Friday, July 29, 2011

The Eastern End of the Western World

Check out my latest Aran Islands Blog post on the hidden gems of Inishmore's eastern end.

The Black Fort, exterior. Inishmore, Aran Islands

Highlights include the Black Fort, a beautiful coastline, and the puffing holes.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Just came across this post on the Irish Fireside Blog.

A pub in Denville, New Jersey is building a traditional thatched roof! There's a nice article in about the process of thatching the roof, as well as some great photos as well.

Photo from article of Master Thatcher Colin McGhee
I wonder what it will look like when it's done!

Maybe like this?
200 year old thatched cottage on Inishmore
Or this...?

Thatched cottage on Inishmore

Or this...?

Thatched cottage on Inishmaan

Or this...?

Man of Aran Cottage on Inishmore
Or this...?

Teach Synge on Inishmaan

I just hope it doesn't end up looking like this...

Thatched cottage with a chunk missing on Inishmaan

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Yeats and Synge - Innisfree vs. Inishmaan

I know why I went to the Aran Islands. Because of Synge. (If you're just tuning in, check out this post).

But why did Synge go to the Aran Islands?

Dun Conor, Synge's favorite Aran Fort

That's a question I've spent a lot of time wondering about, and writing about, and the answer is, I think, that it's very complicated.

WB Yeats
The most popular myth surrounding Synge's inspiration to travel to Aran is that W.B. Yeats told him to go. Synge met Yeats while he was living in Paris in the mid 1890s, and Yeats famously recalled that he urged Synge to go to Aran to "express a life that has never found expression." Yeats was not terribly impressed with Synge's poetry at that time, but he saw some promise in the young writer. Yeats had just visited Aran the previous year, and believed there was fertile ground there (for a writer, that is, not so much for farmers).

But Synge may have been familiar with the Aran Islands before he met Yeats. His cousin Alexander Synge, a Protestant priest, attempted to convert the Catholics there some fifty years earlier. Needless to say he was met with some resistance, and got into a bit of a scuffle with some fishermen when he brought in a motorized boat. He left the island convinced the people there were heathens. And yet, even though some of the islanders remembered there was a Synge who had traveled to the island previously, JM Synge makes no mention of any leftover hostility in his book The Aran Islands. So either people forgot, or were quite forgiving. Synge was also reading the work of French critic Arthur Symons at the time, and Symons had accompanied Yeats to Aran.

Curraghs at the old pier on Inis meain

Given all this, I was tempted to write of Yeats' unparalleled influence as just some more of his melodrama. (For some reason, I've found that Synge-o-philes get a little bit nasty when it comes to Yeats. It seems I have to watch out for this tendency in myself!)

But then I found this poem:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

I really love this poem. I love the pentameter, the gaps in the pentameter on the fourth line of each stanza, the stressed pauses, the idea of peace dropping like golden honey, and the stark, jarring realization at the end that the speaker is not on Innisfree at all, that it's all in his imagination. Yeats wrote this poem in 1888, and it was published in 1890. Innisfree is not one of the Arans, it is an island in the middle of Lough Gill in Sligo that Yeats visited in his youth. So of course, it was not as isolated as the Arans, but something about it captured him. He was inspired by Thoreau's Walden, and the poem expresses his desire to go and live a simple life. The majestic beauty and mysteriousness of the place he describes reminds me of some of Synge's writing about living in nature:

This old man I have spoken of wanders about Wicklow. As he sleeps by Lough Bray and the nightjar burrs and snipe drum over his head….he hears in their voices the chant of singers in dark chambers of Japan and the clamour of tambourines and flying limbs of dancers he knew in Algeria, and the rustle of golden fabrics of the east. As the trout splash in the dark water at his feet he forgets the purple moorland that is round him and hears waves that lap round a boat in some southern sea. He is not to be pitied. (From Synge's Wicklow writings).

Here, Synge expresses his own sense of the magic that comes from living in touch with nature, just as Yeats does in his Innisfree poem. Although Yeats may have been inspired by more mysticism than Synge was (who knows, really?) there was something about nature that was mystical to Synge. I can't say I know enough of Yeats to come to any real conclusions, but it's definitely made me rethink the importance of Yeats' influence on Synge.

Regardless of who should be given the credit, I'm just happy that Synge went to Aran...

 ...because who knows if I ever would have gone, if it wasn't for him?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sailor Monuments and Garden People

Last week I took a walk on a hot, humid summer evening through Riverside Park, heading south. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, just to walk. It's been my experience lately that just taking an unplanned walk somewhere, whether it's Aran or NYC, can lead me to unexpected discoveries.

First I came across the garden at 91st Street, famous as the meeting place in the movie You've Got Mail where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks finally lock lips.

Photo courtesy of the Garden People
It's truly a beautiful spot, and the flowers were in full bloom. I noticed some people moving about amongst the flowers behind the metal fence, gardening and weeding, who didn't look like NYC Parks employees. They were wearing their own clothes and straw hats. I approached one of them who had a clipboard, and it turns out that they are The Garden People, a group of volunteers who take care of this garden. I put down my name, and plan to go volunteer this weekend or next. I got the green thumb from my day gardening at Killeany Lodge, I suppose. And before I try to make some sort of window herb garden in my apartment, it will be great to learn from some more experienced gardeners how it's done.

I've had this parsley plant since Saturday. If I can keep it alive for two weeks, I think about adding some basil.

Poor little parsley plant in a barely sunny New York City apartment window
But I really am looking forward to working on a garden in New York, especially a garden as beautiful as the one on 91st Street. I can imagine that it would give me some sense of pride and accomplishment, knowing I helped to make my neighborhood a greener, prettier place. So I'll let you know how that goes.

The other discovery I made wasn't exactly a new one: I walked past the Soldiers and Sailors monument a few blocks down on 89th street. The monument commemorates those who fought for the Union during the Civil War. The monument is inscribed with the names of the enlisted who fought and died, and it's about 29 meters tall.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Riverside Park, New York City
Seeing this monument dedicated to soldiers and sailors immediately brought to my mind the monuments on Inishmore that line the roads in both Eochaill and Killeany. These were erected to commemorate sailors lost at sea, and are also inscribed with the names of the dead.

The scale and construction are certainly different, but the sentiments are similar. A stone structure, something that seems permanent and solid, to commemorate lives that have been lost.

The more I look, the more connections abound between Aran and New York. People are people, no matter where you live.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Outdoor Spaces - Connections Across the Pond - Aran and NYC

No matter where we are, what time period, what part of the globe, humans have always had an impact on their natural surroundings, and have worked with what was available to fit our needs. Even the pre-Christian islanders who first settled on the Aran Islands changed their landscape forever.

The islands are said to have been covered once by thick forests, which, like much of the mainland, early peoples cleared to use for lumber, and to create farmland.

Now the trees on Aran mostly look like this one.

The sheets of limestone were broken up to clear the land, and walls were constructed out of the stone debris to divide the fields between families, clans, tribes, etc. This was what was practical, useful, and necessary to do to meet their needs for survival.

Stone-wall fields. Inishmaan.

Flowers on the Highline.
Oddly enough, I started thinking about all this again a few days ago when I took a stroll on the Highline Park. The Highline is an elevated park built on the long defunct railroad tracks on the west side of the city. (According to the Highline website, the last train ran in 1980 pulling three carloads of frozen turkeys). It runs from 12th Street to 30th Street, through the neighborhood of Chelsea. Sections of it have opened piece by piece as construction goes on.

I've only been to the park a handful of times, but I think it's fantastic. The narrow space is used well, with sections of green grass, colorful flowers, trees, bushes, and spots to take in views of the city.

The Highline, bustling with activity. Views of the Manhattan streets.
I like how certain elements of the design complement the setting: old train tracks peek through flower beds, benches rise up out of the concrete floor like gears on a train,

Notice the seemingly undulating pathway on the right of the flowerbed

and clever design elements show up when you least expect them, like this geometric bird feeder.

Birdfeeder. The Highline Park, NYC
I remembered that there's also a semi-elevated, sloping, green grassy lawn just outside of Lincoln Center, near the Met Opera House, across from the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library. They've named it the Illumination Lawn. I had coffee on the Illumination Lawn (hehe, I love the name) with one of my good friends during his lunch break from work at the Apple Store.

Lincoln Center Illumination Lawn
So how does this tie in to Aran?

I'm not a psychologist or sociologist or urban planner, but I think what New Yorkers are craving is space (at least this New Yorker, anyhow). Green space. Outdoor space. Pretty space. Space to be, away from the busyness of the city streets. And since space is limited in this city, where else is there for parks to be built but...UP!

Like the Aran Islanders, we're working with what's in our environment to fulfill a basic need. The need for parks may not be as crucial for survival as the need for viable farmland, but we New Yorkers sure do need some space to relax, because relaxation can lead to happiness, and happiness - I believe - to a better, longer life.

Happy Emily on the Highline
If you know of any other interesting/inventive outdoor spaces like this in NYC, or anywhere, please share!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Slán go fóill, Arainn!

I am sitting in a pub in Galway having a glass of Bulmers to celebrate the last night of Aran Adventure 2011. Instead of doing a rushed recap of everything I've done in the past few weeks, I offer these two lists: ten things I know I'll miss about Aran, and ten things I've missed about New York.

Ten things I'll miss about Aran:

1) Hiking to pre-Christian forts, monastic sites, and remote, wild places
2) Sitting and watching the waves crashing against the cliffs
3) Feeling connected to nature
4) Stillness/Silence
5) Spontaneous singing in pubs
6) Wearing comfortable hiking clothes every day, and not even worrying for one minute about my hair
7) Daylight lasting until almost 11pm (at least in the summer)
8) The color of the water
9) Irish cider (had to throw that in there. It's so delicious!)
10) Feeling amazed on an almost daily basis

Ten things I've missed about New York:

1) My family/friends
2) My bed/apartment/home
3) Reliable internet (lame, I know, but it's true)
4) Businesses, coffee shops, public transportation, past 6pm
5) My writing routine
6) Cooking healthy meals every day
7) Wearing skirts/non-sensible shoes
8) A relatively more predictable climate
9) My favorite places in NYC: Central Park, BAM, the Village...
10) Feeling amazed on an almost daily basis.

It's been a great adventure, and I'm happy to return to home.

Slán go fóill, Arainn.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Synge-Lovers Unite!

Field near Rathdrum, Wicklow, Ireland
A brief recap of the goings-on at the 20th Annual Synge Summer School, to be expanded upon later.

Discussions of:

  • Irish drama in times of crisis 
  • The distinction between "space" and "place"
  • The impact Synge has had on modern Irish dramatists
  • The "fact/fiction" book Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor, and the implications of the blurred boundaries between fiction and nonfiction and what this says about our culture
  • Religious themes in Synge's works
  • The strong women of Synge's works
  • An outing to a "performance piece" by Una McKevitt at the Mermaid Arts Center in Bray, which has sparked so much discussion at the school
  • Ezra Pound's view of the Irish as informed by his views on Synge
  • a walk through Avondale Forest Park
  • a fantastic talk by author Colm Toibin on Irish theatre of the 1980s
Avondale House Forest Park, County Wicklow, Ireland
Tomorrow is the final day of the school, and I wish we had more time. I've met so many great people here who are passionate about theatre, literature, Synge, and learning, and I hope to keep in touch with many of them.

And I mustn't forget to mention that Wicklow - "the Garden of Ireland" - is absolutely gorgeous! Trees trees trees! And mountains! And green! And it's so different from Aran - no wonder the islands were so strange and foreign to Synge.

My time at the school has given me much to think about in terms of my own writing, my journey to Aran, and my thinking about Synge. No doubt it will take me some time to sort it all out, and I look forward to sharing my thinking about it here as it develops.

Tomorrow - touring Glenmalure and Laragh! Then on to Dublin, then home before I know it.