Monday, January 14, 2013

Reminders of their own impermanence

To start: a quote within a quote ... From the introduction to an anthology titled Modern Irish Short Stories:
Sean O'Faolain, in his excellent little cultural history The Irish, makes the point that the Irish are surrounded on all sides by reminders of their own impermanence: "Because of colonization and wars and persecutions, there is no physical continuity in Ireland like to the physical continuity in Britain, i.e. no ancient villages, with 'mossed cottage-trees,' old inns, timbered houses, cropped greens; and handcrafts survive only in the simplest needs—turf-baskets, churns, farming implements, a few kitchen utensils. We have, that is, an unfurnished countryside." As O'Faolain observes, what Ireland does have to preserve and unite is its memory of a Celtic past—in this respect the physical reminders, mostly ruins, are plentiful—and its capacity to express in word and song its character and history.
Other than brief dalliances with Irish folk (such as Irish Heartbeat, a collaboration with the Chieftains), there is nothing certifiably "Irish" about the sonic paths Van Morrison chose. Instead, he exhibits his Irishness through language, i.e., using lyrics to preserve the glow and warmth of the past, to reanimate moments from a Belfast adolescence, to dispel the notion that memory is ephemeral and thus volatile.

The Irish are often criticized for an eternal fixation with the past. My favorite response, uttered by an individual and during a moment I no longer recollect: "Well, the Irish have a [insert whatever expletive you'd like here: bloody, fuckin', fecking, etc.] lot of it." Morrison's lyrics express a similar sentiment (though in a manner that's a tad less rough around the edges): Time creates a backlog of memories, making it necessary to undertake periodic cataloging.

In Northern Ireland, the past is a weapon—and one that is wielded by individuals from both sides of the sectarian divide. Morrison does shape the past into something that's sharp and able to keep its edge, only his intent is to brandish it aloft, a reminder that for all the suggestions of their own impermanence, your everyday Irishman has quite the long memory.

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