something like 160 degrees: steep hills close by beyond the road, land sloping away towards Gernika and distant mountains on another side, beach of the estuary and some marshlands on another.
The Tower was in fact the last part of the centre which I experienced. It was a showery Sunday in mid-October and the centre was fairly quiet, less that ten vehicles in the car park and nobody but a receptionist immediately available upon entering the building. I used my limited Euskera in addressing her, which is my practice in the Basque Country, and which is usually – but not always – appreciated. The native language has become “politicised” here (as some say it has also in the case of Irish in Ireland), which is another way of saying that it was banned under the Franco dictatorship, that people of a Spanish unionist turn of mind often resent it and native speakers, learners and independentists want to encourage its spread and use in everyday life. Of course in a cultural type of centre in the Basque Country I would not expect any negative response and I was answered politely in Euskera with a quick conversion to Castillian when my limited store of Euskera ran out.
WATER AND BIODIVERSITY
I had seen a small charge advertised outside but there was none on that day or perhaps that time of year to see two standard exhibitions, one on water and the other on biodiversity. The one on water informs visitors that water is a circulatory system: 1) most of it falls from the air in rain or humidity, some of it on to land and some on to lakes or on to the sea; 2) some of that which falls on land is taken up by soil and vegetation and excess runs off into streams, rivers and lakes; 3) some also soaks through permeable or semi-permeable strata of soil and rock and forms underwater reservoirs and lakes. 4) The excess runs out in underground rivers and streams, emerging eventually to empty into seas and lakes, where 5) the sun heats up the top layers again, creating clouds, many of which precipitate on to land, renewing the circle.
The diagrams, photos and videos demonstrated this process well and attractively and there were samples of varieties of sandstone and limestone to examine at close quarters. For me, the photos of underground caves formed by the water wearing away the limestone and the various and sometimes fantastic formations caused by chemical-rich water dripping for millenia were the most impressive along with the few examples of invertebrates adapted to life without light and mammals using natural caves were the most interesting, while others might have found the supplying of water to the public of greater interest (and certainly this is an important issue in many countries and not least so in Ireland).
The section dedicated to bio-diversity is divided into different parts, including a room with video screens showing different types of humans (ethnic, gender, possibly sexuality, culture, age) and others dealing with plant, fungi and animal life. Passing through a type of broad corridor with explanations of what is a definition of biodiversity in many languages, one enters a brightly-lit room seemingly constructed entirely of panels, each one of an animal: birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects and other invertebrates. Not only the walls but floor and ceiling appear constructed of the panels, a vibrant bright room somewhat evoking the effect of stained glass with light shining through, a church celebrating the diversity of animal life, perhaps.
Walking onwards, one finds a hall filled with large cubes, standing haphazardly upon one another, each carrying the image of an animal or plant. The names of the species are given in Euskera, Castillian and Latin. I find myself at times wishing to see the names in English and then chiding myself for the unreasonableness of this wish. There are images of plants to be seen too, some of plants which we are informed are native to the country and one found only there.
ATTRACTIONS IN THE WIDER AREA
A slim informational folded leaflet is available in a number of languages, one version being in English and French, not only about this centre but about a network of them managed by the “Basque Government” (i.e the Government of three of the southern Basque provinces, Biskaia, Gipuzkoa and Alava). These are visited every year by 100,000 people, the booklet informs us, 25,000 of which are schoolchildren; the ekoetxea which I visited receives 2,000 schoolchildren out of a total of 45,000 visitors annually.
Another, more substantial booklet available in English which shows signs of translation probably from Castillian gives more information on the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, the wider area in which the Madariaga Ekoetxea is located. This booklet advertises nature trails for hiking or biking, restaurants for Basque cuisine, a cave occupied by prehistoric humans, the Gernika Tree and General Assembly building and museum, markets and folk festivals, cider and wine-houses, painted forest, hermitages, bird-watching and sea activities including surfing and whale and dolphin-watching. Strangely (or not), in its caption about Gernika, it has nothing to say about the bombing of the town in 1937 nor, in its references to human habitation and culture of the wider area, nothing either to say about the Spanish Civil (i.e Anti-Fascist) war or about the occupation of the area by the fascist troops and the repression that followed, nor about the suppression of their language under Franco.
An information panel tells visitors that there are 3,335 different mammal, bird, fish, reptile, amphibian, fungi and plant species etc. in the the Urdaibai reserve and that 85 are in danger of extinction or are of special interest. Some panels showing examples of these would be welcome as would more about the wildlife native to the area (like what species are the owls one can hear hooting at intervals through the night from the forested hill above Axpe, for example).
The San Jordi feast day is the national Catalan one. San Jordi (Saint George) is the patron saint of many nations, in all of which he slays a dragon or a monster, sometimes to save a princess and sometimes not. In some legends, the monster is a human.
In Catalonia, the tradition grew up to present a book to a man and a flower (now a rose) to a woman but often now one brings a book, takes one and takes a rose. Casal Catalá d’Irlanda organised this event today with the support of Chapters Bookshop in Parnell Street, Dublin.
Casal Catalá is a Catalan cultural organisation which has chapters or branches in different parts of the world. The Ireland branch organised to bring books, roses and refreshments to the event, also promoting it. The attendance was mostly Catalan with a sprinkling of others, including Irish; there were a number of children present.
The Senyera, the traditional flag of Catalonia and Valencia was displayed close by where the event was being held, upstairs in Chapters Bookstore. The Catalan legend of St. Jordi was performed by Berta Freixas (with amusing interventions from Joan Pau) and Diarmuid Breatnach told the story of how the Irish mythological character Cú Chulainn came by his name.
Joan Pau and Marina Aresté Dolcet then played ukeleles as accompaniment to three Catalan songs, for which they distributed song sheets and which most people joined in singing.
People had gathered to meet and greet from 3pm but some were still arriving at 5.30pm as the event neared the end. This was the 2nd year the St. Jordi celebration had been organised by Casal Catalá d’Irlanda. They have organised a number of other Catalan traditional events but also some to promote Catalan understanding of Irish language and history.
I got a phone call today – my drum has been found. I was astonished.
Three or four years ago, my drum went into hiding. No, I don’t mean “I went into hiding in my drum” – I’m not talking Cockney rhyming slang or Romany. I mean a real drum, a music-rhythm drum. It’s a dholak — looks like a smallish bongo in shape but both ends are played and it is South Asian in origin. It was bought for me many years ago from a London charity shop.
Why did my dholak go into hiding? I am not sure. Drums are sensitive; sensitive to vibrations. Yes of course, they are about vibration, that’s how they are made to produce sound. But more than that – they also pick up vibration. The skin or membrane, stretched tight, can pick up vibrations of machines, wind or even speech, which resonate inside the hollow instrument. Perhaps I was giving off bad vibrations. Or more likely not supplying enough vibrations at all.
It is true that I had stopped playing her and taking her to music session. I knew I wasn’t a great player but I thought I was OK – most of the time. Percussion gave me something to do at a session, to be part of it when I wasn’t singing. Then something happened that shattered the veneer of confidence. And there was a session I used to go to where I played it but I stopped going there; I can’t even remember why now.
The percussion illness began years ago in London. It was an infection that spread from my tapping feet to my tapping fingers and to rapping on wooden tables; there were nights I got carried away and came home with sore and skinned knuckles.
The infection spread and I took to playing the violin cases of tolerant musicians at London sessions. Or occasionally an accordion case. And then the dholak arrived. I played her indoors for months before I dared bring her to a session.
Musicians’ eyes widened when they saw me bring out a drum more than two feet high from a sports bag. They were apprehensive, for sure. Musicians playing Irish music (not all of them are Irish) have learned – or been taught – to be wary of percussionists. Percussion usually descends on an Irish session in the shape of a bodhrán (from the Irish, literally “a deafener”) and though the instrument can be played very well and sensitively, too often it is not. When played badly it is out of time with the music or a monotonous boom-boom-boom trying to kill the music … and nearly always too loudly.
There is a joke about the banjo which can be even more easily applied to the bodhrán: “You can tell from a fair distance when a man with banjo is approaching – but there is f.a. you can do about it.”
Even the bodhrán has a dubious history in traditional Irish music and it was really a classically-trained Irish musician, the great Seán Ó Riada, who gained the instrument popularity by working it into his suites — his compositions and arrangements. Norman observers in the 12th Century, describing Irish music, mentioned only a kind of drum, some kind of whistle (flute) and the harp (of which there were two, the small and the large). Not even the uileann pipes were mentioned! Over the years, the wooden whistle came in or was developed domestically (replaced for a while by the metal one, mass-produced in Manchester!), also the concert flute from Europe, the violin from Austria-Hungary perhaps, the accordion from Germany and Italy, the banjo from African slaves and their descendants in the USA, the mandolin from Italy, the bouzouki introduced from Greece in the 1960s, the guitar originally from Iberia but probably through English and US folk music, also in the 1960s.
The uileann pipes, despite the Norman observers, have been around for a while too but difficult to say when exactly it came in, some sources say not till the 1700s – certainly later than the marching war pipe depicted in Elizabethan-period drawings and woodcuts.
In Irish music, it is normally the guitarist who plays rhythm and many musicians think that with a guitarist, you don’t need a percussionist. If indeed you ever do – Séamus Ennis, once asked what was the best way to play the bodhrán, famously (or infamously) replied: “With a penknife”.
Whatever else could be said about my playing of the dholak, good or bad, at least I never played it too loudly.
Traditional Irish music sessions in London, at least in those years, tended to be more tolerant and inclusive than I experienced in Ireland on visits home or since. So they let me get on with it and we got on ok – me, the dholak and the musicians. And the ‘audience’ seemed ok with us all too.
When I came home to Dublin, to work and to live, after decades in London, she came with me. There was a session in Rathmines I attended regularly and I took the drum there, played it some to accompany the trad music instruments and sang a few songs. At that particular session one heard a variety of types of song and could sometimes see dancing: set-dancing, freestyle sean-nós and there was an elderly couple who did what I took to be a schottische. There was a bodhrán player or two there most times and when they were, I mostly laid off the dholak until they took a break, went to the toilet or out for a smoke.
Usually, the session would start around 9.30pm and go on till 1.00am or even later. Many a time on my way home from that session, a song or a tune would be running through my head, non-stop. Sometimes I even composed a tune, or thought I did — but had forgotten it by next day.
Walking the 4.5 km.s after a session to catch the night bus from D’Olier Street (and a half-hour wait if I missed one) grew tiresome, which might have been the reason I stopped going. Maybe my bike wasn’t working at that time. The truth is, I don’t know why but I did stop going. There was a Sunday session I was going to for a while but I dropped out of that too, for other reasons. The result was that I stopped playing the dholak, even at home.
Maybe she missed the tapping of my fingers on her skin. Perhaps she missed the vibrations of Irish traditional music. And grew to resent the silence. Maybe she planned to leave me.
If so, the occasion came when a large group of Basque musicians were visiting Dublin and I had organised a musical pub-crawl for them (kantu-poteo), as well as a concert for them to perform. I brought the dholak in case there should be an informal session at the end of the evening but there wasn’t and, in amongst all the leave-taking and so on, I forgot about her.
A few days later I looked for the dholak at home and realised I must have left it behind. To the management of the hall I went rushing — but it could not be found. So, someone had stolen her. Or she had gone off with someone she thought would appreciate her more than I had.
I was upset – of course I was – but there was nothing to be done about it. Of course, if I ever should see someone with her, while on my travels ….!
The years went by and I reconciled myself to my loss. I had already mostly stopped going to traditional sessions and was concentrating on singing. For a while I was singing at a different gathering as often as twice a week. Then that too tailed off. Some sessions were a distance away around Dublin bay and finished after public transport did. One was on a Sunday and I was often tired. But the truth is, although I always enjoyed a singing session, I was losing some of the drive, the urge that had me attending regularly.
And then, this morning, from the manager of the hall where I had lost the dholak about four years ago, I got a phone call. She had been found!
Overjoyed as I am, I can’t help wondering what it means, that she turns up now. Of course, it could mean nothing. Just a lucky happenstance that it turned up, was found among stuff stored away, probably by someone searching for something else or having a clear-out.
The cops and private detectives with starring roles in the novels I sometimes read don’t believe in coincidence and happenstance. Much as I hate to take part of my world view from cops, nor do I.