Monday, 6 June 2011

Portals at Sea

Minke whale as we saw on the sea stretch between Dunquin and the Blasket this past April.

I was at an enchanting evening of Kirtan singing with  Jack Harrison about a year and a half ago, and between the passions of his singing, he told us the most fascinating stories about music- in this land. 
His CD, the Wind Across the Sea, says a lot about this, in its title alone. It comes from the understanding in Ireland that music comes through the air, from the Sidhe, or the faeries.  

The Wind Across the Sea is inspired by the Song of Aimhirghin, the warrior poet said to be the first human to set foot on Ireland, then inhabited by the Tuatha De Dannaan, or the People of Danu. 

(The Tuatha De Danaan are known throughout ancient Ireland as the people of the goddess Dana/Danu.   Banished from Heaven because they had learned the knowledge of magic,  they came to live in Ireland, which they dominated until they were defeated by the Sons of Mil and were referred to as the 'Sidhe' thereafter).  

When Amhairghin Glungheal (Amairgin of the White Knees), a bard-shaman of the Sons of Mil, or the Milesians, landed on the Southwest coast of Ireland 2500 years ago, (as is recorded in the 12th Century Book of Invasions), he sang this song to call Ireland out from the mist that the Tuatha had cast over the coast. He composed this song when he had landed: 

I am the wind across the sea
I am a dewdrop let fall by the sun.
I am the fire on every hill. 
I am the shield over every head. 
Who (but I) is both the tree and the lightening that strikes it? 
Who (but I) is the dark secret of the dolmen not yet hewn?
Who knows the period of the moon?
Who knows the path of the sun?  

 The mist was lifted, and the first human arrived on Irish soil. No wonder we are wall to wall with poets on this island, having had to seek the permission of an ancient tribe of Sidhe to even inhabit this soil.  

Jack told another tale,  of the song Port na bPucai, the air of which was first heard by men in a curragh on the waters  between the Blasket and Dunquin, near Dingle. It means 'Song of the Ghosts', or some say, the 'Song of the Faeries'. The latter would suggest we are back to our old friends the Tuatha De Dannan for provenance.  Some say the men were coming back to the island in the mist, and heard this song which they thought was the sound of spirits, or Sidhe, which they had disturbed. So they made this air using the notes they had heard to placate the unhappy spirits. 

More recently, people say they were hearing whale-song reverberating through the canvas hulls of their boats. But this song, which was brought to this island by the last fiddle player to leave that Blasket island in the 1960's, comes from the old Irish way of seeing the world: that every rock, river, mountain and in this case whale, is inhabited by a spirit. Just as it is in the first poem written here,  the Song of Aimhirghin. The Spirit is in everything- the sun, the moon, the wind and the tree and the lightening. 

Michael Morris, composer of Eriu's child, has a beautiful version of the Song of Amhairgin. He sees this verse as one of the most magnificent verses in the Irish tradition, a "hymn to the mystery of existence" from Ireland's Dreamtime, embodying the wisdom of Plotinus that "all is each and each is all".  

There are so many airs that are said to have come from the faeries in Ireland. Danny Boy, for instance.  The original air, the Derry Air is an ancient one taken down 150 years ago from a blind street fiddler in Derry. But Michael Morris says that before that, the song literally rose out of the hedges, when a man who fell off his bicycle, drunk, into a ditch,  and he heard the air.  Luckily, he  remembered it when he sobered up! A song played by Elvis, and sung at Diana's funeral and so many weddings, despite being a song of separation and longing, came from the ditch!   

Another example of this mysterious exchange is The Coolin,  An Chuilfhionn,  an ancient air said to go back to the 13th Century,  the original words of which describe 'a fairy woman'. Hearing this on Eriu's Child, it's not at all hard to believe that the provenance of this song is from the other side.

The words to Port na bPucai are as haunting as its air. It is a song that truly emerges from the Passage between the worlds. Listen to it, and be haunted. There are many versions, and a few different titles: Caoineadh Na HInise, The Lament Of The Island, The Music Of The Fairies, Poirt Na BPúcaí, Poirt Na BPucai, Port Na Bpúcaí, Port Na Bpúcai, Port Na BPucaí, Port Na BPucai, Port Na BPuchai, Song Of The Pookas.

 I love this one, by  Cormac Breathnach: 

  Is bean ón slua sí mé, do tháinig thar toinn
I am a woman from the fairy host who traveled over the seas
Is do goideadh san oíche me tamall thar lear
I was stolen in the night and taken beyond the sea
Is go bhfuilim as ríocht seo fé gheas' mná sídhe
And I am held hostage in the kingdom by the fairy women
Is ní bheidh ar an saol seo ach go nglaofaidh an coileach
And I can only be in this world until the moment the cock crows
Is caitheadsa féin tabhairt fá'n deis isteach
I know I have tasks to do here
Ni thaithneamh liom é ach caithfead tabhairt fé
Which I do not like but must comply with
Is caitheadsa féin tabhairt fén lios isteach
I must return to the fort and do not have anything to do
Is ná déinig aon ní leis an dream thíos sa leas
With this body of fairy people down in the fairy mound

Hearing these stories of music and poetry coming out of the mist, at Jack Harrison's concert made me experience an echo.  Just weeks before I went to his concert, I had written the opening passage to my new book, in which my characters were approaching an island enshrouded in mist, through which came a strange music that had to be deciphered, in order for them to enter the island which was inhabited by a tribe of ghosts that had been massacred during the reign of Elizabeth I. Then I heard these two stories, and again I understood that we are never not being prompted by the muse, that they bring us, as always, exactly where we need to go to find treasure. 

It doesn't stop there, either. Just last April, I was in Dingle to visit an old friend, who had moved there three years ago. This was the first time I had been there since I was a child, and the only thing I could remember was eating periwinkles with a cocktail stick from a polystyrene tub, somewhere on the street. On our second day, this time, in Dingle, my friend took us out on her boat. It was my son's first time on a boat. I had no idea where we were going. I have to admit, I had even forgotten that we were so close to the Blaskets

 We had a small wish: to see Funghi the Dolphin, but that was about it, and there was no guarantee of even that. Little did we know what we were in for. We bumped straight into Funghi soon after we took off, and sped around (it was a Rib we were on) the coast, past the huge raw chunks of bare cliffs, until we stopped, surrounded by black fins. Sharks, we thought. My son was terrified. I wasn't sure what I should be, being a bit of an obtuse sailor. In the end, it was decided they were minke whales. On we went, heading fast towards the Blaskets. We were then visited by a pod of dolphins, who leaped in and out of the water around us, as if to greet us. An ecstacy of water, movement and blissful play.  My son shrieked with delight, as I think I did too. Funghi was one thing but this was epic...

It wasn't long before the Minke whales were back, skulking around us, just after the dolphins had gone away. Then we looked at the bank on the Blasket: we were being watched by a hundred seals. No I didn't count, but there were at least that many.  My son wasn't scared anymore. He had been met by all the guardians of this sea. He knew he was safe. 

And it was only when I got back, that I understood where I had been.  The air of Port na bPucai had come from this very place.‎.. according to one source, the men in the curraghs heard the air when they were in this stretch of water between Dún Chaoin and the Blasket Islands, called the Blasket Sound. Just where we had met the dolphins and the minke whales. 

 Whether it was whale song, or the keening of a wandering faery woman, this was the very place. And I had come here, not even knowing where I was. It makes me wonder, again and again, who is in charge? 

"The tune is expressive of the spirit of the island and also of the
belief, central to fairy lore, that fairies imitate mortal beings and
their lives. A great deal of lore exists about fairy music and there
are numerous accounts of fairies playing music and dancing."

(R. Flower, The Western Island or The Great Blasket, Oxford 1946).

Maybe it's a good thing, that I don't go around with guidebooks when I visit a place. Things just happen.  I know, my geography is appalling. I don't have a Sat Nav, I go blank when I look at a map, and similarly when I am given directions. It's as if I just go 'Puff!' inside my brain. But I don't care, because I find myself following a secret thread, nudged along, all the time, by my muse, and led to exactly where I need to be. 

1 comment:

Ciara said...

Ooh! A long tale? Excellent. Look forward to that!