Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Festival of Lughnasa

Lunasa, or Lughnasa, is the Irish language word for 'August'. It's also the name of the third season of the Celtic year, which starts with the festival of Lugh.

Lugh, the Celtic sun god and sky father, is the god of the harvest. His ritual marriage to Danú, the earth mother, whose name means 'water', symbolises the vital balance of heat, light and moisture required to nourish the crops and livestock on with we depend for survival.

Last year when I wrote about the festival of Lughnasa I was in Ireland, on the Dingle Peninsula. The peninsula's Irish language name, Corca Dhuibhne, means The Territory of the People of The Goddess Danú, and Lugh's festival's still celebrated there each year with bonfires and dawn gatherings on Mount Brandon.

This year I'm writing  in London at the start of the Olympic Games. You might think that the two places couldn't be more different. But, as always, the similarities are as striking as the contrasts.

The other night, watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics, I was fascinated by the fusion of the elements of ancient folk ritual with the magic of twenty-first century multimedia technology. There was fire and water. Light repeatedly conquered darkness. There was dance, music, celebration of identity, and ritual re-enactment of past, communal experience. As darkness fell, the god - or at least the Queen's stunt double - descended from the sky to bless the gathering. And finally, in a frenzy of firelight and drumbeats, there was a demonstration of faith in the future, symbolised by the handing on of the sacred flame from one generation to another.

None of that's surprising. And it's not just because of the Olympic Games' origin in an ancient Greek festival honouring the sky god Zeus. It's because the universal human instinct for communal, ritual expression is rooted in a primal need for a shared sense of identity. It's always been with us and it seems like it always will be.

We need teams, tribes, neighbourhoods, nations. We know who we are when we know where we come from. And our sense of ourselves as individuals seems to be supported by a sense of community, continuity and context. It allows us to view ourselves as elements in a larger picture. Distance gives perspective. Perspective gives a sense of balance. And balance promotes health. 

Yesterday I had a text from a friend in the village of Cloghane, the starting point of an annual walk up Mount Brandon, where Lugh's festival's been celebrated for milennia. This year I'll miss the music in the pubs, the food and drink and laughter, the traditional gatherings and rituals that express joy in the harvest and hope for the future.

But here, where the ancient Greek festival of Zeus is being echoed in East London, I've just discovered a faint echo of the festival of Lughnasa. The river Lea runs through London’s Olympic Park. And the name Lea is believed to be a corruption of the name of the Celtic sky god Lugh....

... which suggests that at this exact time of year, thousands of years ago, other ceremonies may have taken place on that riverbank.

So maybe David Beckham's neon speedboat wasn't the first craft to bear a flame to London 2012's Olympic site. 

Contrasts. And similarities.


Sunday, 1 July 2012

Irish Music and Memory

The longer I live in Corca Dhuibhne, the more I'm aware of tradition - not as something fusty or introspective but as a rich, creative inheritance held in trust for generations to come. And the more aware I become, the more inspired I am by the hands-on way in which each generation passes it on to the next

As I sit here writing this I remember sitting in a meeting with my commissioning editor in London two years ago, trying to describe the book that I had in my head.  'The house is ours bought and paid for, but it's still Tí Neillí Mhuiris.'  I was attempting to distil the essence of this low, grey house on an Irish hillside. But I was also trying to describe how deeply heritage and tradition inform my neighbours' lives.

My editor's assistant brought tea. I remember the warmth of the mug in my hands as I leant forward '..Tí Neillí Mhuiris means Neillí Muiris's house. From the day it was built it was a gathering place for the neighbours. They'd bring a sod of turf for the fire and maybe a bottle, and they'd sit round the hearth to talk and sing. They'd play cards and tell stories. It's an Irish tradition..'

Outside, traffic roared past on the Euston road. In my head I could hear gossip about the neighbours and legends of Fionn Mac Cumhaill; folktales; recipes; stories of emigration. There was the sound of pipes and fiddles and dancing feet on the floor. Songs echoed from a curved timber ceiling. Firelight threw shadows onto rough whitewashed walls. Sitting on the sixteenth floor of a London office block, I searched for the right words to make the spark of my idea ignite in my editor's mind. 'It's a house of music and memory.'

I remember thinking that sounded corny. But I swallowed a mouthful of tea and I said it. Because it's true.

Mark Óg (Rowsome) Lysaght
Last month the Irish flute-player Mary Rowsome and her son Mark Óg travelled to London to play at the UK launch of The House on an Irish Hillside.Young Mark's an uilleann piper. Uilleann pipes are a traditional Irish instrument, smaller and quieter than the Scottish bagpipes, with a bag that’s inflated by a bellows pumped by the player’s elbow. (Which is where the name comes from – the Irish for ‘elbow’ is uilleann.) He's one of six generations of pipers whose skills in playing and pipe making have been passed down through the Rowsome family since the 1820s. His great-grandfather, Leo Rowsome, one of the founders of Comhaltas Ceolteóirí Éireann, was known as Rí na bPíobairí, which means The King of The Pipers. Leo was also a founder of Na Píobairí Uilleann, the Irish uilleann pipers' association: Kevin, Mary's brother, is one of its board members today.

The House on an Irish Hillside was launched at the Irish Cultural Centre, Hammersmith, as the opening event of Irish Writers' Month London 2012, by Jimmy Deenihan the Irish Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. It's dedicated to Mary Rowsome's uncle Jack Flaherty, our neighbour here in Corca Dhuibhne. Mary can remember her Flaherty granny singing songs by the fire in Jack's kitchen; music's a tradition on both sides of her family. Her husband Mark Lysaght is a talented musician too and their three sons all play instruments.

Me, Mark Óg and Minister Deenihan at the London launch of The House on an Irish Hillside

When Leo Rowsome died in 1970 he was the only fulltime uilleann pipe maker in the world. And not all that long ago it seemed that pipe-making  in Ireland was dying out. Which was ironic because the number of uilleann pipers in Mark Óg's generation is growing, and there are seven-year waiting lists for new, Irish-made pipes.

But respect for tradition is a cornerstone of Irish piping. And last week Minister Jimmy Deenihan opened PIPECRAFT, a dedicated Pipe-making Training Facility established in Dublin by Na Píobairí Uilleann. Home to a three-year full-time course with ten trainees from all over Ireland, it's a triumph of vision and determination on the part of a dedicated group of musicians who cherish their inheritance and intend to hand it on.