Civil Liberties, Golf, Ireland, Poetry

Seamus Heaney, 1939 – 2013

A-Seamus-Heaney-9Traveling in Ireland for the first time a few years ago I was struck by the fact that everyone – everywhere – seemed to have a book under their arm or clutched in hand. Everyone it seemed was lost in words, heads in books. Crossing the Shannon on a car ferry the truck driver next to our rental car had a big volume propped up on the steering wheel. He had obviously taken in the lovely scenery before. Now his lovely book had his full attention, if only for a few minutes.

One wonders why Ireland, a country with 4.5 million people, has produced so many of history’s greatest men – yes, mostly men – of letters. Shaw and Joyce, Behan, Beckett and Oscar Wilde. Now another of the greatest – the poet and Nobel Laureate Shamus Heaney – the greatest Irish poet since the great William Butler Yeats is gone.

I’ll leave the pondering of the Irish literary tradition for another day and instead praise Shamus Heaney who was both deep and accessible. You don’t often find the words “best selling” in the same sentence with “poet.” Heaney was the best selling poet in the English language, but also an acclaimed translator and essayist.

Heaney famously advised in his Nobel acceptance speech to “Walk on air against your better judgement.” In one collection in 1984 he offered good advice to writers and readers. “The main thing is to write for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust that imagines its haven like your hands at night, dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast. You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous. Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest.”

I wish that when I struggled to read and comprehend Beowulf in school that Heaney’s translation, by most accounts the best ever in English, had been available. The man was more than his poetry, as if that weren’t enough.

As the Irish Times reported today, “Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said the death of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has brought a ‘great sorrow to Ireland’ and only the poet himself could describe the depth of his loss to the nation.” The BBC, giving proper notice to an Irishman, noted in its coverage that Heaney’s international literary impact, like that of Yeats, only grew as his body of work expanded.

“Born in Northern Ireland, he was a Catholic and nationalist who chose to live in the South,” the BBC said. “‘Be advised, my passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen,’ [Heaney] once wrote.”

“He came under pressure to take sides during the 25 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and faced criticism for his perceived ambivalence to republican violence, but he never allowed himself to be co-opted as a spokesman for violent extremism.

“His writing addressed the conflict, however, often seeking to put it in a wider historical context. The poet also penned elegies to friends and acquaintances who died in the violence.

“Describing his reticence to become a ‘spokesman’ for the Troubles, Heaney once said he had ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head.'”

Here’s how Heaney ended his Nobel acceptance speech in 1995, an ode to the power of words – and poetry – to explain and shape the human condition.

“The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.”

The late Idaho Supreme Court justice and poet Byron Johnson once said that the country could use more poets and fewer politicians. The passing of Seamus Heaney reminds us of just how accurate that statement remains.



Golf, Ireland

Preserving Irish History

Walking the charming and crowded streets of Dublin today you must summon up all of your imagination to visualize that the streets and buildings around the General Post Office in the heart of the city were, less than 100 years ago, the scene of bloody street fighting between Irishmen and Englishmen.

Most Americans, myself included, have only the haziest knowledge of The Rising, the surprise Easter Monday attack launched by Irish republicans in 1916 against British rule in Ireland. The uprising ultimately failed, most of the leaders who had enlisted aide from Germany – England was at war with Germany in 1916 – were killed or executed, but the events of April 1916 set the stage for much that followed, including the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 and the sectarian “troubles” that have bedeviled the Irish Republic and British Northern Ireland ever since.

The two great Irish leaders of the 20th Century, Eamon DeValera and Michael Collins, came of age during the Easter Rising and their fascinating and occasionally chilling legacy still helps define Irish politics in the 21st Century.

Now, thanks to the Irish penchant for preserving history, the extensive, and until recently secret, archive of The Rising is open and available online through the magic of digital records.

The Irish Bureau of Military History, founded in 1947 to record the memories of virtually all the survivors of the events prior to 1921 (when the Irish Civil War began), has made the fascinating record available. The collection is just one recent example of the importance of preserving this type of material and making it available in the interest of understanding from whence we came.

As the Irish Times reported, “The scale of the project was vast. A team of military archivists has transferred the huge collection of 1,773 witness statements containing 36,000 pages of name- and word-searchable documents; rare photographs; and voice recordings onto the website.”

Ironically, given the tortured history of British rule in Ireland, one of the great online resources about The Easter Rising is housed on the BBC’s website. But, now due to a forward looking work of Irish Defence Minister Oscar Traynor – the longest-serving Irish Defence Minister – who established the collection, the Irish have access to the rich, first-hand history of one of the pivotal events in modern Irish history. The Irish archive is a model for how modern technology can make the records of history, and indeed history itself, as close as a computer screen.

The great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote “the heart of an Irishman is nothing but his imagination.” True perhaps, but the documents help, as well.


Golf, Romney, Rural America, Updike

The Master

Spring, Golf and Poetry

They are playing golf at Augusta today and that is occasion enough to connect the ancient game with the season of the azaleas and a writer who both loved golf and wrote about it – if didn’t always play it – with the grace of a poet.

The late, great John Updike is best remembered for his novels, but golfers who love the language, as well as the game, remember him for his singular ability to write exceedingly well about golf, while capturing the feel of the individual confronting the game.

Asked to write about golf as a hobby Updike said it wasn’t. “Hobbies take place in the cellar and smell of airplane glue. Nor is golf, though some men turn it into such, meant to be a profession or a pleasure. Indeed, few sights are more odious on the golf course than a sauntering, beered-up foursome obviously having a good time. Some golfers, we are told, enjoy the landscape; but properly the landscape shrivels and compresses into the grim, surrealistically vivid patch of grass directly under the golfer’s eyes as he morosely walks toward where he thinks his ball might be.”

Everyone who has played golf knows that feeling.

Updike wrote like a Masters champion, but like most of us played like a duffer; an 18 handicap duffer who could put into words what it means – against all odds and despite any real ability – when you finally strike the perfect shot.

“Once in a while,” Updike wrote in 1973 in a piece for The New York Times, “a 7-iron rips off the clubface with that pleasant tearing sound, as if pulling a zipper in space, and falls toward the hole like a raindrop down a well; or a drive draws sweetly with the bend of the fairway and disappears, still rolling, far beyond the applauding sprinkler, these things happen in spite of me, and not because of me, and in that sense I am free, on the golf course, as nowhere else.”

Michael Bamberger, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, wrote a sweet little piece in 2009 about playing a round of golf with Updike. The great writer had written Bamberger a fan letter – he liked a book Bamberger had done – and suggested a game. What a thrill.

So, golfers everywhere will wonder this week if Tiger is really back? Will a European – or an Argentine, or Irishman – capture a loud green jacket this Sunday? While Bobby Jones’ ghost stalks the fairways in Georgia, John Updike’s ghost reminds us of the eternal grace of the simplest, yet most difficult game.

“There was clearly great charm and worth in a sport so quaintly perverse in its basic instructions,” Updike once wrote. “Hit down to make the ball rise. Swing easy to make it go far. Finish high to make it go straight.”

If only we could do it as well as he wrote about it.


American Presidents, Golf, Ireland, Obama


I Thought the Guy Was a Kenyan

The problem with some people is that when they aren’t drunk, they’re sober.”

– William Butler Yeats

When Barack Obama stood before a crowd estimated at 50,000 last night in Dublin, he introduced himself to the adoring Irish crowd as: “Barack Obama, of the Moneygall O’Bamas. I am here to find the apostrophe that we lost along the way. Tá áthas orm bheith in Éirinn.”

Obama has proven again, as John McCain’s campaign attempted, unsuccessfully, to use against him in 2008, that he is the “biggest celebrity in the world.” True enough, but the Irish have long proven they love the American president, whomever he happens to be.

Just behind the main entrance to the building that houses the Irish Dial, is a lovely room festooned with photos of the American presidents who have visited Ireland. John Kennedy, of course, and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and now the distant son of Moneygall.

I love Ireland – the people, the landscape, the literature, the history, well some of the history, anyway. But most of all, as I have enjoyed the coverage of Obama and Michelle sipping a Guinness in a pub in Moneygall, I like the notion that everyone has some of the Irish in them.

It can’t hurt the president’s standing with Irish-American and Catholic voters that he was welcomed like a rock star – the Kenyan Bono? – in the old sod. While the stout sipping photo op got most of the play, the best photo I saw was of Obama hoisting high a darling, red haired Irish lass of maybe three or four. She displayed classic smiling Irish eyes as the black/white/Irish/Indonesian/Kenyan/Christian/Muslim president beamed back at her.

These pictures, the lost apostrophe in Obama and the obvious respect and affection an American president commands in a country hard pressed to recover from its disastrous real estate implosion and still hardened by religious troubles, must be hard to swallow for the birther crowd. Some folks – Jerome Corsi for instance – have made an industry of advancing the line that Obama just “isn’t one of us.”

Trouble is, for most of the world, Obama is one of them. Just ask the crowd in Dublin or that adorable Irish redhead. Here’s a bet: you’ll see those pictures again; during the campaign, in a commercial.

The Irish Times summed up the president’s visit, coming as it did on the heels of the visit of the Queen of England, with this: “Obama’s eloquence, self-deprecating humour, and patent empathy turned what otherwise might have been seen as pro forma diplomatic expressions of goodwill and shameless stroking of the national ego, into something heartwarming and inspiring.”

Any self-respecting, world-wide celebrity should hope for such reviews.


Golf, Ireland

The Troubles

Bloody SundaySunday, Bloody Sunday

It has been said that the 20th Century was the most violent century since man started walking upright. From the Boer War to the Balkans, two world wars, revolution in Russia, “insurgency” from Algeria to Malaysia, from Vietnam to Angola. A bloody century and all of it more or less completely tragic.

That context, perhaps, is what made last week’s official apology of the new British Prime Minister, David Cameron, so unusual and, one can hope, so important. Cameron, still in the honeymoon of his recent election, took to the floor of the Commons to react to the years-in-the-making official inquiry into the bloody Sunday of January 30, 1972 in Londonderry (or Derry), Northern Ireland.

Some British troops, ironically from the heroic and decorated Parachute Regiment, completely lost their heads on that Sunday and fired into a civil rights protest crowd. Eventually fourteen died and Ireland north and south started to bleed. Before “the troubles” sputtered out many years later – thanks in no small part to American help from George Mitchell and Bill Clinton – thousands more had died and violence by the gun and bomb had, in some ways, become a substitute for politics in Ireland.

Cameron’s comments all these years later about Bloody Sunday have reverberated across Ireland and Britain; indeed around the world. Here is part of what the young prime minister, not much more than a toddler when it happened, had to say:

“Mr. Speaker, I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behavior of our soldiers and our army who I believe to be the finest in the world.

“But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”

The press and political reaction to Cameron’s words – and as much his tone – has been rather remarkable.

John Burns, writing from London for the Times, compared the words of reconciliation to what happened in South Africa upon the election of Nelson Mandela. Bono, whose U2 song Bloody Sunday helped bring the outrage – an a call for peace – to world attention, said with his speech Cameron had gone from “prime minister to statesman.” He called the speech “one of the most extraordinary days in the mottled history of the island of Ireland..”

One of the best things I’ve read about Cameron’s words and what they mean came from the pen of the fine Irish writer Colum McCann. His book Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award for fiction last year. Writing at the Daily Beast, McCann noted that Cameron’s apology came one day before Bloomsday, the one day in the Dublin life of James Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom celebrated in Ulysses.

McCann, with an Irishman’s ear for the telling phrase, wrote: “Let’s take the apology. Let’s celebrate it. A wound was acknowledged. A further grief was stared into oblivion. It is, in its way, its own piece of literature. It was almost as if Anna Akhmatova had stepped in alongside the questioning (Leopold) Bloom to say—as she does in one of her poems—“You’re many years late, how glad I am to see you.”

How much good can be done to say “we were wrong?” How much healing can come from “I’m sorry…I apologize?”

In the long, bloody history of the last century, we have much – in our nation and in every nation – to regret and to acknowledge as wrong. Doing it requires so little, but it can mean so much. Maybe it is the start to understanding…and peace.

Golf, Ireland

Hard Times in Ireland

st. patrickRotten Economy, Sex Scandals…At Least There’s Yeats and Whiskey

St. Patrick’s Day has always been a bigger production in places like Boston, Chicago and Butte than in Dublin, Cork and Dingle. Good thing. There isn’t a lot to celebrate this St. Patty’s Day on the ol’ sod. The Celtic Tiger has become the sick kitten of the EU. Unemployment has soared, bankruptcy has flourished and real estate has tanked. No potato blight yet, thank goodness.

Additionally, the Irish Catholic Church is reeling from yet another clergy sex abuse scandal. The Irish Times called this week for the resignation of the Cardinal who, it is said, should have reported the 20-plus year old incidents to the authorities, well, 20 years ago. Predictably, Cardinal Sean Brady said he would not resign unless asked to do so by the Pope. Meanwhile, the Pope is expected any day to speak out on the Irish scandal, while he fends off questions about the growing sex abuse scandal that occurred during his time in Germany. Did you follow that?

Meanwhile, in the midst of a crisis over the Euro and the continuing fallout over the collapse of the Irish real estate bubble, an Irish writer, Ann Marie Hourihane, makes the case that ol’ St. Pat himself has fallen on hard times.

The old boy, she writes, “invested heavily in property during the boom, buying houses and apartments not only in Ireland but also in Wales, Brittany and even Scotland…(and) recently St. Patrick has had trouble sleeping. The crozier is in hock. It is an ignominious position for a saint who has worked so hard for, and been worked so hard by, his country.

“It’s not that St Patrick objects to us being poor – again. He loved us most during the centuries in which we were destitute, badly fed and flirting with cannibalism. As far as any patron saint who takes the long view is concerned, things have just about returned to normal.”

There you have it.

Even Guinness – remember, “It’s Good For You” – is facing new competition in, of all places, Britain where a cross between lager and bitter – black lager – grows in popularity. Talk about a scandal.

Nonetheless, amid the gloom, I’ll celebrate all things Irish today with a dram of Jameson (or Powers or Red Breast) and think particularly of the great Irish writers – Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Shaw and one recent worthy, John Banfield. Thank God for the Irish writers.

I’ll also remember, apropos to the times perhaps, this great line from the great Yeats: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

Well said and so very Irish. On March 17th, we can all, at the very least, wish to be Irish. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.