Ethel Mannin, W B Yeats – and Wild Flights

If you read my post last week you will recognise this autumnal view of Rossbrin Castle. I took the photo in November 2017 and looked it out after I watched the magic of a skein of wild geese flying over Nead an Iolair just a few days ago – at the end of August. There’s something wistful about that spectacle – birds coming to winter on our west coasts – and Irish weather lore has to be heeded about these early advents:

It was generally believed that the early arrival of wild geese meant that a prolonged and severe winter was in store. This is a very old belief, as the ninth-century Irish work ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ states that the brent goose usually arrived at the coasts of Erris and Umhall between 15 October and 15 November, and that when it appeared earlier, it brought storms and high winds. Similarly, in Counties Donegal and Galway, when the wild geese arrived, it was a sign that cold and frosty weather was on the way. In Donegal, a sign of an approaching wind was when a goose stuck its neck up into the air and beat its wings against its stomach. Fishermen would watch out for this and if they saw it would not go out, believing that a storm was on the way . . .

(Niall Mac Coitir – Ireland’s Birds: Myths, Legends and Folklore, Collins Press 2015)

Today’s post – while inspired by my sighting of the wild geese – is more connected to swans: these large and graceful birds are a constant down on Rossbrin Cove, and plentiful along our West Cork coastlines. Niall Mac Coitir also has much to say about them:

In Ireland it was generally believed to be very unlucky to kill a swan, and many tales were told of the dire consequences for those who did so. For example, the mysterious death of one of their farm animals often occurred soon afterwards. In County Mayo the whooper swan was never interfered with, on account of a tradition that the souls of virgins, who whilst living had been remarkable for the purity of their lives, were after death enshrined in the form of these birds . . . In Donegal it was believed that swans were people under enchantment, so that bad luck would come to anyone who interfered with them . . .

(Ibid)

We know all about the tradition of people being turned into swans from the legendary Children of Lir – one of whom was Finola: you may remember the stained glass window we have in our house. A few years ago I found the above book in the wonderful Time Traveller’s Bookshop in Skibbereen (which has now transformed itself into the Antiquity Bookshop Café, the first all-vegan Cafe in West Cork: it’s well worth a visit – for books and food!). I was attracted initially by the cover and the illustrations, and then was delighted to find that the first story in the book was all about Finola and is a modern ‘take’ on the Irish legend. I had to buy the book, of course, for our Finola and I immediately thought of ‘The Wild Swans’ when I saw those wild geese. This post results from those wandering encounters.

Another of the illustrations from The Wild Swans – used on the cover: do you see the swans? The second picture above – of the four swans – is also from the book. The illustrator is Alex Jardine, about whom I have been able to find very little, other than he was British, lived from 1913 to 1987, wrote and illustrated books on angling, and designed a number of postage stamps. I was also keen to find out more about the author of this book – Ethel Mannin (shown above next to the book cover) – and initially came across scant information, until I discovered a connection with W B Yeats. Then, by dipping and diving through letters and articles specifically by and about Yeats, I was able to put together some often surprising details on her life.

Above left – Alex Jardine’s illustration for The Wild Swans showing Finola – beautifully detailed and with intriguingly distorted perspective (suitable for a ‘modern’ legend?); above right – for comparison, an illustration from the same period (1950s) of wild geese by prolific British illustrator Charles Tunnicliffe: a scene which looks uncannily like a peninsula from the west coast of Ireland

Ethel Mannin was born in 1900 in London, and died in 1984. None of her writings is in print today and she is now little regarded, yet in her lifetime she wrote and had published well over a hundred volumes, half of which were novels and others which included short stories, children’s books, travel books, autobiographies and works on literature, politics and her contemporary world. On the fly-leaf to The Wild Swans – published in 1952 – is the statement:

Her reputation as a writer is founded on her honesty and unorthodoxy. For some years past she has done most of her writing in retreat in a cottage in the remotest west of Ireland, the country of her ancestors . . .

Mannin traced her family background to the O’Mainnin owners of Melough Castle, Co Galway. In 1940 she settled close to Mannin Bay in Connemara, renting a cottage which she eventually bought in 1945. She spoke at public meetings against the Partition of Ireland – ‘the imperialist problem nearest home’ – and was elected Chairman of the West London Anti-Partition Committee. Her travels included India (where she attended a World Pacifist Conference and tore up her diary en route, throwing it overboard in the Indian Ocean, and found Hinduism repellent ‘with its lingam cult’), Burma, Morocco, Sweden, the Soviet Union, Brittany, where she befriended Cartier-Bresson.

I found more wild swans in this illustration by Charles Tunnicliffe from the 1927 best-seller and Hawthornden Prize winner Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers by nature writer Henry Williamson. Tarka captured the public imagination and has never been out of print, even though Williamson himself became unpopular following his support for Oswald Mosley and fascism

Ethel Mannin met W B Yeats in the 1930s and they became lovers. Their relationship was reported by Brenda Maddox in Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of W B Yeats, Harper Collins 1999:

Ethel Mannin was a rationalist and skeptical, he mystical and credulous. Politics divided them too. She was left-wing, just short of being a Marxist, and had recently returned starry-eyed from the Soviet Union; his leanings were firmly the other way. But that hardly mattered when, as a companion, she was brilliant, fun, and full of the salty talk that Yeats adored. She was not worried about his cultural baggage: “Yeats full of Burgundy and racy reminiscence was Yeats released from the Celtic Twilight and treading the antic hay with abundant zest.”

In 2014, to mark the 75th anniversary of Yeats’ death, Jonathan deBurca Butler wrote in the Irish Independent newspaper an article titled The Many Women of W B Yeats. This is an extract:

In 1934, Yeats, who had been suffering from both sexual and artistic impotence for three years, had a Steinach operation, a type of vasectomy, which was said by its supporters to increase energy and sexual vigour in men. According to Yeats, the procedure worked and he claimed to go through what he called “a second puberty”. Shortly after the operation, Ethel Mannin, a 34-year-old writer and member of the World League for Sexual Reform, was called on to “test the operation’s efficacy”. The test was by all accounts unsuccessful but it showed Yeats was still inclined towards trying his hand. If all else failed he could still arouse his mind . . .

This ‘swans’ illustration is almost exactly contemporary with Ethel Mannin’s The Wild Swans. Robert Gibbings wrote and beautifully illustrated Sweet Cork Of Thee, which was published by J M Dent in 1951

Ethel Mannin married twice, and had one daughter, Jean, after which ‘ . . .she espoused the idea that a masculine mind better suited women writers than motherhood . . . ‘ Apart from W B Yeats she also had an affair with Bertrand Russell. In her later years, Ethel returned to England and lived out her life in Devon – also, incidentally, the home of Henry Williamson. I have been chasing the works of Ethel Mannin, and have succeeded in recently locating some very inexpensive used copies on the internet – including some of her biographical works. Once I have these I may have more to report on her connections with Ireland. Meanwhile, I can only recommend The Wild Swans for its romanticism and imagination – and its seductive illustrations. And, of course, for its connections with Finola!

Because of the Yeats connection, it seems appropriate to quote his poem The Wild Swans at Coole (1916):

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

 

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

 

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

Robert Gibbings

Our bookshelves in Nead an Iolair include some volumes which have travelled with me for the best part of fifty years. They include titles by George Ewart Evans, Henry Williamson, Brian Lalor, Peter Somerville-Large. Look carefully and you’ll also see some there by Robert Gibbings. Who is he?

A writer and illustrator, Gibbings was born in 1889 and died exactly sixty years ago, on 19 January 1958. He was a Cork man, raised in Kinsale, where his father became the Rector of St Multose Church. However, he was an inveterate traveller and lived most of his working life in England. Much of his work seems to exude ‘Englishness’ and – in an Irish Times article this week to mark the anniversary of his death, Alannah Hopkin writes:

People often forget that Gibbings was Irish. Brian Lalor, author of Ink-stained Hands, the definitive history of Irish print-making, was challenged by an English academic at a conference in Dublin in 2007, who refused to believe that Gibbings was Irish, as he had produced archetypal English landscapes. But his account of Gougane Barra, for example, confirms how deeply steeped in Irish myth and folklore Gibbings was.

Gougane Barra in County Cork: upper image – the lake in the mountain. Centre – Robert Gibbings’ woodcut engraving of the lake which opens ‘Sweet Cork of Thee’ (1951). Lower image: a clapper bridge near Gougane – perhaps the same one which Finola illustrates in her post today

At the insistence of his parents, Gibbings studied medicine at UCC, although his ambition was to be an artist . . . writes Alannah Hopkin . . . While he enjoyed the scientific side of his studies, it soon became apparent that this big, soft-hearted man was unable to cope with the human suffering of his patients. His parents were apprehensive about his decision to be an artist, fearing, quite rightly, that it meant he would lead an unconventional life, looking at naked women, dressing untidily and consorting with social misfits . . . From 1911 he studied life drawing at the Slade in London. His contemporaries included Eric Gill, John Nash, David Jones and Mabel Annesley. He was advised to take wood-engraving classes; the technique perfectly suited his strong line and close observation of nature, which in this phase was lightly stylised.

Gibbing’s woodblock signature – used in the majority of his books – shows the tools of the wood engraver

The wood engravings of Robert Gibbings are exquisite: his eye is attuned to fine detail. His writing is also compelling: I suppose it reflects a nostalgia for past times and things gone, but it is also humorous and always tightly observant. He brings to life characters he has met in his travels.

‘Paddy the Forge’ putting metal tyres on wagon wheels – from Sweet Cork of Thee

In the 1940s Gibbings attended the World Ploughing Contest, held for the first time in England, at Shillingford on Thames:

Bowler hats and highly polished riding boots had been the order of the day at the Arab Horse Show: here among the shires it was rubber-boots, corduroy caps, and hats of weathered tweed. ‘I think you’re Irish,’ said a man to me as I was admiring a pair of Pedigree Suffolks resplendent with brasses that told of former triumphs. ‘What gives me away?’ I asked. ‘The tilt of your hat,’ he said, ‘I can always tell an Irishman – he just sticks it on his head and forgets it. Look at some of these fellows – caps, hats, pulled up here, pushed down there – self-conscious all of them. Look at those two fellows in the pork-pie hats – I wouldn’t trust that one on the right, he wears his too straight, has to – it’s psychological.’ ‘Bishops wear their hats straight,’ I said. ‘Same idea,’ he answered. ‘Suggests the narrow path, only they keeps to it.’

For Robert Gibbings, text and illustration were always of equal importance. Each page of his books is set out as an art work, to be enjoyed by the two senses of sight and feeling – the feeling engendered by his descriptive writing. Here is the Foreword to his second ‘Irish’ book – Sweet Cork of Thee:


The illustrated Foreword to Sweet Cork of Thee, the second of Gibbings’ books which describe his travels in the land of his birth

Throughout his life, Gibbings immersed himself in travelling and in art. His best known books are his ‘river’ books, beginning with ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’, published in 1940 and, at the end of his life, the sequel: ‘Till I End My Song’ completed in 1957: he died at the age of 68. The rivers he explored included the Thames, the Wye, the Seine and Cork’s River Lee. Between 1924 and 1933 he owned and ran the art-based Golden Cockerel Press. Founded in 1920, its earliest prospectus proclaimed:

This press is a co-operative society for the printing and publishing of books. It is co-operative in the strictest sense. Its members are their own craftsmen, and will produce their books themselves in their own communal workshops without recourse to paid and irresponsible labour.

Work from the Golden Cockerel Press: typefaces by Eric Gill

It is the two ‘River Lee’ books that will concern those interested in all things Irish. My copies (both first editions) were given to me by Danny who I first met when I moved to Devon in the 1970s. Danny was determined that I was going to fall in love with Ireland – and it didn’t take me very long! Eventually Danny – who hailed from Limerick but, like Gibbings, led a restless life during which he travelled the world – settled in Devon and then moved on to West Cork.

Danny gave me these books to encourage my interest in Ireland. At the time he told me that ‘these were all I needed’ to get to know his country. I think he was right!

I encourage anyone who follows Ireland to read these books – and anyone who appreciates art to get to know the work of Robert Gibbings who died just fifty years ago. I will ‘play out’ the man by quoting these lines from his aptly titled ‘Till I End My Song’, and include an image of the last page of this, his final book.

Poets throughout the ages have sung of the peace of gently running streams. In the sacred writings a river is used constantly as a symbol of peace: ‘Then had thy peace been as a river’, ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters’. Throughout our own literature flows the timelesss tranquility of rivers. Spenser’s Prothalamion is borne on the waters of Sweete Themmes. The tortured mind of Swift longed for a river at his garden’s end. The gentler Stevenson wishes to all ‘a living river by the door’. I think it is the unbroken sequences of flowing water, the punching destiny of stream, that seem to knit a man’s soul with the eternities . . .

Learning from the Masters

matt + jackie

It’s midsummer – and time for the Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival in Ballydehob. Amongst the distinguished guests this year are these two regulars: Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly. They hail from the Sliabh Luachra on the Cork, Kerry and Limerick borders. I’ve made mention of this area before, particularly in Slides or Jigs and The City of Shrone: the name means ‘Rushy Mountains’. I can’t resist quoting from this anonymous and wry review of a book published in 2003:

…I’ve just come across a book which may interest serious Sliabh Luachra obsessives, though not those merely in search of new polkas and slides.  “Sliabh Luachra Milestones”, by Diarmuid Moynihan, is an attempt at the first general history of the area, and grew out of a thesis on early road development in Sliabh Luachra.  It covers, in outline at least, such topics as archaeology, Christianity (traces have been found, apparently), early descriptions by English invaders, historical events, settlement patterns, maps, and of course, roads…

rushy glen

The rushy glens of Sliabh Luachra – from a woodcut by Robert Gibbings

So, am I a Sliabh Luachra obsessive? I think I probably am… It all started in the 1970s when my good friend Danny gave me two books by Robert Gibbings – Lovely is the Lee (J M Dent 1945) and Sweet Cork of Thee (J M Dent 1951). They are my most treasured books in our extensive collection of Irish literature and both are set, in part, in the Sliabh Luachra – and it was these books that set me on a journey that – 40 years later – has brought me here to Nead an Iolair, and to the wealth of musical tradition that we enjoy.

Gibbings books

Sweet Cork title

Jackie Daly is only a year older than I am, yet I remember looking up to him as a master when I first started listening to Irish music half a century ago: I suppose we must both have been more youthful then! He grew up with the music of course: his father played the melodeon, and he played at local ‘crossroads dances’ with a neighbouring mentor Jim Keefe. I still have – and still play – the recordings of Sliabh Luachra musicians that I bought in the early 1970s (and which are still available from Topic Records). Matt Cranitch is a distinguished and respected fiddle player who has also has an academic career and has lectured widely on Irish traditional music.

Here’s a taster from the Festival sessions – Matt, Jackie and friends finishing up a set of iconic Sliabh Lauchra slides in Rosie’s Bar

I was fortunate to attend a workshop with Matt and Jackie in Levis’s on Saturday. After a fascinating talk on their traditions we all ended up learning a set of polkas. Wonderful! Those without instruments were cajoled to sing the tunes, so it was a communal affair.

Here you’ll catch the end of a tale by Jackie and a few bars of a beautiful slow air (Maidin Ró-Mhoch) from Matt

The workshop took place in the intimate setting of the back parlour of Levis’s Corner House – on its way to becoming one of the top music venues in Ireland through the efforts of Joe and Caroline yet always keeping its distinctive character.

Levis midsummer day

It takes me a little while to pick up new tunes but the duo were good and patient teachers and we were doing quite well by the end of the session. I thoroughly recommend their latest CD Rolling On (2014), which includes Maidin Ró-Mhoch and many other fine Sliabh Luachra pieces.

As usual, Ballydehob has embraced this festival – one of many through the summer – and the town is rocking in the rain… there are visitors from afar: Hyttetu – a maritime themed male voice choir from Norway, Swansea shantymen Baggyrinkle and very many others, including someone who has been at the forefront of the Irish folk music scene for many years, Andy Irvine.

yellow poster

festival time!

Festival time – midsummer’s day!

So many thanks to all the organisers, particularly Dick Miles and Cathy Cook, and the landlords of all our local hostelries: it wouldn’t happen without them. Now I’m off home to get dry and practice those tunes!

3 polkas

 

Slides or Jigs? Polkas or Reels?

young fiddler close

Two young musicians – from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. We do not know at what outdoor gathering this atmospheric picture was taken, but perhaps there is a polka or a slide being played there…

Way back in the last century (it was the nineteen seventies actually) I first came to Ireland in pursuit of traditional music. I found it a-plenty. At that time, the music of the Sliabh Luachra was very much in vogue: local sessions and Fleadh Ceols were full of polkas and slides…

Classic recordings of traditional music collected from the Sliabh Luachra during the sixties and seventies: The Star above the Garter is published by Claddagh, while the others are from the Topic Record catalogue

My post last week came to you from the City of Shrone, which is within this area, in the border country of Cork, Kerry and Limerick. The strong surviving music traditions here have an unmistakeable character – fast and lively. I was reminded of that tradition this week when I came to the wonderful Fiddle Fair in Baltimore and listened to Tony O’Connell from the Sliabh Luachra in recital with Brid Harper, a highly regarded Donegal fiddler. They are an excellent duo – here’s a little taster from that concert (Kerry Slides):

As an aspiring concertina player myself I was bowled over by Tony’s playing, especially of the quintessential Kerry slides. But what is a slide you might ask? And how do you tell a slide from a jig?

Saturday’s recital in Saint Matthew’s Church, Baltimore: Brid Harper and Tony O’Connell playing Kerry Slides

Here’s some help, extracted from discussion boards, specifically on the subject of slides and jigs:

…Uninitiated listeners and even some tune-book editors have mistaken slides as hornpipes, single jigs, polkas, or double jigs, since slides share various traits with each. Once you know a few, you realise they are distinct from any of those…

…Note that slides are peculiar to the Southwest of Ireland, and some are directly related to double jigs, single jigs, or hornpipes played elsewhere in Ireland. Musicians quite familiar with slides are generally unfamiliar with single jigs, and some otherwise respectable authorities on the slide have rashly pronounced that single jigs “are the same as slides.” We can have some sympathy with that by understanding that these musicians simply use the term “single jig” to mean “slide,” and are apparently unaware of the existence of the distinctive “single jig” rhythm in Irish music. Over the course of the 20th century the customary notation for slides shifted from 6/8 to 12/8, which I think is an improvement in accuracy…

Both these statements (from irishtune.info) tell us about the confusion between jigs and slides, but they don’t tell us exactly how you define either of them. Let’s try this, from the same source, regarding slides:

The tempo is rather quick, often in the 150 bpm range, if you were to count each heavy-light pair as a beat. But in practice each beat of a slide (counting around 75 bpm now) gets two pulses, which is either a heavy-light pair (very close to an accurate “quarter note, eighth note” distribution) or a quite even triplet – not a jig pattern. Thus if all four group-halves in a bar were triplets – which is uncommon – you’d have a twelve-note bar. The ratio of heavy-light pairs to triplets in a slide is slightly in favour of the pairs, which again clearly distinguishes them from double jigs. Most slides break the pattern once or twice in a tune by delaying the strong note for a bar’s second group until that group’s second half, creating a cross-rhythm with respect to the foot taps. Other unique characteristics of slides are not necessary additional information for identifying them – only for playing them…!

I’ve puzzled over this (and other advice) for some time: I sort of understand it, but I think it’s impossible to describe a rhythm in words… However, I was pleased to find this mnemonic for slides by the poet Ciaran Carson – it says it all:

“blah dithery dump a doodle scattery idle fortunoodle”

gougane

An evocative engraving of Gougane Barra, in the Sliabh Luachra, by artist and writer Robert Gibbings, taken from Lovely is the Lee, J M Dent, 1945

How about polkas and reels? Polkas, in particular, are popular in the Sliabh Luachra tradition:

…The polka is one of the most popular traditional folk dances in Ireland, particularly in Sliabh Luachra. Many of the figures of Irish set dances are danced to polkas. Introduced to Ireland in the late 19th century, there are today hundreds of Irish polka tunes, which are most frequently played on the fiddle or button accordion. The Irish polka is dance music form in 2/4, typically 32 bars in length and subdivided into four parts, each 8 bars in length and played AABB. Irish polkas are typically played fast, at over 130 bpm, usually with an off-beat accent… (Also from irishtune.info)

Reels are probably the most popular tune type within the Irish traditional dance music tradition:

…Reel music is notated in simple meter, either as 2/2 or 4/4. All reels have the same structure, consisting largely of quaver (eighth note) movement with an accent on the first and third beats of the bar…

fiddle fair outdoors

At the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, informal sessions are essential interludes

Definitions are all very well and these can only be generalisations. In the end it’s what is being played – and what you hear – that counts. For me, the music in Ireland is like history: it’s built into the landscape and the psyche. Irish people are survivors and have travelled all over the world and back. So has the music! This was emphasised today when we had another excellent recital in the church by Dylan Foley and Dan Gurney, fiddle and accordion.

foley gurney

They both come from the Southern Catskill Mountains in New York State. Much of the Irish music they play was learnt directly from Father Charlie Coen who emigrated to the United States from the village of Woodford in County Galway in 1955, bringing the music traditions from East Galway with him. Here’s an excellent example of the music travelling across the world and back again: Fr Coen played The Moving Cloud reel on his concertina, but his instrument had some buttons missing so he adapted it, and the adapted tune is what we heard Foley and Gurney playing in the church today. Listen first to another Fiddle Fair maestro, Noel Hill playing the reel from his 1988 album The Irish Concertina:

Now the same reel which has travelled from Ireland to Baltimore via the Catskill Mountains:

I hope you can hear those ‘odd’ notes! But there’s nothing so right or so wrong in Irish music: the grand finale for us today was a memorable concert with French Canadian fiddler Pierre Schryer, Donegal box player Dermot Byrne and Australian born guitarist Steve Cooney. They played music with an Irish bias but harvested from many traditions. It left us breathless…