Celtic Sports

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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.

1mural

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.

2crokepark

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.

4crokepark

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.

3hurling

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!

www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmzivRetelE

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.

caberupcaberfail

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.

pipebandherding

*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:

www.gaa.ie/

www.bbc.com/sport/0/northern-ireland/gaelic-games/

www.experiencegaelicgames.com/

www.ireland.com/en-us/events/sports-and-outdoors/gaelic-games/articles/sport-gaa

www.celticfest.org/

“The Little White Rose”

Today in class when we brought up Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem, “The Little White Rose,” two things struck me: 1) Who is John Gawsworth, to whom the poem is dedicated? and 2) How can we compare this white rose to Yeats’s red rose of Ireland “upon the Rood of Time?”

First, I entered “John Gawsworth Hugh MacDiarmid” into Google.  According to Wikipedia, John Gawsworth was a British writer and poet who also compiled anthologies of poetry and of short stories, who lived from June 29, 1912 to September 3, 1970.  He was in fact born Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong (or T. I. F. Armstrong), but also worked under the pseudonym Orpheus Scrannel (which comes into interesting conversation with the class discussion about MacDiarmid/Leslie/Grieve’s pseudonyms).  Gawsworth wrote in London and embraced traditionalism instead of modernism.  Additionally, he ran the Twyn Barlwm Press, the namesake of which came from the Twyn Barlwm mountain in South Wales, which Arthur Machen, a writer Gawsworth very much admired, had loved himself.  The name of the press reflects Gawsworth’s respect for traditional ideas instead of the push ahead to modernism.  A fun fact about Gawsworth is that, as the literary executor for M. O. Shiel, another writer Gawsworth had befriended, Gawsworth inherited the throne of the Kingdom of Redonda, henceforth naming himself H. M. Juan I, or King Juan I.  Redonda is a micronation in the Caribbean that is about 1 square mile! (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Redonda)

This is Redonda:

(Source: http://www.antiguamarineguide.com/king-of-redonda.php)

Gawsworth met MacDiarmid in London in 1934, when MacDiarmid stayed in Gawsworth’s home, and MacDiarmid, thirty years later, dedicated an essay to Gawsworth, entitled When the Rat-Race Is Over; an essay in honour of the fiftieth birthday of John Gawsworth (1962).

What I’m wondering is why MacDiarmid dedicated “The Little White Rose” to Gawsworth.  Wikipedia states that Gawsworth had been committing himself to writing supernatural fiction at the time he met MacDiarmid, while we know that MacDiarmid wrote for his fellow working-class people.  How do their writing styles work together?  I’d posit that, since MacDiarmid, in his essay “The Politics and Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid” (1952), quotes Thomas Hardy, “Literature is the written expression of revolt against accepted things,” that Gawsworth’s supernatural writing must align with this ideal (MacDiarmid, 24).  And, of course, the two may just have been good friends.  MacDiarmid was always staying connected with his people, after all.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gawsworth

 

To answer my second question about “The Little White Rose,” I have identified a few critical ideas from Yeats’s poem, “To The Rose Upon the Rood of Time.”  Firstly, and most clearly, I suppose, the rose of Ireland is red.  It is “proud” and “sad,” and Yeats directs his verse at the rose (Ireland).  The speaker beckons the rose repeatedly: to “Come near me…Come near” (Yeats, 6).  He wants this specific rose–Ireland–for her ubiquity in the speaker’s history.  She is the “Rose of all my [the speaker’s] days,” and it is only by connecting with her will the speaker feel complete.  To reiterate the point we made in class a few weeks ago, the red rose here is on the cross of time, alluding to the Crucifixion.  And, of course, the red imagery symbolizes love, passion, and blood or violence.

Applying this symbolism to “The Little White Rose” thus accounts for the color: white is the symbol of innocence, purity, and virginity, and Scotland is such a white rose.  I wonder — does this imply that Ireland is somehow less innocent than Scotland?  Still, both Yeats and MacDiarmid convey strong nationalist ideologies through their heartbreak over their rose-like countries.  Only these roses will do, for MacDiarmid writes, “I want for my part / Only the little white rose of Scotland” (MacDiarmid, 422), while Yeats’s entire poem laments a singular rose who has endured the trials of time.  And it is interesting that both speakers feminize Ireland and Scotland, objectifying them as unattainable women, for Yeats’s speaker is always asking the rose to “Come near” and MacDiarmid’s speaker admits that the rose, which “smells sharp and sweet…breaks the heart” (MacDiarmid, 422).  These feminized states cannot be achieved.

That said, a few questions come into mind after having juxtaposed these poems that I will leave open-ended, for now:

-How do Yeats’s and MacDiarmid’s political ideologies inform or influence their use of rose imagery to represent the country?

-What role does the female lover play in a political context?  That said, what does the politicization of the female image (the rose) say about gender and gender-specific agency?  What kinds of agency do these roses possess (the power of their beauty, their enduring sadness, the power to break a man’s heart), and do they have more or less than the speakers?

-Yeats chooses a Catholic context for his poem; MacDiarmid does not.  Why?

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

More on Cuchulain

This is just an addendum to Natalia’s post on Cuchulain. The description of his battle fury (or “warp spasm” in Kinsella’s translation) will give you a sense of how different Irish epic is from, say, the Iliad. There is no interest whatsoever in realism:

The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing,
hideous and shapeless, unheard of.

His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot,
shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream.
His body made a furious twist inside his skin,
so that his feet and shins and knees switched to the rear
and his heels and calves switched to the front.

The balled sinews of his calves switched to the front of his shins,
each big knot the size of a warrior’s bunched fist.
On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck,
each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child.

His face and features became a red bowl;
he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane could not probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull;
the other eye fell out along his cheek.

His mouth weirdly distorted:
his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared;
his lungs and liver flapped in his mouth and throat;
his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow,
and fiery flakes large as a ram’s fleece reached his mouth from his throat.

His heart boomed loud in his breast like the baying of a watch-dog at its feed
or the sound of a lion among bears.
Malignant mists and spurts of fire flickered red in the vaporous clouds
that rose boiling above his head,
so fierce was his fury.

The hero-halo rose out of his brow,
long and broad as a warrior’s whetstone,
long as a snout,
and he went mad rattling his shields, urging on his charioteer
and harassing the hosts.

Then, tall and thick,
steady and strong,
high as the mast of a noble ship,
rose up from the dead center of his skull
a straight spout of black blood,
darkly and magically smoking.

In that style, then,
he drove out to find his enemies
and did his thunder-feat
and killed a hundred,
then two hundred,
then three hundred,
then four hundred,
then five hundred…
From The Tain, translated Thomas Kinsella, from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge. c. 1969 Thomas Kinsella

I took this from the website of a composer named David Heuser; you can also listen to his spoken voice/electronic version Warp-Spasm.

Here too is the statue of Cuchulain that stands in the GPO (General Post Office) in Dublin, where the rebels of 1916 made their stand.

Dying Cuchulain, by Oliver Sheppard

Dying Cuchulain, by Oliver Sheppard

Cuchulain ties himself to a stone, so that he can go on fighting even as he is dying; I’ve always thought that there was an analogy intended to James Connolly, who as you will recall was actually tied to a chair to be executed. As you can see, one of Cuchulain’s bronze feet is all shiny from where generations of people (including myself) have touched it for luck.

Sleeping in Dylan Thomas’ bed!

Well, not quite, perhaps, but imagine my surprise on checking into the Washington Square Hotel to find that among the “many acclaimed actors, musicians and writers” who have stayed here (according to the Guest Directory) was one Dylan Thomas! And we are right down the street from the tavern in which he consumed those 17 (or was it 18?) shots of whiskey.

View from what I'm going to pretend was Dylan Thomas' own bedroom.

View from what I’m going to pretend was Dylan Thomas’ own bedroom.

The Legend of Cuchulain

I was intrigued by Yeats’ multiple references to the hero Cuchulain in our readings. I’ve found that, while the legend of Cuchulain has persisted for many centuries, it originally was part of the ‘Ulster Cycle’ of medieval Irish mythology. The Ulster Cycle is written in Old and Middle Irish, and contains language dating back to the 7th century. The many stories take place in identifiable parts of Ireland; for instance, eastern Ulster and northern Leinster, even specific counties such as Armagh, Down, and Louth. While the stories are set approximately during the 1st century, they have retained cultural importance in part due to their identifiable ties to the land that remains today. Yeats himself, in a preface to a book of retold legends by his friend Lady Gregory in 1902, emphasizes the importance of location:

“We Irish should keep these personages much in our hearts, for they lived in the places where we ride and go marketing, and sometimes they have met one another on the hills that cast their shadows upon our doors at evening… When I was a child I had only to climb the hill behind the house to see long, blue, ragged hills flowing along the southern horizon. What beauty was lost to me, what depth of emotion is still perhaps lacking in me, because nobody told me, not even the merchant captains who knew everything, that Cruachan of the Enchantments lay behind those long, blue, ragged hills!”  – W. B. Yeats

1904 Cuchulain

Cuchulain was a mythic Irish hero, son of the god Luch of the Long hand and the mortal Dechtire, and nephew to King Conor of Ulster. His fame as a warrior spread while he was still a child. Along with his formidable strength and skill as a warrior, he was renowned for his beauty and honor. Part of his legend was that the men of Ulster hunted for a wife for Cuchulain in order to keep him from their wives and daughters. Furthermore, one story tells of a test of his honor in which he was willing to submit to his own beheading in order to keep his word. The stories of Cuchulain contain much violence; Cuchulain kills his own son when he mistakes his identity, and the story of Cuchulain’s own death involves the murder of his charioteer, his horse, and the loss of 2 appendages and his head. There is also often the presence of magic in his adventures. While these stories can seem over the top to a modern reader, Yeats celebrated that attribute:

“The abundance of what may seem at first irrelevant invention in a story like the death of Conaire, is essential if we are to recall a time when people were in love with a story, and gave themselves up to imagination as if to a lover.” – W. B. Yeats

Cuchulain is representative of Irish culture. As an Irish hero from Ulster he is significant to both Irish Nationalists and Ulster Unionists. His image is found both as a sculpture in the Dublin General Post Office commemorating the revolutionary Easter Rising of 1916, and contradictorily in a mural on the Newtownards Road meant to depict him as a defender from Irish attack. In modern times, he is also invoked in less political ways! (Marvel Comics.)

marvel cuchulain

 

Sources:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulster_Cycle#Texts, http://www.bartleby.com/182/302.html, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C%C3%BA_Chulainn, http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cuch/lgc02.htm, http://www.marvunapp.com/Appendix/cuchulai.htm

Dylan Thomas: “After 39 years, this is all I’ve done.”

“Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  (from “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”)

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As we just began reading Dylan Thomas today, I wanted to take a closer look at Thomas and his legacy, especially in light of the article we read for class regarding Thomas’ critical reception. Thomas was, as several articles report, a “troubled” man, known for drinking heavily, being violent, and having frequent affairs. His wife Caitlin wrote in her memoirs after his death, that their marriage had been “not a love story proper; it was more of a drink story.”

cat2-6644195

Caitlin is a fascinating story in herself– I found this photo of her posing naked for a photographer in one of the articles I read about Thomas.

Thomas died young (at the age of 39, just over 60 years ago) of pneumonia, brain swelling, and a fatty liver, never to change his image from that of the wreckful and reckless poet. And with Thomas living well into the 20th century, the media coverage of his life and death could hardly be separated from his works, as we have heard in class.

Although it is unclear whether in spite of or because of Thomas’ self-destructive behaviors, Thomas’s poetic legacy is profound, and persists well into today. Although some critics may have found themselves unable to escape from the idea of Thomas as a dangerous, foolish, immature poet, popular support for “Thomas-the-poet” in Wales and among British/American artists has been strong, and has overwhelmingly continued to the present. US Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were also noted to be fans of Thomas’ work; Carter helped to open the Dylan Thomas Center, a museum in Swansea, the Welsh town where Thomas was born.
Dylan or Thomas? Thomas or Dylan?

Dylan or Thomas? Thomas or Dylan?

The article we read for class mentioned that the American singer Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman) took his stage name from Thomas, and as of 2012 was considering headlining at a concert in Thomas’s memory in Swansea this year. (Take a quiz on Dylan and Thomas here— it’s harder than it looks!)
From an interview with Paul McCartney (Beatles frontman), it appears that John Lennon also owes much of his career to Thomas’s influence– McCartney believed Thomas was the reason Lennon started writing.
It’s particularly interesting to note that Thomas had such an effect on musicians, especially because it was mentioned in class today that his poetry is particularly musical in nature. Filmmakers, too, have found inspiration in Thomas, with the 2008 movie The Edge of Love starring Matthew Rhys, Sienna Miller, and Keira Knightley being just the latest in a slew of movies on the life and works of Thomas.
 
Wales, too, has been affected fundamentally by Thomas and his poetry. Beyond the museum in Thomas’ hometown, the homeland of the great poet recognizes his effect through awards, ceremonies, and other memorials. This year, 2014, is the 100-year anniversary of Thomas’ birth (the 27th of October, to be specific!). It’s already a huge to-do, with an entire website devoted to chronicling the events for the year. His name is also on a young writers’ prize, which has helped to provide the financial springboard for writers such as Rachel Trezise, Maggie Shipstead, and Nam Le.
Thomas with his mother, wife, and three children

Thomas with his mother, wife, and three children

Despite his wild habits, Thomas had a family with Caitlin, with three children, all of whom died in the past 15 years. Thomas’ granddaughter Hannah Ellis Thomas (child of Colm, the youngest of Thomas’ three children) is alive today, and is an integral part of the centennial celebration committee in Swansea. Take a look at this incredible view from Thomas’ home in Wales.
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The title of this post is reportedly Thomas’ final words. I think it’s clear to anyone who isn’t an immediate critic of his style that Thomas accomplished much more post-mortem than he expected in life. The fascination with his life may play a role in his characterization as a poet, but his ability to write beautiful and multi-layered, complex creations has endured, challenging young artists of all generations to think about poems differently.
[Additionally, for all people who admire a good title, Thomas also wrote a collection of short story-like memoirs entitled The Portrait of the Artist As a Young Dog. You can buy it on Amazon.]

 

Irish Step Dancing

As someone who Irish danced for over 10 years, I feel obligated to make this my first post! When we opened our first class with the question of what comes to mind with the term “Celtic,” someone said the inevitable…Riverdance. The show’s creator, Michael Flatley, made his choreography a bit more theatrical than the traditional steps, but his work was well-received and brought parts of Irish culture to the international community.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8EXDtoGfrs

Irish step dance has changed significantly since I started in ‘95. I would describe the the process as two-fold: cultural & competitive. My school held daily practices and usually performed on weekends at festivals, parties, and parades. These traditional included group dances, called “céilís,” or solo sets with predetermined songs & steps that told some type of folklore tale. The rest of the time we would participate in “fèises,” or Irish dance competitions. Our biggest annual event was Celtic Fest, which is still the largest free Celtic festival in North America. Below is a picture of me (far left…I used to be short!) and the group about to dance at the Grand Pavillion. The next picture I took last year at the same Celtic Fest stage when I went to see my old school perform.

before

 

irishdance2

Clearly, a lot has changed. The visual aspect of Irish dance has honestly become similar to Toddlers & Tiaras. It’s much more competitive overall, but significantly more materialistic. When I was dancing, “solo dresses,” or costumes a dancer had made specifically for her, costed between $1000 and $2500. These normally contained beautiful detailing of Celtic crosses and knots. The dresses are now more abstract/geometrical and I’m sure their prices have skyrocketed. There was always an emphasis on having extremely curly hair, which seems to be a tradition derived from the beauty ideal of Irish folklore. Since the late 90s, Irish step dancers started to wear wigs. I didn’t mind because it meant avoiding the painful process of hair curlers, but the wigs were quite heavy and difficult to dance with. According to my friends who still dance, serious competitors must have spray tanned legs, theatre-style face makeup, two wigs, and a blindly sparkly solo dress.

I think this takes away from the actual art of the dancing and distracts from the truly difficult moves dancers must pull off. At fèises, dancers must impress the judges by jumping high, moving their feet swiftly, keeping to the beat, having their hands at their side, maintaining perfect posture, and being forceful in their steps…all while smiling. The highest level I got to was the East Coast championship, which is still held annually in Philadelphia. This competition was called the “Oireachtas,” which is also is the name of Ireland’s national parliament. The competition was so chaotic but exciting, as each stage had it’s own small band to play reels and jigs. At this level, dancers go onto the national competition and potentially the world championship, which is actually held in London this year.

Irish dance has become an international sport of sorts. I danced with girls & boys from all backgrounds and met people along the way who have no ties to Ireland, but were genuinely drawn to the style of dance and the traditional music that goes along with it. I wanted to talk more about the history & tradition of the dancing itself, but got a bit carried away so maybe I’ll have to save that for another post. Let me know if you have any questions! Don’t ask me to step dance for you though, as I’ve gotten too old.(: Check out this trailer if you’d like to see how things have changed since Riverdance:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQ4D2cg48uw

 

Maud Gonne

As we’ve worked our way through many of Yeats’ poems we’ve come across his main muse, Maud Gonne. I thought it would be interesting to do a little research into their relationship in order to get a better idea of where Yeats’ poetic inspiration came from.

CYCLES1

Gonne was of Anglo-Irish decent and the daughter of a British Army Officer. Although she was part of the Viceregal Court, Gonne dissociated herself from British society and became an activist for Irish nationalism. It was her desire to build a new Irish identity that intrigued Yeats when he first met Gonne in 1889. He too was looking to create a new Irish consciousness through his poetry. Yeats later revealed that his infatuation with Gonne began before he even set eyes on her.  He felt a “premonitory excitement” just upon reading her name and admited that it was then that the “troubling of my life began.”

In 1892 Yeats wrote Countess Kathleen as a play for Gonne to act in in Dublin. The role Yeats created for her was that of a beautiful aristocratic woman who ends up selling her own soul in order to feed the starving Irish. Gonne never ended up acting in the play yet Yeats dedicated the work to her and it was well know that Gonne was the inspiration behind the character of Countess Kathleen.

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A depiction of Countess Kathleen walking among the poor

During their twenty-year relationship Yeats proposed to Gonne three times. She declined each time and spent a brief three years married to John MacBride, an Irish Nationalist. During her separation with MacBride in 1906 Yeats acted as Gonne’s main source of support. After briefly becoming lovers in 1908 Gonne insisted that they return to being strictly platonic friends because she feared that a sexual relationship would ruin her power as a muse.

Despite the fluctuations in their relationship, Gonne remained a presence through much of Yeats’ work.  Specifically Yeats depicted Gonne as Helen of Troy in many of his poems including A Woman Homer Sung and No Second Troy. Just like Helen of Troy, Yeats found Gonne’s beauty to be so intense that it spread destruction and violence around her.

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If anyone is interested in doing some additional reading about Gonne or any of Yeats’ other muses I suggest checking out W.B Yeats and the Muses by Joseph M. Hasset which is available in Magill Library. I found it to have the best account of their relationship and it has additional chapters on the other muses who influenced Yeats’ work. Also if you are interested in Gonne’s life as a Irish Nationalist I recommend Women and the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses by Mary K. Greer which is also available in Magill.