Sunday, May 26, 2019

Legenderry Heroes

We live in Dunfanaghy, Co. Donegal, which is about an hour and a half from Derry. So going there is like going to San Francisco from Santa Cruz. Belfast is about three hours from us, which would be like going to Sacramento.
Culturally and economically, Co. Dongal is oriented toward cities of Northern Ireland like Derry and Belfast, rather than Dublin or Sligo. 

We love this TV show called Derry GirlsIt's a comedy about five teenagers in a city where a civil rights march in 1969 FUBARed into a 30-year war called "The Troubles." The Derry Girls have their own troubles: history exams, how to get to a concert in Belfast, the loss of a pet, Sister Michael's judgement. In the most recent episode, their biggest problem is finding a proper US flag to wave at President Clinton. It's hilarious, even if we need subtitles to understand the slang. 

You may have heard The Troubles were Catholics fighting Protestants, but the conflict was never over sprinkling verses dunking. Catholics were the people who wanted civil rights and democratic political representation. Protestants were the people who enjoyed an authoritarian and gerrymandered "majority" rule. In the States, the same factions of pluralists and authoritarians exist, but we don't use religions labels for them. 

In one episode of Derry Girls our characters attend a program aimed at helping the children of their community (Catholics) understand what they have in common with the other community (Protestants). The most common characteristic of our community (Girls), is their fascination with the other community (Boys). 

Everyone loves The Blackboard Scene.

This added dozens of details to my Understanding Irish Culture project. 
The urge to exaggerate tiny social distinctions between our neighbours and ourselves is one of our species’ most regrettable traits. It still leads to much misery on this island. It also generates much spiky humour. There is scarcely a Northern Irish person standing—whether full-on bigot or enlightened egalitarian—who has not smiled at some supposed defining trait of either “community”. (Irish Times.)

To further my project, when I went to Derry last week on an errand, I booked a Derry Girls Tour.  Before meeting my guide, I wandered around on my own. 

I found Foyles, a used bookstore where I bought The Real Charlotte by Somerville and Ross. The authors were a lesbian couple who wrote pre-WWI novels about relationships between Irish communities then labeled as Irish and Anglo-Irish.

I found a cracker charity shop, and a yarn store that posted this Derry Girls glossary, which helps explain what subtitles don't. 

At the appointed time, I met Gleann, my tour guide, under the arch near the Tower Museumthe same arch where Michelle gives out to James.

Gleann, Pippin, and I walked up a narrow stone stair to the wide promenade along the top of walls encircling the town. Derry's walls were never breached in war, and you still see signs referring to that cringey Derry epithet "Maiden City." Everywhere you also see the British name of Londonderry. I've heard people resolving the name problem with "Legenderry" but Gleann told me the name is unlikely to be widely adopted. On the other hand, they told us the Banana Slug would never be the official mascot of UCSC, and sometimes progress favors the whimsical.

Derry is one of the oldest inhabited places in Ireland, settled ages ago on an oak-wooded island in the river Foyle. Settlers from London and Scotland built walls in 1613 to defend themselves from the Irish people they fucked off the island. Irish residents moved to the riverbank nearby, in a neighborhood still called The Bogside. Eventually the bog between the island and the riverbank filled in, and now the island is a hill surrounded by dense residential neighborhoods, curving streets, and surprising views. 

Here's a map. 

I can't help compare what I learn about Ireland with what I know, so here's a map of what Santa Cruz would look like if we had built our downtown on the island in the middle of our river and put walls around it. The two islands were about the same size, and not too long ago both Derry and Santa Cruz were small enough that everyone knew your business. 

Gleann and I walked along the wall chatting about Derry Girls and crossed through the middle of the walled city to Pump Street. We discussed the Derry Girls episode where Grandpa Joe was seen purchasing both an apple turnover and a cream horn (Joe says it was actually a cream finger) and then was reported to have turned up Pump Street.

Advance to the 2:00 mark to catch up to what I'm talking about.

Gleann explained that an apple turnover and a cream horn would be breakfast buns, while a cream finger would be something you'd eat with tea in the afternoon. I then shared my theory that an element of the scandal involved Grandpa Joe's purchase of breakfast foods, which indicate he spent the night with his new girlfriend. Gleann politely considered my theory in an Irish manner I am familiar with and said I may be reading more into it than anyone intended. He asked if I had ever had a cream horn, and no, I hadn't. 

After passing under Bishop's Gate we walked down a curving road with a view of the Bogside I recognized from the show, and came to St. Columba's church just outside the walls. In the episode about how they get out of history exams by pretending they have seen a weeping statue of the Blessed Mother, The Dog That Looks Like Toto runs into this church.

I picked up Pippin and we went inside. Gleann pointed out the Station of the Cross (Jesus Falls The Second Time) where Grandpa Joe met his friend Maeve who lives in Pump street.

Then we crossed a busy road and into the Bogside. Dennis's Wee Shop had a different name before Derry Girls made it famous.

The Wee Shop is near Free Derry Corner, where a defiant declaration was first painted on the gable end of a row of houses in 1969. 

The houses were demolished in the 1970s to make way for a through-road, but the sign remains and is an active site of Derry's political communications. The day I was there, someone had recently added a rebuke to a "dissident republican group," the New IRA.  

Someone in the New IRA killed journalist Lyra McGee last month as she stood near police observing a demonstration in a Catholic neighborhood. Police had been searching a house for hours and neighbors gathered to protest the search. Then men arrived with guns and bombs, shot at police, and killed Lyra. 

At Free Derry corner, Gleann told me the offices of the political party affiliated with New IRA had been located nearby, until a few days earlier when their landlord evicted them. I said I had seen the video of Lyra's friends pressing red handprints onto their building. He pointed out the New IRA political billboards now had red spray paint canceling their message. "They [young people grieving Lyra's death] wouldn't have dared do that before." 

Lyra's funeral in Belfast was attended by the President of Ireland, the Taoiseach of Ireland and his deputy, the British Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, and leaders of every Irish and Northern Irish political party.

There they all were, incandescent in their virtue signalling, squeezed together on pews while the priest gave out to them.

Two days after Lyra's funeral, the Irish and UK governments announced a plan for restarting talks aimed getting the Northern Ireland government functioning again, but negotiations have already SNAFU'ed. 

They might want to watch Lyra's TED Talk urging us to have difficult conversations.  

Lyra's legacy and Derry's future were on our minds as Gleann and I continued our tour. He pointed out landmarks from his other tours as we came to them. 

Not too far away from Dennis's Wee Shop we stopped at the Bloody Sunday memorial. Gleann pointed to the name of his own father, shot that day along with 27 other people (14 died). For decades Britain claimed they were only shooting terrorists. Recently the memorial was updated to commemorate that time British Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for 30 years of cover up.

Our tour proceeded, with Gleann pointing out more Derry Girls or Derry history locations. At one point he dashed into a shop for an errand, and while I was alone, I pondered what I had learned. 

Before this tour, I felt anxious in Derry, like you do when you run into an acquaintance who's been fighting with someone, but you don't know what about, or who is at fault. Before this tour, the location of Derry Girls was only background to jokes I barely comprehended. What we love most about the show is the loyalty between the girls, and the love their exasperated parents never cease to give. After visiting Derry I see how the comedy genius of Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee germinated in her city, where love sustains the sense of humor needed to equal the pain.

'The Town I Love So Well" sung by The Henry Girls, natives of Derry, 

Finally, Gleann and I arrived at Guildhall Square, a location in the most recent Derry Girls episode. In the show, it's December 1995, and the town gathers to see the President of the United States. He assures Derry—and everyone in Ireland and the UK—that the US will support the on-going peace process. After Clinton left town there were a few set-backs, but eventually all parties signed the Good Friday Agreement and created a new power-sharing political system in Northern Ireland.  

Advance to minute 12:00 if you want to skip introductions and get right to his speech.

It's enough to make you cry, isn't it? For so many reasons. 

In searching for that link, I found a wonderful speech Clinton gave at the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, delivered in the summer of 2016, mere months before we lost our own political system. 

He starts with a few jokes ("Your Taoiseach is half-Indian and gay, and nobody doubts he's Irish.") He then talks about how the genius of the Good Friday Agreement is that it centers democracy, not majority rule. 

Strong democracies share power between minority factions and require difficult conversations. Authoritarian governments take the short-cut, giving into the temptation of majority rule, eventually cheating to maintain that majority. Like parents in a house full of teenagers, violence and imprisonment cause only trouble. 

Gleann and I ended the tour at the Derry Girls Mural, just outside the walls.

Most murals in Derry commemorate heroes of one faction or another. This mural celebrates Derry heroes devoted to their newly-claimed self-determination, stepping out into a new Derry.

As we said goodbye, Gleann handed me a package of cream horns he picked up on his mysterious errand. I had to laugh. What if someone had seen him? 


Anything I've said about The Troubles is incomplete and possibly just wrong. You can watch a series of documentaries by Peter Taylor released just before the Good Friday Agreement. These documentaries allow the participants themselves to tell what they did, and why.

The Provos: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 
The Brits: part 1, part 2, part 3
The Loyalists: part 1, part 2, part 3

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Persistence of Satire

Last Friday night I went to Letterkenny watch a live recording of the Blindboy Podcast.

Blindboy's book of short stories, The Gospel According to Blindboy, was a best seller the first winter we lived in Ireland. He started the podcast to promote the book, and read one story each week. I loved it, even though I missed many cultural references. Soon his publisher told him he couldn't give the book away by reading it on the internet, so now he spends the hour talking to us: about music, art, psychology, Irish history and culture, and his analysis of all of it.

In a recent podcast he shared a hot take that the Chinese industrialists/government are creating a god 
for an atheist society that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Because every authoritarian government needs a god. 

Sometime last year he started doing live podcasts, with guests like Bernadette Devlin McAlisky and Roddy Doyle and Spike Lee. Guests have also included HIV activists and housing justice activists who important in Ireland but not celebrities. 

I never thought he'd come up to little ol' Letterkenny.

Blindboy is half of Rubber Bandits, a band who became famous with a song called Horse Outside. If you watch that video, or others, you may wonder why a middle-aged Californian lesbian feminist is listening to someone who so clearly appeals to young men. The podcast has nothing to do with mid-00's Irish hiphop, and early on he explains why he wears a bag on his head. (It's a good idea to listen to them in order from the beginning.)

The audience at the podcast event was half women, and all ages. They must like him for the same reason I do. He's funny, he's smart, and he's not afraid to take chances with art. He's not always right—he doesn't know that Second Wave feminism was intersectional for instance—but he seems willing to learn.

I listen to the Blindboy podcast to learn about current Irish culture. Here's a story he told about how Irish people give directions, which explains a lot:

As I mentioned before, there's so much more for me to learn about Irish Culture. I read the /ireland subreddit, for example, to get a slice of what younger people think of their country's current events. Even though most of the posters are young men, they've explained much that I didn't know I didn't know. Eventually I get the jokes. 

For instance, I heard about the Hardy Bucks on /ireland, and I will ever stop loving it. 
My favorite episode is King of the Town, where Uncle Mick gets the boys to form a team competing for the title of King of the Town. The prize is money, glory, and a horse collar. 

The events are:

Yard of Stew
The Enduro Cups
Best Pub Chat ("Mother was related to Ché Guevara")
The Sex Factor
Sex Mountain
Pint Spill Kickoff ("How many times a man will spill your pint before you blow your top.)

Something about running through tires while drinking a pint
Teams of men pulling tractors

A sean nós singer gives us the story of the King of the Town:

since time began
when I was young
they talk of this here day
men would come from near and far
to celebrate in May

healthy men [???? ???] fight
disappeared into the night
the tough times never got us down
the hardy bucks from Castletown

feats of strengths is how it goes
and before the sun goes down
a man will take the his title home
and be crowned king of the town

Here's the last 15 minutes of the episode. Give it a lash: 

"Feats of strength"? Where have I heard that before? The tales of Cú Chulainn! 
Cú Chulaine is young warrior in a pre-Christian Ireland, the hero of stories known as The Ulster Cycle. 

Cú Chulainn performs feats, showing all the other young men he is the best warrior in the land.

Cúchullainn arrived without further event at Scathach's fort. There he quickly completed his training: the apple feat - juggling nine apples with never more than one in his palm; the thunder-feat; the feats of the sword-edge and sloped shield; the feats of the javelin and the rope; the body-feat; the feat of Cat and the heroic salmon-leap; the pole-throw and the leap over a poisoned stroke; the noble chariot-fighter's crouch; the gae bolga; the spurt of speed; the feat of the chariot-wheel thrown on high and the feat of the shield-rim; the breath-feat, with gold apples blown up into the air; the snapping mouth and the hero's scream; the stroke of precision; the stunning-shot and the cry-stroke; stepping on a lance in flight and straightening erect on its point; the sickle chariot; and the trussing of a warrior on the points of spears. (source)

Before watching Hardy Bucks, I would have thought these feats were the events of an Irish Iron Age Track and Field competition, but now I see the entire list is meant to be ridiculous. 

Or is it? Maybe I'm misinterpreting and getting it wrong?
At the end of the Blindboy show, I asked him what he thought of my hot take.

As Blindboy suggests, I will finally get around to reading At Swim Two Birds. I will also read more of the Ulster Cycle, but read it as a satire rather than a Greek myth.


Maybe all heroic stories are meant to be more Hardy Bucks than Clash of the Titans? Maybe every ancient tale is a send up of serious story no one bothered to copy down? What about Genesis and Leviticus? What about The Book of Revelations? 

Very little ancient literature came down to us. What if only the massive lies survived? 

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Bluebells, dogs

Bealtaine, 2019. Helen and I visit the glen, and sit with the bluebells. We bring our dogs. 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The More I Know the Less I Understand

The other day I needed to go to the post office, but An Post Dunfanaghy closed forever in December, so I went to Falcarragh, the village to the west of us. I had been curious about this thing on the cover of a book.

Since you're probably curious, here are four typical jokes from the collection:

A Yank stopped to talk to a farmer and went on to brag about the size of his farm. He said, "It takes me two days to drive around each field." Our farmer said, "I had a tractor like that one time too but I got rid of it." 

Only Mustard  
A Yank visited an old aunt in the country and she invited him to stay for tea. She set the table and was in the kitchen flying[sic] the bacon and eggs. He was sitting at the table and as he liked mustard, he always carried a little box in his waistcoat pocket, and he put a little on the plate she put in front of him. When she returned, she wiped it off with her apron saying, "I can't keep them dammed hens off the table."
You See Nothing  
A man and wife were leaving after Mass and she said to him, "Did you see your woman from across the road and the hat she was wearing? "No," says he. "Did you not see him in his shirt sleeves like a young fellow?" "No," says he. "Surely you saw the daughter that's home from Dublin and a bit of a mini skirt on her?" "No," says he. "Ali! There no good bringing you to Mass, you see nothing." 
Next of Kin 
An elderly priest came across a dead donkey on the roadside and he rang the local Garda station to inform them. A rather abrupt Garda said "It's the priest's duty to look after the dead." "It is also the priest's duty to inform the next of kin," says the priest. 
I see why these jokes are funny, but I'm not sure I understand everything about their context. Or maybe I do? How would I know?

I read the whole book and there's not a word in it about the picture on the cover. Other sources tell me that it's a pillar with a stone on top called Cloich Cheann Fhaola, which is also the name of the parish, sometimes spelled Cloughaneely (Claw'ha neelee). The name means Stone of the Head of Man With a Wolf's Head.

Whose head of what? A Donegal website explains How Cloughhaneely Got Its Name:

Balor, the mythological king of Tory Island, was widely known as Balor of the Evil Eye. He stole a prized cow from Cenn Faelad, (translates as wolf-headed), who was a chieftain living in this area. The chieftain resolved to kill Balor but his druid told him that Balor could only be killed by the hand of Balor's own grandson. Balor, aware that his enemy knew his weakness, kept his only daughter Eithne locked under close guard in a tower on the eastern end of Tory. Cenn Faelad, assisted by his banshee and disguised as a noble lady, succeeded in gaining entry to the tower and when he revealed himself to Eithne she immediately fell in love with him. Nature took its course and when Cenn Faelad returned to the mainland, he left Eithne with child. She gave birth to male triplets but when Balor found out that his security had been breached he ordered that the children be drowned. One of the children survived and was fostered by his uncle, Gavida, the blacksmith brother of Cenn Faelad. (Source.)
Now wait a minute. This is a Tuatha dé Danann story I've heard before: Lugh's mother Eithne's imprisonment, and his father Cian who owned the magic cow. This local version is different


Balor, outraged by Cenn Faelad's plan to kill him, went to the mainland and seized Cenn Faelad and laying his head across a large white stone he severed it with one blow of his sword. A red stain, said to be Cenn Faelad's blood, can still be seen on the white stone which is called Cloch Cheann Fhaola (The Stone of the Head of Cenn Faelad) or the Cloughaneely Stone. The stone weighs a ton and a half and in 1774 Wybrants Olphert of Ballyconnell House, with the help of a party of Royal Navy sailors, managed to raise the Cloughaneely stone on to a sixteen foot high pillar. The inscription on the stone read, “Clog-an-Neely. Erected 1774 by Wybrants Olphert and Sarah, his wife.” 

I totally wanted to see that stone, but it's not on any of the maps I usually consult. I knew it was somewhere on the estate of of Wybrant and Sarah Ophert: Ballyconnell House near Falcarragh.
Old entrance gate to Ballyconnell.

Falcarragh is in an gaeltacht (Irish speaking area), and the old estate is now owned by the Údarás na Gaeltachta, the development agency for the gaeltacht. The house is boarded up. Local people raised money to use the forest as a ParkRun. They have a race every Saturday, but during the week it's deserted. 

I wandered around the ParkRun paths for two hours looking for the Cloich Cheann Fhaola. 

The drawing shows Muckish behind it, so it must be near the spot where I took this photo. But I couldn't find it. 

I found loads of other cool stuff though.

Ballyconnell House

This is the grave of the last landlord, who died in 1917, and didn't see his house occupied by the Irish army and then turned into a Catholic School. There are probably local stories about that transition period, and I hope I hear them someday.

I think this is a well, but it's not on the ordnance map.

There's a pond nearby, similarly overgrown. Maybe someday there will be people and money to restore them. 

The well has steps going down to it, and a white quartz stone set in the wall opposite the bottom step. If it was a holy well at one time, it would have been inside the wall of the estate, and I doubt the landlords would have allowed anyone to use it for Catholic rites. Maybe it is just the well for the house.

The bluebells are in full bloom right now. 

Photos can never capture them.

The forest is full of those exotic specimen trees Victorians loved collecting. There was a eucalyptus near the walled garden that smelled like California.

Lots of native trees too, which had little plaques giving their names in Irish and English.

I think that's a cork oak beyond Pippin. It didn't have a plaque.

There are two huge Monterey Cypress near the house.

The plaque didn't have the Irish for Monterey Cypress. 

And one of those weird trees Victorians also planted in Santa Cruz.

At the side of the house is another pond that curved through a sycamore wood very prettily, with trees and white stones set on an island in the middle of it. Now it's overgrown and wrecked. 

And there's a tombstone:

The stone reads:

1 7/8


The oddest thing I saw is what's inside this arch. On the other side of the wall is the golf course, which were fields or pastures back in the day. This arch was the gate between the house and the fields. Now it's blocked up, and it sort of feels like a churchy alcove. I could see that someone had painted something on the concrete blocks across the old opening. 

It is hard to understand what happened here. Someone painted a female creature with wings offering a bowl(?) to a male human. But they are literally defaced. Someone didn't scratch them off, or paint over them. The faces of those creatures have been literally beaten off, like with a mallet. Those dark patches where their faces used to be are deep holes in the concrete blocks.  


It was getting late, and I still had to go to the post office. I gave up trying to find Cloich Cheann Fhaola. 

I handed over my parcel: the stack of paperwork requesting another year's visa. Postage was €9. I didn't have any cash on me, but when I tried to use my Bank of Ireland debit card, the clerk said that it wouldn't work in the machine. I didn't even try to ask for that to be explained. I offered to go get cash, if they would hang on to my precious paperwork. She said if I didn't mind. I said I didn't mind, but if I did go get cash, would she do me a favor? "I think I could," she said. I pulled out my phone and asked, "Can you show me where this is?"

She knew exactly where it was, and we began the familiar transaction of her offering a landmark, and me trying to integrate her vague descriptions it into something I recognized. I was doing pretty well, soon understood why I hadn't found it—I had turned down the wrong road. Typical.

Now I was sorted. Then the other clerk told me how to find it in a completely other way, parking at the cemetary next to the National School. 

Both ways will work just as well. Typical Irish answer. I love this place so much. 

I found the stone, underwelming as these phallic monuments always are. The journey is the destination, as they say.

Ballyconnell is gorgeous, full of trees and birds, flowers, and friendly people. It's a perfect village park. But as I said, I've never seen it on any tourist information, and tourists would love it. I'm not a tourist, but I'll never be a local. The post office clerks didn't hesitate to tell me how to get there, twice. But I have the sense that the park is for the locals. But I don't know for sure, and I'm sure I'll never understand.