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?

Journey into Purgatory

I was excited to be travelling to one of Ireland’s oldest – and most important – pilgrimage sites. Finola studies stained glass windows and their artists, and she knew that some particularly impressive Harry Clarke windows can be seen in the Basilica on Station Island, Lough Derg, in County Donegal. The roof of the Basilica, completed in 1931, towers over the island in the picture above, taken from the quay at Ballymacavany. Finola obtained special permission for us to visit the island to view and photograph the windows, after the main pilgrimage season was over: her account of them will appear in Roaringwater Journal in the near future.

It’s salutary to learn how many people and families we know have taken part in the pilgrimage at Station Island. It’s a particularly austere experience, involving a three day cycle of prayer and liturgies, bare-footed and with very little food or sleep. Finola’s father undertook the pilgrimage in the 1950s: the photograph above was taken at around that time, when pilgrims were ferried over in large open boats once rowed by eight oarsmen and subsequently motorised. One of these historic boats is kept on display at Ballymacavany (below). Nowadays the journey is made in a modern covered launch, as seen in the header photo.

Records of the number of pilgrims who travelled to Station Island have only existed in comparatively recent times. The peak seems to have been just prior to the famine around 1846, when over 30,000 went there in one season. The drawing above is by William Frederick Wakeman, who was a draughtsman with the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and was probably made at that time. Through the twentieth century numbers seldom fell below 10,000 pilgrims each season, but in many years was considerably more. This news item from the RTE Archives demonstrates the strength of the pilgrimage in the year 2000.

The island’s long history takes us back to the time of St Patrick. Despairing at the arduousness of persuading the Irish people to accept his Christian teachings he appealed to God to help. The story is admirably recounted by Dr Peter Harbison, Honorary Academic Editor in the Royal Irish Academy:

…St Patrick … was having difficulty convincing the pagan Irish of the 5th century of the truth of his teaching about heaven and hell; they were not prepared to believe him unless one of them had experienced it for themselves. To assist Patrick in his mission … Christ showed Patrick a dark pit in a deserted place and told him that whoever would enter the pit for a day and a night would be purged of his sins for the rest of his life. In the course of those twenty four hours, he would experience both the torments of the wicked and the delights of the blessed. St Patrick immediately had a church built, which he handed over to the Augustinian canons (who did not come to Ireland until the 12th century), locked the entrance to the pit and entrusted the key to the canons, so that no one would enter rashly without permission. Already during the lifetime of St Patrick a number of Irish entered the pit and were converted as a result of what they had seen. Thus the pit got the name of St Patrick’s Purgatory…

(from Pilgrimage in Ireland: the Monuments and the People by Peter Harbison, Barrie & Jenkins, 1991)

The entrance to this cave is on Station Island, and is the reason for the enduring popularity of the pilgrimage, which has persisted there for over 1500 years. In the medieval illustrations above, the gateway into Purgatory can be seen on the right, while on the left is a knight – Owein – whose terrifying adventures in the cave in medieval times have been written about in many languages: a summary can be found here.

St Patrick’s Purgatory: the name is over the entrance at the reception centre at Ballymacavany, the point of departure for Station Island. The cave which marks the entrance into Purgatory was permanently sealed up in October 1632 when the pilgrimage was suppressed by order of the Privy Council for Ireland; in the same year the Anglican Bishop of Clogher, James Spottiswoode, personally supervised the destruction of everything on the island. Later, in 1704, an Act of Parliament imposed a fine of 10 shillings or a public whipping …as a penalty for going to such places of pilgrimage… The site of the cave entrance lies under the bell tower, seen above. In front are the penitential beds where pilgrims perform rounds to this day. It is thought that these formations are the remains of monks’ cells or ‘beehive huts’.

On the left is a map of Station Island by Thomas Carve, dated 1666. The words Caverna Purgatory, centre left, show the site of the cave entrance. In spite of the efforts of the Penal Laws to suppress the observances, pilgrimages have continued unabated. Above right is a photograph from the Lawrence Collection, dated 1903, showing pilgrims about to embark for the island.

A young St Patrick portrayed as a pilgrim stands in front of the island: the Basilica is on the right. This view indicates the huge development  of the island since its complete destruction in the 18th century and shows the facilities provided for the many thousands who have come here over the generations.

The Basilica is the focus of the pilgrimages today: it was formally consecrated in 1931. The entrance door is a modern interpretation of Romanesque architecture, while the tabernacle is an impressive example of fine bronze work.

Ireland’s great poets and writers have visited St Patrick’s Purgatory, and have responded to the experience:

Donnchadh Mór Ó Dálaigh (1244) “Chief in Ireland for poetry”:

Truagh mo thuras ar loch dearg
a Rí na gceall is na gclog
do chaoineadh do chneadh’s do
chréacht
‘s nach faghaim déar thar mo rosg.

(Sad is my pilgrimage to Lough Derg, O King of the cells and bells; I came to mourn your sufferings and wounds, but no tear will cross my eye)

Patrick Kavanagh:

Lough Derg, St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal,
Christendom’s purge. Heretical
Around the edges: the centre’s hard
As the commonplace of a flamboyant bard.
The twentieth century blows across it now
But deeply it has kept an ancient vow.

W B Yeats:

Round Lough Derg’s holy island I went upon the stones,
I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow-bones,
And there I found an old man beside me, nothing would he say
But fol de rol de rolly O.

Most impressive of all, perhaps, is Seamus Heaney whose moving contemplations took him back through his life experiences and produced twelve memorable poems in a volume entitled Station Island:

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.
That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.
But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.
I know no sounding-line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night.
And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven all peoples
although it is the night.
And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.

Finally, here’s a contemporary journalist’s view, well worth the read!

 

The Seven Whistlers

curlew title

While researching for this post I picked up the excellent book by Niall Mac Coitir, Ireland’s Birds – Myths, Legends and Folklore and got diverted by a section on Eagles: why wouldn’t I, as we live up here in Nead an Iolair, Eagle’s Nest? I was delighted to discover from this book that Adam and Eve are reincarnated as Eagles and live on the island of Inishbofin, at the mouth of Killary Harbour in Galway. This adds to the list of important people of the world who have ended up in Ireland, including St Valentine in Dublin and Santa Claus (St Nicholas) who rests in Jerpoint Abbey. I’m hoping to discover many more…

My real subject today is the Curlew: we have seen a few of them lately below us in Rossbrin Cove. They are winter visitors from Scandinavia. There is a small breeding population in Ireland, mainly centred in Galway and Mayo, but this has declined catastrophically in recent times, and the bird is now red-listed as a globally threatened species, according to Birdwatch Ireland. Every Curlew sighting, therefore, is an important one.

In Irish bird folklore, the Curlew does not come over in a good light. It has a very distinctive and haunting call, and this has probably contributed to associations with the Otherworld.

Mac Coitor says: …The Curlew was famous for its whistling and screeching calls, which were believed to foretell the arrival of rain or stormy weather… while Scottish poet Norman Alexander MacCaig (1910 – 1996) describes the Curlew’s voice:

Trailing bubbles of music over the squelchy hillside… music as desolate, as beautiful as your loved places, mountainy marshes and glistening mudflats by the stealthy sea…

Curlews fly at dusk, sometimes in groups: this has given rise to accounts of The Seven Whistlers in both Britain and Ireland. One of the earliest collectors of folkore in these islands, Jabez Allies (1787 – 1856), wrote:

…I have been informed that the country people used to talk a good deal about the ‘Seven Whistlers’ and the late John Pressdee, who lived at Cuckold’s Knoll, in Suckley, said that oftentimes, at night, when he happened to be upon the hill by his house, heard six out of the ‘Seven Whistlers’ pass over his head, but that no more than six of them were ever heard by him, or by any one else to whistle at one time, and that should the seven whistle together the world would be at an end…

Another account, from William Henderson, Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders:

‘I heard ’em one dark night last winter,’ said an old Folkestone fisherman. ‘They come over our heads all of a sudden, singing “ewe, ewe,” and the men in the boat wanted to go back. It came on to rain and blow soon afterwards, and was an awful night, Sir; and sure enough before morning a boat was upset, and seven poor fellows drowned. I know what makes the noise, Sir; it’s them long-billed curlews, but I never likes to hear them.’

It’s that long, curved bill that makes the Curlew so distinct a figure down on the mud flats at low tide. The slim, pliable beak is used to probe in mud and shallow water for worms, crustaceans, and insects, and for exploring stones and shells. In flight the bird has a wonderful aerodynamism and reminds me of that beautiful aircraft – now extinct – Concorde. In my younger days, growing up in Hampshire, I watched the test flights of that plane at Farnborough, and always admired its drooping ‘Curlew’ nose.

JgxBY6H

Irish poetry has been enriched by images of the Curlew. Seamus Heaney’s From the Republic of Conscience:

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared…

We can’t leave out W B Yeats – He reproves the Curlew:

O, CURLEW, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.

Four of Yeats’ poems, including Curlew, were set to music by the eccentric English composer Philip Heseltine, who took the name Peter Warlock. The Curlew is a chamber song-cycle setting written for tenor voice, flute, cor anglais and string quartet. Heseltine spent some time in Ireland, including a period on a ‘Gaeltacht island’ (perhaps Cape Clear?) where he sought to learn the Irish language.

Heseltine / Warlock’s The Curlew brings us full circle, as the composer also spent time in Cornwall under the shadow of another Eagle’s Nest – near St Ives – in an area frequented by artists, writers and mystics including D H Lawrence, Aleister Crowley, Virginia Woolf and Patrick Heron. From Eagle’s Nest in West Cork to Eagle’s Nest in West Cornwall… The Curlew is a much-travelled bird… Be careful of the Seven Whistlers!

view from Eagle's Nest

Curlews be here… view of Rossbrin Cove from Eagle’s Nest, West Cork