Friday, January 31, 2014

The Untold Story

     Near Sligo, I saw the pair from the bus window.  They were making their way through a field of high grass, angling slowly upward toward a nearby hill.  Behind them, a flock of sheep, spattered with blue paint, watched the pair as they walked away.  A raven on a fencepost turned to follow their trajectory.
     The man was tall and loose-limbed; he had a kind of scarecrow walk, as if his knees might squiggle and drop beneath him.  He wore a knit sweater, baggy and dark, the pattern clearly visible.  His hat was pulled low along his brow. In his left hand, he carried a walking stick.
     His companion was a border collie, black and white. The grass was so high that it swished along his sides.  He walked behind the man, determined and low, as if he was herding the man up the hill.
     Both of them cut chevrons into the high grass, like the prows of two ships or the determined v shapes of geese.
     Geesegrass. Seagrass.
     The light was dropping, low, spangling the lake that ran beside them.
     The image snapped itself, not into my ubiquitous camera, but onto the screen behind my eyes.  At any moment, even all these years later, I can close my eyes and see them, the watery stride of the man, the low determined collie, his tail sweeping the grass to either side.
     What was up there on the rounded hill?  A lost sheep, blue-spattered and bleating?  A lost child? Or just a moment - still - at the end of the day, when the two companions could sit and watch the light dive beneath the surface of the water?
     I will never know, but as a writer I can tell you this; these images are the places from which fiction arises,  the frozen moments, the unanswered questions, and then the leafy, papery voice that begins to whisper, "I can tell you.  I can answer.  All you have to do is listen."

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Five Places to See in Ireland and who Shouldn’t Miss Them

Five Places to See in Ireland and who Shouldn’t Miss Them
                                                           * All photos copyright Juilene Osborne-McKnight

What to See  -  Muckross House
Where  -  Killarney National Park
Who Shouldn’t Miss It  -  Downton Abbey Fans
Why?  This huge Anglo-Irish mansion has everything a Downton fan will love – stone facades decorated with climbing vines, an “upstairs” of curving staircases and elaborate fireplaces, accompanied by a “belowstairs” with a giant kitchen whose walls are full of  servant’s bells. Outside are gorgeous formal gardens, all on the shores of a shining lake ringed by mountains.

What to See  -  Newgrange Passage Tomb
Where -  Boyne Valley
Who Shouldn’t Miss It  -   Ancient History/Mystery Buffs
Why?  This tomb and temple capture the light, both literally and figuratively.  Built in approximately 3200 B.C., Newgrange predates the Great Pyramid of Giza. Visitors duck down a long passage and stand in a central room beneath a tightly corbelled ceiling. The walk takes five minutes, but it returns you to a time thousands of years before Christ.  At the winter solstice, the returning light enters the lintel above the door of the tomb, threads down the long passageway and illuminates the central room of the tomb.  But who built these passage tombs? How and why?

What to See  -  Bunratty Folk Park
Where -  County Clare
Who Shouldn’t Miss It  -  Photographers
Why?  The folk park is a virtual photographer’s stage set.  On every corner are cottages with thatched roofs, cottages with climbing roses, bicycles leaning against windows and tinker caravans from long ago.

What to See  -  Thor Ballylee
Where -  County Galway
Who Shouldn’t Miss It  -  William Butler Yeats fans
Why  -  Yeats was weird and wonderful crazy, wandering about the countryside, pressing his ear to the ground to hear the fairy folk playing on their fiddles.  At Thor Ballylee, in the ferny, greening woods, it is easy to imagine Yeats meandering the forest, climbing into his tower, writing brilliant lines like “peace comes dropping slow.”

What to See  -  Strokestown Famine Museum
Where -  County Roscommon
Who Shouldn’t Miss It  -  Fifth Generation Irish Americans, i.e. Famine Irish Descendants
Why -  In the stables beyond the house is a fine Famine museum with many records from the period.  When you see how horrible the treatment of our ancestors was, you will understand why they had to leave and why they were lucky if they were actually able to leave.  Both of your halves – Irish and American – will become self-explanatory.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Song of Amergin

                                      The Song of Amergin
                                                       Possibly an actual historical person & bard
                                                       500 B.C. - The first Irish poem
                                                       Primary Character in Song of Ireland

                                                       Translation by Douglas Hyde

I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the murmur of the billows,
I am the ox of the seven combats,
I am the vulture upon the rocks,
I am a beam of the sun,
I am the fairest of plants,
I am a wild boar in valor,
I am a salmon in the water,
I am a lake in the plain,
I am a word of science,
I am the point of the lance of battle,
I am the God who created in the head the fire.
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?
Who announces the ages of the moon?
Who teaches the place where couches the sun?
(If not I)



Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Anam Cara

"It is strange to be here.  The mystery never leaves you alone.  Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits.  A world lives within you."
                                                    John O'Donohue  Anam Cara
     If you have never read this book, you must find it and read it; it will open your heart, allow your spirit to blossom, alter your thinking on life and death. 
     For the Celts of ancient Ireland, the barrier between this world and the next was not a wall, the way it is in Western culture.  Rather it was a fog -  a mist, through which they could pass easily and often.  The brilliance of O'Donohue's book is that he lets us see just how available that passage still is for us, even in our harried and technologically overwhelmed world.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Julius Caesar and the Celtic Connection

     On my webpage I tell everyone to watch for tales of Vercingetorix and here he is, photo by Brigitte Rebollar (really nice job with the clouds Brigitte - good angle too - good photo!).     
     Vercingetorix is the ancestor, perhaps genetically and certainly culturally, of my great Irish heroes Fionn Mac Cumhail and CuChulainn, but Vercingetorix was an actual, historical person and leader of unified Gaul against Julius Caesar.  The Gauls were the Celtic tribes of France.
Photo by Brigitte Rebollar
     Vercingetorix took a disjointed collection of Gallic (Celtic) tribes, united them, learned and copied Roman military techniques, created Gallic guerilla techniques, and very nearly managed to stop Caesar.  In the end, on an oppidum (ancient Gallic hill fortress) in Alesia (now Alise Sainte Reine), Vercingetorix and the Gauls were defeated, because Caesar built both a circumvallation and a contravallation around the hill, walling the Gauls in and preventing anyone else from coming to their aid.  Vercingetorix surrendered to Caesar, who paraded him around Gaul, threw him into a Roman prison and waited for years to execute this proud warrior. 
      Recently, I taught a course in Rome on Vercingetorix and the Gallic tribes of France, who were the subject of Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War. The difference engine is that I taught the course from the perspective of the Gauls, who did nothing to merit that war, and who were run over by the prodigious Roman war machine, led by Caesar, who was nothing if not a brilliant military tactician, albeit one who killed a million Gauls and sold another million into slavery. I believe that my students came to love and admire Vercingetorix as much as I do, but they will have to weigh in on that issue.  For me, he is a symbol of bravery, intelligence, strong leadership, self-sacrifice, and freedom.  I have already begun to write the book in which he features.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Countdown to Song of Ireland

Ten days from today, my novel Song of Ireland releases to bookstores!  To celebrate, I have decided to launch ten days of  "Tips and Tales from Ireland." Each day I will post either a story or a travel tip, culminating in a book giveaway and an additional surprise on day ten.  So here we go:

Megaliths abound in Ireland; often you will find a dolmen or sarsen circle in a random location - a field punctuated with wildflowers, for example, or right in the middle of a herd of cattle.  But did you know that many Irish sites, like the tombs at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth on the Boyne River may actually pre-date the pyramids of Egypt.  Newgrange, for example, was built somewhere around 3200 B.C.  We know that such sites were often used as tombs, or as calendrical markers for the passage of the seasons and years.  But who put them there and why?  That we do not know.

The dolmen featured on my book cover, below, is the Poulnabrone, sometimes translated as Hole of the Sorrows (or grief).  This stone passage was once used as a grave, probably surrounded by heaped up dirt and stones.  Indeed, excavations discovered the bones of some 22 people in its depths, some of them children, some with arthritis. The dolmen stands on the Burren in County Clare where the wild wind has scoured a doorway between this world and the next.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Field Guide to Rome

I lived and taught in Rome this year.  Bellissimo!  But, for an American, the city can be overwhelming at first.  Traffic, both foot and wheeled, hurtles at you; language pulses around you, a living thing; multi-colored laundry flutters like flags over every alley and balcony. To make the situation even more overwhelming, you are surrounded by ghosts; the shadows of ancient emperors and fearsome gladiators lurk on every corner.

For those of you planning to live (or just meander) in the Eternal City, here are ten tips to help you acclimate.

·      Life in Italy is lived loud.  Shouted phone conversations take place beneath your window.  Old men stop in the middle of the sidewalk to argue, gesticulating all the while.  Randomly and for no particular reason, men will burst into song.  Young Romans opt for PDA (public displays of affection) on trains, buses and street corners.  Miniscule cars honk and laughter always occurs at belly-up volume.

·      The modern Roman chariot is the scooter (Vespa is a brand name). The winding streets of the most ancient Roman neighborhoods, such as Trastevere, were designed for two chariots to pass side by side.  However, you don’t need a scooter to get around in Rome  - or around Italy for that matter.  Italy has a world-class mass transport system.  Inexpensive trains will take you efficiently from city to city, while in Rome, the bus and metro system can take you anywhere in the city and to most locations in the Roman suburbs.  You can buy a Metro pass for one day, one week or one month and it will cover all city trains, all buses and all metro stations. 

·      In warm weather, trattorias blossom on every street in Rome.  Romans set up an awning and some collapsible tables, choose delightful checkered tablecloths, enlist the best cook in their family and voila! una ristorante is born, complete with pasta specialties, fine wines and water “naturale”  - uncarbonated - or  “acqua gassata,” bubbly water.  Romans swear by the bubbly, saying that it contains more vitamins and minerals.

·      Should you not want to order water at all, however, Roma provides you with another option.  All over the city are open spigots that bring in water from the ancient Roman aqueducts.  This water spills onto the ground in cold abundance and Romans refill their water bottles from that source or simply tip their heads under the icy stream.  For most Americans, it takes a while to get accustomed to this idea, but the water, when the visitor works up the courage to try it, tastes icy cold and clean.

·      Cats and dogs have the life in Rome.  Most Romans own dogs and the dogs accompany them everywhere  -  into the grocery story, onto the train, seated beside them at the restaurant.  From blue tick hounds to purse-sized Yorkies, il cane  - the dog - is a well-respected friend.  Cats, feral but open to affection, abound.  They sleep on the saddles of scooters when the owners are away and curl up in flower pots beside your door. In the ancient Roman ruins of Torre Argentina, hundreds of feral cats are fed and given shelter.

·      Romans listen to American music.  Everywhere.  All the time.  Even a Roman who cannot speak a word of English will opt for American music.  Ask them why and they will answer with a philosophical shrug, “Perché è bello,” “Because it is beautiful.”  In general, Romans are friendly and very open to American travelers.  Give them a “Grazie,” or reply to their thanks with a quick “Prego” and Romans will work hard to give you their best English. 

·      Street performers are the order of the day in gathering places like Trastevere, but these buskers are rarely amateurs.  A middle-aged woman plays classical cello by the fountain of Piazza Santa Maria.  Two tap dancers in full costume and make-up hoof their way across the cobblestones.  Meanwhile, beggars and priests pass by while young people cuddle up to watch from the fountain steps.  The whole experience has the flavor of a medieval street festival.

·      Many sites in Rome are free.  The Vatican, for example, home of Michelangelo’s Pieta and Bernini’s marble statues, is free.  If you are willing to stand in a long queue in the hot sun, you can spend as much free time as you wish with dead popes and the great artists of the Renaissance.  Churches in Rome are often cheek by jowl with ruins from the first or second century B.C. and the visitor is simply welcome to wander.  Climb the Janiculum hill (site of American University of Rome) and walk along ancient sycamore paths in golden light.  Wild green parakeets will sweep and dance above your head.  At the top of the hill, all of Rome, ancient and modern, will spread before you like a golden buffet.  None of that will cost so much as a Euro.

·      Renowned ruins (like the Colosseum) will cost the visitor an entrance fee, but once inside, surprises abound.  Leave the Colosseum for the Forum and you will see the precise spot where Mark Antony delivered his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech.  Down a side road, you can find the entrance to the Cloaca Maxima, the oldest sewage system in the world. Or climb to the top of the Palatine hill and you will have the park-like summit to yourself as you wander through the ruins of the massive palace of Domitian. Wild purple flowers bloom in what was once the emperor’s fountain and invaluable ancient marble statues stand beside an ancient wall, abandoned in the high grass.

·      In Rome you will walk  - and you should.  The historical center of ancient Rome is compact and very calpestabile - walkable. Turn a corner and you will encounter a baroque church, turn another and a gelato stand will catch your interest, turn again and a chariot driven by a winged angel will arise from the roof of the Capitoline Museum.  On average you will put four to five miles a day on your walking shoes, absolutely necessary when you consider all the pasta you will eat.

When in Rome is the order of the day for the visitor to the Eternal City.  Immerse yourself in food and culture, hoof it through history, allow yourself to be dazzled and delighted by the sights and sounds of this surprising city of la dolce vita. Rome is a literal, visual and historical feast.