A dawn of blackbirds

I didn’t stray too far from home for my latest Country Diary.

An urban blackbird singing. (photo by Malene Thyssen)

As always, many thanks to Paul Fleckney, editor.

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Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting

My much-annotated ‘Strange Meeting’

I was delighted, if that’s the right word, to see Carol Rumen’s analysis of Strange Meeting in today’s Guardian.

Like one of the commentators below the article, I too grew up during the Troubles and was educated in a convent school. I have blogged elsewhere about the inimitable Miss Reihill, who taught me English for O’level, and thereby introduced me to Wilfred Owen in that treasure-chest of English Poetry, A Choice of Poetry.

My school copy of A Choice of Poets. Yes folks, I’ve held onto it all this time.

However, like many adolescents, it was Owen who grabbed my attention. His work led to an obsession with both the Great War and the Second World War for some years. Perhaps those events felt like a safer way to grapple internally with the horrors of conflict than the low-grade war that I was actually living in the middle of.

Similarly to that commentator, I too knew Strange Meeting by heart; in fact, with very little prompting I still do. I recognise, as discussed by Rumen, that it is flawed; however its very flaws are part of its beauty. This article sent me off on a hunt to find my copy of ‘A choice of poets’, where I first encountered it. When I did, I chuckled at the scribbling that decorates most of the white space around it. While I was clearly an inveterate scribbler of notes, it’s not a surprise to me that this poem has been annotated intensely. I was clearly enthralled. I still am. It is such an important poem and at this time, with yet another tragic European war underway, it seems heartbreaking apt for the times. It’s also heartbreaking, as I noted above, (and I’ve no reason to doubt Miss Reihill’s word), that it was Owen’s last.

The end of Strange Meeting; aptly followed by Futility

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The last of the line

I was contacted recently by Summer Palace Press, who published my first poetry collection, Black Wolf on a White Plain. The launch of that book, way back in September 2001, was delayed by 9/11. I had exactly four copies left and had assumed that the book was entirely out of print. Not so. Kate, one of the press’s editors, told me there were a couple of boxes left of the original print run of 1000 books. Would I like to buy them (for an amount that included an extremely generous author’s discount) with the proceeds going to a charity for humanitarian aid for Ukraine? Of course I said yes.

It feels strange that this book has been bracketed by two wars, as it were. Its launch was marked by event that sparked the so-called war on terror; and a new war in Europe has prompted its final copies to come home to me.

Nevertheless I am very glad to have them. I wrote this book with so much hope and desperation, and out of the need for change in my life. I had no idea of all of the changes that would come. Many were good and have contributed to the extremely satisfying shape to my life today. I achieved what I wanted. My life is defined by writing, and far from losing touch with the biological sciences, my writing incorporates them, especially through The Country Diary. I use the experience of the (school) teacher that I was back in 2001 in every aspect of my facilitation and tutoring work. I have finally finished the novel I started way back in 2004. I also had the opportunity to do a Masters and redeem the 2ii that I was awarded for my first degree, a grade that scalded me for years (I got a Distinction in my Masters, so that kicked that well out of the water). That achievement led to my PhD, which had its necessary difficulties & hardships, but overall was sheer joy.

But. Getting hold of these remnant copies of Black Wolf also reminded me of some of the pain. How my poetry was thwarted for years by eldercare and financial issues involving the Office of Care and Protection. How a tremendous amount of time was stolen from me by circumstances outside of my control. How my love for my parents, and my labour and availability were exploited (I’d gone part-time, with the support of my partner, to devote more time to writing. That didn’t exactly work out, to put it mildly). It’s not an exaggeration to say that people I should have been able to trust nearly destroyed me. When my second poetry collection, Tribe, came out in 2008, it was almost a non-event in terms of progressing any nascent writing career. My father had just died and I fled to my Masters in Animal Behaviour. Retrospectively, I feel enormous gratitude that I had the means to do that, and ultimately it was the right decision. But it was also a decision prompted by my inability to write poetry any more. Events had driven out of me. Years would go by before I was able to come back to it.

In receiving these copies of Black Wolf, however, there is a tiny little feeling of redemption. God knows, it’s hubris in the extreme to compare with what I went through in the noughties to what the people of Ukraine are going through today; nevertheless, some emotional resonance feels true for me. How a life can be thrown off course by events that are entirely outside of one’s control. How you can be left bewildered, shocked, grief-stricken, utterly disbelieving at how structures suddenly collapse and the people responsible are blithely, callously, disregarding. Possibly even gleeful. Because you had a nerve expecting to be treated differently.

So I hope that the funds that Summer Palace Press are donating to the people of Ukraine make some small difference. Things will never be the same again – lives and dreams are smashed irreparably. But change will come. Lives will be rebuilt – differently shaped. The rest of us must be ready to help.

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Catching up

I’m a busy bunny at the minute, but the impending filing date for my April (!) Country Diary jolted me to the awareness that I haven’t yet linked to my February one. So here it is with a pretty poor photo of a local mallard pair pursued by two of those “surplus” males.

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A New Year

With all the excitement of Christmas and seeing folks over the hols, I entirely neglected to showcase my last Guardian Country Diary which came out on eve of New Year’s Eve. (I’m sleeping grand now, thanks).

And with the new year scarcely begun, I had a wonderful residency at the River Mill Writers Retreat in Co Down, where I met some old friends including the ravens that spill down from the Mournes, and a very alarmist buzzard. Thanks to the wonderful Paul Maddern for keeping this oasis of sustenance going. I don’t know how he does it but I’m very grateful, and to ACNI for the funding. After a long hiatus where I was largely focussed on other writing projects, I’m finally back writing poetry again. It feels good.

Finally, I’m back in the Marketplace Theatre and Centre in Armagh next week, delivering a six-week Creative Writing course beginning on 27th Jan. My first face-to-face work in almost 2 years! SO looking forward to it. I’m also giving a one-day “Spring Awakening” poetry workshop, 10am to 4pm on 19 Feb. Yes, yes, I know, I need to get this website updated properly, which is all part of my own spring awakening. There’s a grand stretch in the days already so I have time.

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The Strand, Lough Beg, Co Derry

An overview of Lough Beg from Longpoint Wood

Today’s Country Diary in The Guardian. The whooper swans are among the many things that make Lough Beg special.

Many thanks to all the folks who helped me track down or provided detailed info about the breeding behaviour and movements of the local whoopers, including: Stephen Hewitt of the BTO; Terry Goldsmith, Seamus Burns & Gareth Bareham of the RSPB; Ciara Laverty of the Lough Neagh Partnership; and Graham McIlwaine of the Irish Brent Goose Research group.

As ever, thanks also to Paul Fleckney, editor.

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Once upon a time I could have walked from here to Cumbria

My contribution to today’s Country Diary in The Guardian. A little allegory on climate change. Thanks, as ever, to Paul Fleckney, Country Diary editor.

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Single or taken?

Here is today’s Country Diary in the Guardian. A little piece about reed buntings. I discovered the marvels of Donnybrewer while I was doing my PhD some years back. It was one of my favourite fieldwork sites, thanks to these gorgeous and amazing little birds, as well as the beauty of the landscape and waterscapes. What we don’t know about other species is our loss, but I am so thankful that during my research I learned about how complex and informative the messages contained in reed bunting song actually are. 

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Antrim Curlews

What a joy this has been. The chicks were due to hatch by yesterday, but as I write they haven’t quite made a clear appearance, although their cheeps have been constant, and I’ve seen a wee head, I’m pretty sure, on several occasions. It’s the father on the nest right now, although the mother is very close by, and both parents have made exchanges from brooding over the last few hours. Both parents have been conversing with soup-dragon calls, both with each other and with their chicks. I am so grateful for the technology that has let me watch this. What a privilege.

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Acht na Gaelige

I shouldn’t be writing this. I have better things to do. I am enduring another bout of RSI so I am typing very slowly and gently and trying to keep my left thumb away the spacebar entirely. My left thumb is triggering again; and I have arthritis in both thumbs, for which I wear thumb braces when I type. (I tried voice-activated stuff when I went through this before – a much worse bout lasting months – almost two years ago. But using my voice to write is not the same; the software didn’t like my accent; there were too many mistakes that I had to correct by hand anyway; and I like the physical act of writing, either by hand or keyboard; how it slows down your thoughts; how you can organise your thoughts as you go). So now I’m also taking painkillers and resting regularly. But I’m miserable if I don’t write. So I’m writing. 

This is the morning after the Big Drama. I don’t write about this stuff. I’m not interested in this stuff. As far more experienced commentators than me have said, this place is addicted to drama. Ordinary mundane politics, if there is such a thing, seems beyond us in this part of the world. 

So why am I writing this? Because, when I heard yesterday morning that there was a prospect of the Irish language getting formal recognition in legislation, I was glad. I was tearful. I was relieved. 

Which, superficially, is weird. I don’t speak much Irish. My mother was fluent because she’d been educated through it. My father was self-taught, and used to take himself off to the Donegal Gaeltacht at intervals to immerse himself, especially after he’d retired. He could read it, but his spoken Irish was poor. Nevertheless, he’d a small library of Irish books, some dating back to the 1940s. Many were printed in Gaelic type, which has largely fallen into disuse. A few years before he died in 2008, when he was in the early stages of dementia, he organised himself to donate that library to an Irish language organisation in Derry. It may have been this one. A young woman arrived and filled a van with his books. I was embarrassed because I happened to be in my parents’ house at the time, with no knowledge that this was about to happen. Also, the young woman turned out to be the Irish language assistant in the school where I was then teaching. While admiring my  father’s ability to face into the task, the recognition of what was to come for him that it showed, and his bravery in confronting it, I felt exposed. I was also hurt that my Dad had not thought to offer me any of the books before passing them on. That probably reflected both his impression of my lack of interest in the language; and the fraught nature of our relationship. The latter was exacerbated by his early stage dementia and my own exhaustion from the responsibilities that the ill-health of both my parents conferred on me. I also had a demanding job, and a yearning to write that there never seemed to be any time for. 

I was interested in the language. How could I not be? I was surrounded by it. It was in all the place names of my parish. It had left its mark in the syntax and grammar of the spoken English of my community (the one, the both, the every). It was used in my home. When I was little, my parents conversed in it when they didn’t want their children to understand what they were talking about (it was, I suppose, handier than telling us to leave the room). Unfortunately, in a strange parallel of the way the language has become a conflicted issue in Northern Ireland/the North, it was also a bone of contention between them. And my parents contended a lot. 

Both of them were 1920s babies, and each was shaped profoundly shaped by those times. I was never told the details, but snippets slipped out. A paternal grandmother, it was hinted, who had been in or at least attracted to, Cumann na mBan – certainly, her brother was interned in Ballykinlar – I have inherited his autograph book; and a paternal grandfather who emigrated post-partition and didn’t return for decades. My father lived several years of his childhood in New York. He came back to Tyrone in 1933 and, at his new school in Omagh, he wrote his name as “Seamus”. (He had been “Jimmy” in New York. His first name on his birth certificate is “James”). He was known as Seamus for the rest of his life. 

My mother grew up in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. Her father was an early recruit to An Garda Síochána. She remarked often to me how strange it was that, during his long service, he was never posted elsewhere. Something to do with with having witnessed some subversive activity, and he  was kept in the one place in case the perpetrator ever came back. The veracity of her musings is something I have no idea about. The silences in my family stretch a long way back. 

Despite being educated at second level in Falcarragh Co Donegal (she hated the place – I think it was here; the fact that numerous online searches have yielded little information seems telling), my mother did not favour Ulster Irish. To be fair, she was also, subsequently, educated through Irish at Carysfort College, Dublin, which probably crystallised her Munster (or Leinster?) Irish. My father’s Irish was of Ulster. This led to long, let’s call them passionate, arguments between them, about how to say the thing right. Saying it right was very important. Despite my flair for language, it scared me. Getting it wrong could lead to a dismissive rebuke from my father; and or an accusation of taking his side from my mother. To this day, my German is better than my Irish. 

And yet, and yet … there were greetings. Salutations. Expressions of affection. Lullabies. I have so  so many cards from my parents written to me in Irish. When my father spoke to me as “a Mháire” (my fetch-name, as I like to now think of it, after hearing Ciaran Carson discoursing), the almost-snarl of his pronunciation wasn’t just his Tyrone accent; it was the deepest way he could express his love, and the emotion growled through it. 

For me, as a child, Irish belonged to my parents, and it was something I could not live up to. I kept falling short. So I sidled away. And yet, I was always listening for it, ears pricked with longing. 

Some years back, after my parents had died, I was asked to write a poem about the townlands of the area I grew up in, the Glendarragh Valley, in Co Fermanagh. I had hoped the poem would eventually make it into my third collection, but that could be a while yet. However, as best as I can say it, this is why Irish is important and why it deserves the same kind of acknowledgement as is given to other minority languages in the UK. And it belongs to us all. As the critic Jonathan Bate somewhat said it in his marvellous book, The Song of the Earth, we dwell in language. So here it is. 

Homelands of Glendarragh

The modern Irish for townland = baile fearainn = land associated with a town or home

The names are survivors, relics; 
seepage of a forgotten language
that signs the features of an altered 
land. So many oaks: the entire 

valley, gleann darrach, thick with them; 
then the ancient forest’s slow fragmenting 
as our Neolithic forebears axe it 
into the big wood, doire mór; the little grove, 

doire beag; the oak ridge, druim na rallach. 
The forest teases with its remnants: 
the snorts of Dernacapplekeagh’s blind 
horses pricking our ears as we strain 

to trace them, while they sidle into shadow. 
The clearances let the land’s shape emerge: 
all those druims amassing in English 
as Fermanagh’s drumlins. Here, each one 

is individual on the tongue:  Drumbrick’s 
badger; Drumcose’s cave; Drumcrin’s tree. 
Even the interruptions get special mention – 
Drumadraghy’s ridge between two fields. 

As the drumlins settle under pasture, tillage, 
a people’s seasonal labour claims them: 
Drumboarty for the milking; Drumcahy 
for chaff; Drumierna for the weaving. 

Some take a family name: Catháin; Macalara. 
In different times – druim Samhna; druim na croise – 
some become holy. From Lack’s, Aghaleague’s,  
bedrock bleakness, among the stones 

of Carn, Edenacloy, a grace, a grá, 
bonds soil and soul; the clay of Cornacrea 
grows tall; Glenarn blossoms; Gortgeeran 
ripens; Oghill’s sacred yews are constant. 

Work mends Edenaclaw’s fence, levels 
Aghama’s field, tills around Killycappy; 
flesh is scraped from Rosscolban’s scallops;
the pigs at Muckros are slaughtered, cured; 

but leisure delights in the wildflowers 
speckling Bracklin, the high waterfall 
at Ardess; and ease, affection, pleasure, 
linger in the soft meadows of Mantlin, 

Gorteen’s diminutive; leirg caoin. 
Out of such reverie, an artist’s gaze 
fixes buí to Letterboy, rua to Knockroe, 
liath to Leaghan, crón to Croneen.

Idleness, rivalry, gathers the boys 
at Edenamohill. Everyone’s heard 
of the droves that river the valley 
over at Stranadariff, their fine 

brown bulls. Cattle make a man’s wealth, 
a woman’s dowry. Raiding is a rite 
of passage, a way of life. Neighbourly 
feuds and forts spring up all over the country: 

simmering fires at Camplany; solid 
resistance at Cahore; Dooraa’s dark 
patience; Ederney’s calculation; 
the bloody eruption at Roscah. 

Local epics yield to a different kind 
of strongman. Macartan gains the ear, 
the woods, of the druids. Lios aingeal 
intercedes, tullach na gclog appeals: 

at Mullanasaggart, Kilsmullan, Scrinney,  
new legends are planted, another sacrifice 
worshipped; but a people’s piety, a grafted 
tongue, won’t mask the semantics 

of origin. Deeper than Tubrid’s well, 
the dinnseanchas of a pagan past 
breaks from the bogs of Moneyvriece, 
branches out of Crevenish. Homely 

as Colaghty, particular as cluain Aodh; 
a native land traversed in an Sunday afternoon’s 
ramble through the fields; an accent swerves, 
softens, on the sound: the mouth holds history.  

(in memory of my mother & father)

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