Exploring the Symbolism of “Stripping the Willow”

Hi, all!

Last Tuesday, we discussed Kathleen Jamie’s poem “The Queen of Sheba” in class. I don’t remember who in class asked about the significance of the line “she wants to strip the willow,” but the question really stuck with me. I was convinced that willows had specific meaning attached to them, dealing with wisdom or some other aspect of Truth or knowledge– although I think now that may just have come from the Disney movie Pocahontas’ Grandmother Willow character.

Nevertheless, I wanted to push the symbolism a little further, to see if there was any background that we could be missing as non-Scottish readers. I did some research first on “symbolism of the willow” and found a number of websites (with perhaps questionable credibility) that were just begging to tell me about the magical/otherworldly powers of the willows.

Wikipedia shared that “in English folklore, a willow tree is believed to be quite sinister, capable of uprooting itself and stalking travellers.” (Also, in Japanese culture, willows are connected to otherworldly spirits like ghosts!)

Through my travels around the internet, I also learned that willow trees have medicinal uses, like to relieve colds, fevers, pains, and rheumatism. Willow trees are associated with the moon, with “the ability to adapt and adjust to life,” and with “the enhancement of psychic abilities.”

EHow shared that willows connected back to ancient Greece: “[Greek] Mythology tells us that the poet Orpheus received his gift for music and poetry after touching a willow in a grove sacred to Persephone, and the willow was linked to those skills.”

The OED, too, was pretty unhelpful, sharing very little by way of significance (and also not acknowledging the connection one website was CONVINCED about, in which “willow” and “witchcraft” came from the same root word).

Although I always use sites like Wikipedia and Ehow (and who doesn’t believe a website called “What’s Your Sign? Celtic Meanings of the Willow Tree!” last updated in 2003?), I still wasn’t quite sure of a literary reference to fit with the passage. Jamie speaks of “stripping” the willow, which I found particularly interesting– would you strip a willow to use its bark? Would you strip a willow to make a switch? So, on the off chance it was an idiom, I Googled the term.

As it turns out, “strip the willow” is a Scottish folk dance.

From just Googling the term, I found the following videos, which illustrate the dance of “stripping the willow.” The BBC version below also teaches you how to “strip the willow.” The dance has been around since the 1600s, and so it would be common knowledge of Scottish readers of the poem.



So when the Queen of Sheba wants to “strip the willow,” just as she wants “the keys to the National Library,” she is asking for part of Scotland, to participate in the culture and the history of the area to which she’s come. This makes her transformation of all the young women in the poem even more powerful– she takes part in the culture and reappropriates her own role in it (and the girls’ too, by extension).

Readings for Thursday

Hallo All! I’m hoping you all check the blog on a regular basis, as I couldn’t think of another way to do this….Here are the poems I’d like you to read for Thursday! See you then!
Selected Poems of R.S. Thomas

A Welsh Testament
All right, I was Welsh. Does it matter?
I spoke a tongue that was passed on
To me in the place I happened to be,
A place huddled between grey walls
Of cloud for at least half the year.
My word for heaven was not yours.
The word for hell had a sharp edge
Put on it by the hand of the wind
Honing, honing with a shrill sound
Day and night. Nothing that Glyn Dwr
Knew was armour against the rain’s
Missiles. What was descent from him?

Even God had a Welsh name:
He spoke to him in the old language;
He was to have a peculiar care
For the Welsh people. History showed us
He was too big to be nailed to the wall
Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him
Between the boards of a black book.

Yet men sought us despite this.
My high cheek-bones, my length of skull
Drew them as to a rare portrait
By a dead master. I saw them stare
From their long cars, as I passed knee-deep
In ewes and wethers. I saw them stand
By the thorn hedges, watching me string
The far flocks on a shrill whistle.
And always there was their eyes; strong
Pressure on me: You are Welsh, they said;
Speak to us so; keep your fields free
Of the smell of petrol, the loud roar
Of hot tractors; we must have peace
And quietness.

Is a museum
Peace? I asked. Am I the keeper
Of the heart’s relics, blowing the dust
In my own eyes? I am a man;
I never wanted the drab role
Life assigned me, an actor playing
To the past’s audience upon a stage
Of earth and stone; the absurd label
Of birth, of race hanging askew
About my shoulders. I was in prison
Until you came; your voice was a key
Turning in the enormous lock
Of hopelessness. Did the door open
To let me out or yourselves in?

The Gap
God woke, but the nightmare
did not recede. Word by word
the tower of speech grew.
He looked at it from the air
he reclined on. One word more and
it would be on a level
with him; vocabulary
would have triumphed. He
measured the thin gap
with his mind. No, no, no,
wider than that! But the nearness
persisted. How to live with
the fact, that was the fear
now. How to take his rest
on the edge of a chasm a
word could bridge.
He leaned
over and looked in the dictionary
they used. There was the blank still
by his name of the same
order as the territory
between them, the verbal hunger
for the thing in itself. And the darkness
that is a godfs blood swelled
in him, and he let it
to make the sign in the space
on the page, that is in all languages
and none; that is the grammarian’s
torment and the mystery
at the cell’s core, and the equation
that will not come out, and is
the narrowness that we stare
over into the eternal
silence that is the repose of God.

It was all arranged:
the virgin with child, the birth
in Bethlehem, the arid journey uphill
to Jerusalem. The prophets foretold
it, the scriptures conditioned him
to accept it. Judas went to his work
with his sour kiss; what else
could he do?

A wise old age,
the honours awarded for lasting,
are not for a saviour. He had
to be killed; salvation acquired
by an increased guilt. The tree,
with its roots in the mind’s dark,
was divinely planted, the original fork
in existence. There is no meaning in life,
unless men can be found to reject
love. God needs his martyrdom.
The mild eyes stare from the Cross
in perverse triumph. What does he care
that the people’s offerings are so small?

Children’s Song
We live in our own world,
A world that is too small
For you to stoop and enter
Even on hands and knees,
The adult subterfuge.
And though you probe and pry
With analytic eye,
And eavesdrop all our talk
With an amused look,
You cannot find the centre
Where we dance, where we play,
Where life is still asleep
Under the closed flower,
Under the smooth shell
Of eggs in the cupped nest
That mock the faded blue
Of your remoter heaven

Taken From
Thomas, R. S. “Amen.” Poems of R.S. Thomas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1985. Print.

John Lennox Visits Swarthmore

Last Wednesday, I went to Swarthmore to hear John Lennox (not John Lennon) speak on the question, “Does morality need God?”  Regardless of the answer (which he answered simply, “No, of course not.”), Lennox’s past of growing up in Northern Ireland was very interesting and relatable to the history we’ve been delving into in regards to our poetry.


John Lennox

Lennox is a mathematician, a philosopher of science, and a Christian apologist who also happens to be a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford.

He introduced us to his background with the question, “Now, have you heard of Northern Ireland?”  He chuckled and said that yes, we’ve probably heard of Northern Ireland, but for probably not the best reasons.  Lennox explained that he comes from a non-sectarian Christian background.  His father very strongly believed that all people are created in the image of God, making all people (and all Christians) valuable and important.  Because of this, his father hired Catholics and Protestants in his family store.

Lennox also revealed that he almost lost his brother (who “almost had his face blown off,” Lennox remembered) to the violence in Northern Ireland over religion because of their father’s devotion to treating both sides the same.

To this day, Lennox continues his father’s inclusive belief and looks upon his homeland, Northern Ireland, with the shame that his people “are using the name of Jesus Christ to take up bombs and AK-47s.”

He also had an experience in school when another boy asked him about his religion, but then immediately backed off, saying, “Oh, that’s right, you’re from Northern Ireland.  You don’t talk about those things there.”  Because of the violence he was exposed to as a child and that encounter with the other boy in grade school, Lennox chose to continue to delve deeper into his faith to discover and share what it is really means.

The Pennywhistle


I’ve been playing the pennywhistle for a number of years, and I started teaching one of my housemates to play this semester, so I decided to do some research on the origins of this instrument, which is common in Irish folk music.


The modern pennywhistle is typically made up of a brass tube with six holes and a plastic mouthpiece, although it can be all metal or all plastic, as well. It plays only two major scales. The most common whistle plays in the keys of D and G. It is known as a D whistle, because the lowest note is a D. There are also whistles made in other pitches, such as A, G, C, or a lower D. However, most traditional Irish music is in the keys of D and G, so these are not frequently played.

Robin Williamson’s The Pennywhistle Book tells us that “the whistle was first used in magic rituals; forbidden by the Medieval Church as being irresistible to women, it gave birth in later years to the flageolet and recorder…But the humble pennywhistle has proved immune to changing fashions”.

However, my research reveals that the pennywhistle, whose ancestors probably originated in China around 5,000 years ago and appeared in the Celtic world around the 1200′s, comes from the six-holed, wooden flageolet. In the late 1700′s, the flageolet began to be produced from tin plate, which was cheaper than wood and hence more accessible to a greater number of people. This new instrument had a wooden or lead plug at the end of the tube to create a mouthpiece. Supposedly, one could buy it for a penny, which is where the name came from.

At this point, the tube of the whistle was wider at the top and became narrower at the end. In the 1950′s, the plastic mouthpiece was invented, and this allowed the metal tube to be straight, as it is in most whistles today. Some modern whistles, such as the Clarke brand, are still made with a tapered tube and a wooden plug at the top for a mouthpiece.lg_SBDC

If reading this post has inspired you to learn to play the pennywhistle, I would suggest buying a standard D whistle of the Oak brand, which costs about $10. There are several cheap brands of whistles, but in my opinion Oak whistles have the best sound.

Here is a link to somebody playing a couple Irish tunes on the pennywhistle: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5h9bsUGpAT8

The pennywhistle is also used in music outside the Celtic nations, including South African Kwela, heard here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAIzxeTQcHM


Other Links:



Myrddin and Merlin

Opening the Gododdin again and renewing

My conscious connection with the gwyr y gogledd

I who never fail to detect every now and again,

In the Hebridean and Shetland and Cornish waters I most frequent,

By subtile signs Myrddin’s ship of glass

Which has floated invisibly around the seas

Ever since Arfderyd a millennium and a half ago,

(Since Arfderydd –a few miles from where I was born!)

I am as one who sees again in a stark winter wood

(And the forest of Celyddon is indeed in death’s grip to-day)”stained-glass

Upon reading “On Reading Professor Ifor Williams’s ‘Canu Aneurin’ in Difficult Days,” I came across Hugh MacDiarmid’s allusion to Myrddin, Arfderyd, and Celyddon. According to the footnote, “After the battle of Arfderydd, Myrddin, sometimes called Myrddin Wyllt or Merlinus Sylvestris, the Merlin of the Arthurian romance, fled to the Caledonian forest and finally escaped with his paramour, Chwimleian (Vivien), in a ship of glass.” I had never heard this story of Merlin before, so I decided to do some research on it.

I first expected Myrddin and Merlin to be two different versions of the name for the same character. Instead, I discovered that the character/person of Myrddin came before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s introduction of Merlin in Prophetiae Merlini, Historia Regum Britanniae, and Vita Merlini. Prophetiae is a collection of prophecies attributed to Myrddin (who Geoffrey called Merlin). Historia Regum Britanniae included a newly constructed version of Merlin’s life, while Geoffrey’s later Vita Merlini stayed truer to the original Welsh stories of Myrddin and his experience at Arfderydd, but this version was not as popular as his first Arthurian account.

Myrddin was a bard in medieval Welsh legend who was born around 540 CE. He also seemed to have a twin sister by the name of Gwendydd (or Gwenddydd or Languoreth).

But even Myrddin was not an original character. His history can be traced back to similar character named Lailoken who was said to be a mad man who roamed the Caledonian Forest in the late 6th ccentury in what is now southern Scotland. Myrddin has similar characteristics. According to Annales Cambriae (which is a 12th century copy of a mid-10th century original that covered events in Wales, Ireland, Cornall, England, Scotland, and farther), in 573 CE, the Battle of Arfderydd took place in Arthuret (just over the modern in modern Scotland). The battle was between the men of King Gwenddoleu and those of Gwrgi and Peredur or King Riderch. Myrddin was on Gwenddoleu’s side, which ultimately lost. Along the way, he lost his nephew and Gwenddoleu was also killed. After the battle and based on what he had seen, Myrddin went mad and ran away to Coed Celyddon, the Forest of Celyddon.

Arthuret, where the Battle of Arfderydd took place.

Arthuret, where the Battle of Arfderydd took place.

While in the forest, he developed a gift for prophecy and would eventually foretell his own threefold death by falling, stabbing, and drowning. Other interesting prophecies are attributed to him, such as “Woe to the Red Dragon, for his banishment hastens on. His lurking holes shall be seized by the White Dragon, which signified Saxons whom you (Vortigern) invited over; but the Red denotes the British nation, which shall be oppressed by the White. Therefore shall its mountains be leveled as the valleys and the rivers of the valleys shall run with blood” and “There shall be a miserable desolation of the kingdom, and the threshing floors shall become again forests. The White Dragon shall rise again, and invite over a daughter of Germany. Our gardens shall again be replenished with foreign seed and the Red Dragon shall pine away at the end of the pool.”

Chwimleian, who is said to have inspired the character of Vivien in later Arthurian legends. She is mentioned in two poems in Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (The Black Book of Carmathen): Afallenau Myrddin (Myrddin’s Orchards) and Oianau Myrddin (Myrddin’s Exclamations), both of which are narrated by Myrddin. She seems to be some kind of augur or prophetess, but it can also be argued that she is an extension of Myrddin himself. Her name comes from shwyfleian, which means “a pale, wild traveler,” which is also an accurate description of Myrddin.

Even Myrddin’s name literally means “madman” from “merV-” (insane) or “mer-” (crazy) and “godonyo-” (human, person, man).

In my research of specifically Myrddin, however, I was unable to find a story about “a ship of glass.” Instead, I had to look into the later legends of Merlin. The only word-for-word “ship of glass” that I was able to find was in “The Death of Merlin,” written by Ernest Rhys in 1898:


Shipmaster’s Song

Marvellous Merlin is wafted away

In a sailing island, a ship of glass;

For over the edge of the world he’s blown

By Annwn’s blast.

"She took the helm and he the sail; the boat Drave with a sudden wind across the deeps..." -- from Tennyson's "Vivien" idyll

“She took the helm and he the sail; the boat
Drave with a sudden wind across the deeps…” — from Tennyson’s “Vivien” idyll

There are multiple versions of the story of Merlin’s death (or downfall). Generally, the Arthurian story goes that Merlin fell in love with Vivien and taught her his ways of magic. She eventually became more powerful than even him and she imprisoned him to keep him from trying to control her. She traps him in a glass castle/tower (and sometimes it can be translated to a glass ship) where he cannot ever escape (and depending on the version of the story, he remains there forever or eventually dies, but is reborn). This glass prison is also invisible to all others, so Merlin can never be found. This tale of his end is very different from the Myrddin legend of the bard’s threefold death.

Though these stories range from Welsh to Scottish to English, they are all enveloped under the Celtic tradition and have had effects on each other.

The Irish Diaspora: It’s Not Easy Being Green

What does it mean to be Irish? Who can lay claim to Irish identity?

Global-Irish-Diaspora-MapObviously, these aren’t questions that can wholly be answered to satisfy everyone in this day and age (and with intercontinental travel so convenient). Was Yeats fully Irish, or “Irish enough”? What are people saying about the Irish diaspora these days, and what “being Irish” means, both to Ireland-born citizens, to the people who left, and their descendants? Can descendants of Irish emigrants lay claim to Ireland as mother country?

I’ll admit, I’m biased. My father’s father was born in County Tipperary, Ireland (up until his generation, we were O’Ryans), and throughout my childhood, I was told that we were Irish, and to be Irish is to be proud of being Irish. My aunts and uncles on my father’s side, and my parents instilled in me from a young age that Ireland was home too, and though we didn’t have the money to take trips there or to visit extended family there, Ireland was important to us. I come from a line of strict Irish Catholics– we eat corned beef and cabbage routinely, and always on New Year’s. While I was abroad in Europe, I took an extended weekend trip to Ireland and my entire family was ridiculously excited, offering to send me money, and sharing trip advice. And the trip itself was unbelievably important for me, too, in ways I didn’t understand until I got there. Though I’d never been there before, I won’t lie: I felt like I was home. (And it didn’t hurt that when I visited Galway that Saturday, a street vendor guessed my last name when I told him where my grandfather was from. “You must be a Ryan,” he had said. WHAT A FEELING.)

So my quest is personal, in some ways: although I’m not an Irish citizen, and I’m certainly an American, a part of me does want to believe I am Irish, even just a little bit. And I know that true (“true”) Irish people get frustrated when they hear others with Irish heritage claim Ireland as “their roots” or “their country.” I understand the term plastic paddy, and I worry about that term if I assert my/my father’s/my grandfather’s claim to Irish identity. I don’t have a way to resolve that conflict of self-identification, but that doesn’t seem to be an uncommon problem among diasporas.

What I’ve done here is collect some responses I’ve found surrounding this issue of identity and authenticity: what it means to be a member of the Irish diaspora (if I can even call myself that, or if that’s just my father/grandfather’s community), what Ireland has to say about it, and what people of the Internet want “being Irish” to mean.


Irish Times postPlan for National Diaspora Centre Announced: This is a (very!) recent article from the Irish Times (literally published today, sparking this post), which is announcing the future building of a National Diaspora Centre somewhere in Ireland, which will serve as a museum celebrating the achievements of the Irish people who emigrated through the centuries.

At least for me, this article seems to be a more formal acceptance of the Irish Diaspora as a part of Ireland’s identity (though not necessarily in the same way as true Irish citizens/people living in Ireland). Could this be a happy medium? Regardless, the Centre will be a tourist site, and is a fantastic idea to market Ireland as a country that has contributed a lot, even when the Irish “stop being Irish.”


Pro Genealogists’ post (Ancestry.com), A Saint Patrick’s Day Reflection:  What Does it Mean to be “Irish”?: “In my view “Irish” means simply ‘from the island of Ireland.’ And I would urge all to respect the very complex history of Ireland and the many cultural experiences and political viewpoints of the Irish people.”

This article, which focuses on genealogy, explains that it’s not just a matter of “Irish means Catholic, Irish means anti-British, Irish means not from Northern Ireland.” We can’t understand what truly happened, historically, and so we have to tread lightly in characterizing an entire nation. Of course this is true, but it appears that the author takes a very exclusive route to understanding Irish identity: it is Ireland, and Ireland alone, that determines its identity, and outsiders (North Americans, the article states explicitly) should watch and not participate.


College Humor: The Trouble with Being Irish: “We share everything we have; like St. Patty’s day” you can party that day too.”

A humorous take on what it means, to this author, to be Irish. The author was (I assume?) born in Ireland, but is not “pure bred” Irish (i.e. has ancestors who are German, British, French, etc.), and although some people are appalled (?), he still calls himself “mostly Irish.” So being Irish, to him, is not ‘what culture you were born into,’ it is the culture of the majority of your heritage.


K-Blog: What Does It Mean to Be Irish?: A personal, poetic account of what being Irish means, to the author, who is no longer living in Ireland. Not the most brilliant post, but the author implies that being Irish means creativity, and connectedness with Irish artists who helped to make the country what it is through their craft.


Gaelic Matters.com: What Being Irish Means To You: A post on the Twitter hashtag #beingirishmeans contest, which was run by Irish Times.

Some of my favorites:

#beingirishmeans knowing all the words to Fairytale of NY, never knowing a stranger (aren’t any), and not forgetting the green of Ireland

#beingirishmeans Great pride in our Nobel prize winning authors, but never reading their works

Because it was a contest, there was one winning hashtag, which was this: #beingirishmeans emigrating because the country’s in tatters, and telling the world how much you miss it – Julia Cashman


A Quote, by Alexander McCall Smith, from Portuguese Irregular Verbs: “He had been thinking of how landscape moulds a language. It was impossible to imagine these hills giving forth anything but the soft syllables of Irish, just as only certain forms of German could be spoken on the high crags of Europe; or Dutch in the muddy, guttural, phlegmish lowlands.”


The next article is my final one, and my favorite, so I’ll just leave you all with a quote from the post. It’s written by an Irish citizen, who traveled to America and who changed his perspective on what it means to be Irish based on the love for his home country that he found here. I don’t think this approach to Irish identity is the only one that works, and I think it’s entirely valid that more authentically Irish people would take issue with appropriation when they see it, in many forms. But I feel welcomed at times and connected to my Irish heritage, and I can’t spend my life feeling guilty for what I feel. I may not be as Emerald as true Irishmen, but I know at least that I’m some shade of green.

I also think this comment section is particularly interesting, as it’s on the whole pretty respectful and informative. If you get a chance to read nothing else, read this one.

Got Ireland post, “What Does It Mean to Say, ‘I’m Irish’?”:

“So what does it mean to say “I’m Irish”? It’s so often said by people who were not born in Ireland, or have never even been to Ireland. So when these people say “I’m Irish” what exactly do they mean? One person said “My heart is Irish and that’s what’s important to me” another noted that for her it was “a state of mind” and others indicated that to have Irish heritage was to be, Irish…

These days, I fall in line with some of those Irish-born Facebook commenter’s who say things like “to see these people’s eyes light up when you talk to them of places they have only heard or read about, it’s a joy to behold” and with the ones who say “I’m just glad they love my country”. It makes me proud that so many people want to be connected with Ireland.”

Celtic Sports


As we face our first week without the Olympics, I thought I’d fill the gap with some information on Celtic sports! Some of these sports may seem familiar, as they have been integrated into American athletics, while others have maintained a more traditional sense. As we’ve seen throughout the course, the Celtic countries have their separate traditions, languages, food, and folklore, all of which occasionally blends together. The same is true for sports, which are also culturally relevant. Competitions can both be a cause for national pride and political tension.


This is best seen with the Gaelic Athletic Association, or Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, which organizes international hurling and Gaelic Football competitions. The GAA formed in 1887 to preserve Gaelic sports as a part of the national culture. Championship games are played at Croke Park in Dublin, where the the massacre scene we watched in Michael Collins took place in 1920.


I had the chance to visit this park when my team traveled to Ireland in 2012. The tour guide was careful to balance being informative and impartial when he recounted the events of the massacre. He instead emphasized the current cultural significance of the park. I got the impression that the Irish people are clearly proud of their respective Gaelic football and hurling teams, which are based on counties. Our guide described Croke Park as a place for centrality, as no teams are allowed to regularly practice there or call it their own.


Now, I should probably explain the logistics of these games. Luckily, my team and I visited a local Celtic sports club upon arriving in Dublin and were taught the basics! Gaelic football combines elements of American football and soccer, but is also similar to rugby. It combines passing and kicking a volleyball-type ball. The most difficult part of playing for me (maybe because of the height issue?) was “soloing,” which is sort of like dribbling. It involved dropping the ball to kick it back up to your hands.


We also were able to play hurling, which is similar lacrosse and field hockey. Hurling is actually older than Ireland itself. Cú Chulainn, the warrior hero we’ve discussed in class, was said to have played hurling, or at least carried around the gear as weapons. I first considered hurling and Gaelic football a fun combination of several “American” sports, but quickly remembered that these were around far before football and soccer as we know it. The games are a bit difficult to describe, so here are two videos of actual action!



Turning to Scotland, the Highland games are an integral and interesting part of Celtic sports. I may have mentioned being familiar with these games from attending an annual Celtic festival in my hometown. Some of you may have actually seen Disney’s rendition of these Scottish games in the childhood classic Luck of the Irish (which again shows how the Celtic traditions are often combined & conflated). If I remember correctly, there’s a scene when the kid goes back in time to compete against the evil leprechauns in a series of Highland games and Irish step dancing competitions. Sadly couldn’t find the clip of the cinematic masterpiece to share. Anyway, the Highland games are diverse and practical, in my opinion. Their traditional form hasn’t changed much, as tree trunks and stones are actually still used. Highland games include “heavy events,” such as the caber toss. Maud explained this event in class. It involves squatting to lift a carved tree trunk that’s usually about 175 pounds and resembles a telephone pole. The farthest toss wins. Traditionally, the caber toss emphasized form over distance, as throwers are judged based on both style and throwing in a straight line.


Above is a picture of the caber tosser preparing to throw…and failing. The amount of people watching and cheering was incredible. This probably wouldn’t be surprising to Hugh MacDiarmid, who actually mentions the sport in Focherty. The opening part of this poem appears to be about a large  man who enjoys drinking (barley-bree) and throwing (a caber). This matches the description of many men at the local Celtic festival. Here’s an excerpt:

“Duncan Gibb o’ Focherty’s

A giant to the likes o’ me,

For love o’ the barley-bree.

He gangs through this and the neebrin’ shire

Like a muckle rootless tree

- And here’s a caber for Daith to toss

That’ll gi’e his spauld a swee!”

Other Highland games include the stone put, which is similar to American track & field’s shot put event. Herding dogs are another popular spectacle. Collies typically move sheep around fences and into gates. Bagpipe competitions are also popular events. There are hundreds of pipe bands in the U.S. alone. All of these events were featured at the Celtic festival, which demonstrates the enduring entertainment value of such traditional sports. Also demonstrating the popularity of these games, there is a Gaelic Park in NYC specifically for Celtic sports. Gaelic football and hurling organizations are well-established in several countries, from Australia to Argentina, largely as a result of the Irish Diaspora.


*I took all the pictures in this post, so let me know if you have any questions about them! Here are the resources I used, which would be helpful if you’re interested in learning more:






Can the Centre Hold? Yeats and Gyres.

Pretty trippy

The Yeats poem that you ordinarily read in high school, probably before reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, is “The Second Coming.” Building its energy on scenes of expanding chaos and religious omens, the poem is famous for lending a title to Achebe, but the first line is perhaps the second-most recognizable:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre”

This is likely the first place most people hear the word ‘gyre,’ unless it’s the second line of “The Jabberwocky” or in discussions of ocean currents.

“The Second Coming” is an excellent example of the spirit of Yeats’ understanding of gyres. The poem shows devolution after devolution (or revolution, or revelation?) into disorder, giving an overall picture of the structure of the world unraveling. Far from ending in complete chaos, though, the direction of the poem brings the weight of all of history’s fractured pieces to bear on one individual in the last lines: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” When all the madness and confusion seems to be at its highest, widest state, the moment simultaneously contains a singular, infinitesimal pinpoint of hope and direction for the future. More or less, this is the essence of gyres.

A little creepy

All other extreme weirdness of W.B. and his wife, George’s relationship aside (as much as I regret to say that), it was the major catalyst for the creation of A Vision (1938). Yeats, in the introduction, describes the very start:

On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. … I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. “No,” was the answer, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry. (8)

The “unknown writer” evidently went on to elaborate upon some of Yeats’ own philosophical ideas, though to say “elaborate” is an understatement. George continued to write daily all the way until 1919, when the “communicator of the moment — they were constantly changed” decided to switch from written to spoken word so as not to tire George out too much. This eventually manifested in sleep-talking, which overtook the entire set of communications with the ones Yeats calls “my teachers.” In a strange anecdote, once while having a sleep-conversation with George, Yeats discerned that she was dreaming she was a cat, and so, naturally, she was unable to speak English. Frustrated with this, he, naturally, pretended to be a dog. She awoke so frightened that he vowed never to do so again.

Yeats wrote down all George said in her sleep, and noticed that the enthusiasm on the part of the “teachers” grew whenever Yeats himself seemed excited. Quite the coincidence, no?

Eventually the gyres emerged:

…then on December 6th a cone or gyre had been drawn and related to the soul’s judgment after death; and then just as I was about to discover that incarnations and judgment alike implied cones or gyres, one within the other, turning in opposite directions, two such cones were drawn and related neither to judgment nor to incarnations but to European history. (11-12)

Among other metaphysical images, the actual text of A Vision (after a strange section about Ezra Pound and what seems to be a miniature poetic play) goes into the nature of gyres. Mind you, the full extent of what gyres mean to Yeats is extraordinarily complicated. If I may repeat, extraordinarily complicated. This is simply their first glimpse:

If we think of the vortex attributed to Discord as firmed by circles diminishing until they are nothing, and of the opposing sphere attributed to Concord as forming from itself an opening vortex, the apex of each vortex in the middle of the other’s base, we have the fundamental symbol of my instructors.

Look familiar?

Yeats goes on to justify the common existence of gyres in practically every philosophy he can think of.

To Yeats, the gyres are omni-relevant. Any problem can be better understood by conceiving of it in gyres, evidently, and every philosophical, psychological, spiritual, social, historical, mathematical, astrological, astronomical, personal, public, literal, figurative, fantastical, and mundane aspect of life can be mapped successfully onto some gyre system.
To make a very long story very short, Yeats sets gyres in enormously complicated geometrical relation to one another to all sorts of symbolic ends, including astrological signs and cycles of the moon (surprise surprise — you thought Yeats would forget to include the moon?), as well as observing these constructions from all angles with all planes and lines acting symbolically to fit every single aspect of his worldview into the shape of a cone.

Much of A Vision is jargon and appropriated philosophy, as well as some commonly-acknowledged spiritualist hoaxes. That’s not to say the topic is unworthy of study, of course — quite the opposite is true. The Cambridge Companion to Yeats admits:

Such a proposal is of course just as silly as Auden accused Yeats of being, with those persistent enthusiasms for occultiana, from fairies to scrying to emanations of disembodied spirits. … [However,] scholars like me are a bit ridiculous when we try to fit a complex and spiritually adept poet into our own pseud0-empirical-critical systems. (148)

To read Yeats in the context of beliefs so deeply ingrained in his psychology and spiritual practice is to open up a new set of meaningful readings, regardless of objective critiques of the gyre system itself. Fathoming the scale of his theories lends his poems an even deeper gravity, especially registering on the personal level of his own constant dissatisfaction with the idea of a non-symbolic world. To even try to comprehend what Yeats was attempting in A Vision, unifying all of human experience in a logical-symbolic system, tells a great deal about his preoccupations: structure amid too much chaos, and revolution amid too much structure; extremes tempered always by their antitheses; life proceeding as naturally from death as death proceeds from life.

M. C. Escher