Bernadette Devlin After Assassination Attempt

The documentary we saw in class didn’t say much about Bernadette Devlin, the Catholic civil rights activist in Northern Ireland who was a major political opponent to Ian Paisley. I was curious about her role in the Troubles, and I found that as a member UK parliament from 1969 to 1974 she helped to form a slightly more moderate political party and militant group from Sinn Fein and the IRA. However, she brazenly supported the blanket protest, dirty protest and hunger strikes. These sympathies won her dangerous enemies, and in 1981 the UVF tried to kill Devlin and her husband in their home. Heany, as a Catholic in Northern Ireland, undoubtedly knew that his poems would be scrutinized for the same sympathies as Devlin’s and by the same enemies.  What happened to Devlin over her life (she’s 66 now) really drives home for me the level of personal danger that came with getting involved in Northern Irish politics at the time, and may partly explain why Heany was so slow to touch such issues.

I read that on January 16, 1981, three men broke into Devlin’s house in Ulster, Northern Ireland, and shot her and her husband in front of their children. The shooters somehow got past the British troops stationed as guards around her house and kicked in the door, but were promptly arrested upon exiting the house after the shooting was done. The implications are that the British troops were in league with the shooters, sent by the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters, the militant branch of the UVF) and agreed to arrest them after Devlin and her husband were killed. This interview is from 1982, a year after the attack. The chillingly detached way with which Devlin talks about her injuries and the suspicious failure of the British guards to stop the gunmen speaks her devotion to her cause, and her acceptance that her opposition to Loyalists like Ian Paisley makes her an enemy of the British.  A warning, the quiet, 4 minute interview may be disturbing to watch.

Interview 1 Year After Assassination Attempt

75th Anniversary of Yeats’ Death

The Atlantic put out  this article on Yeats January 28 this year. Besides their shameless plug that Yeats had 3 poems published in their magazine the month of his death, their gloss of his career touches “Man and the Echo,” “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” and “Politics,” poems that we went over in detail. It is satisfying to know that any of us could go on and on about any poem or life event mentioned here.

Yeats and Raptors

Yeats poems are full of raptors, full of birds in general, really. There are so many bird moments and bird poems that it’s easy to forget just how much these collections use bird images or symbols.  It can be tough to see if one never had the interest to look into nictitating membranes or how falconers tame hawks, but Yeats is surprisingly accurate in his portrayal of hawks and falconry.

There are many diverse instances where birds are used as huge images or symbols or for an aesthetical impact, like the tundra swan’s mournful locator call, or the swallow’s uncanny agility in the air, or the fierce maternal instinct of the gallinule, or moorhen, or the hypnotically iridescent plumage of the peacock and its freakish scream. However, raptors are almost always mentioned in relation to falconry. Falconry has a great bank of images for Yeats to draw on, especially that of the spinning gyre and the unblinking eye of the sitting hawk. It doesn’t hurt that falconry also puts him in the aristocratic lexicon and the image of privilege can resonate or contrast with other images.

Yeats clearly knows that hunting raptors ride slowly upwards in a spiral, or gyre, pattern, and uses hawks and falcons a few times to conjure his vision of cosmic gyres. In “The Second Coming,” this is a core image. He knows that hawks and eagles moisten their eyes with a transparent nictitating membrane, though he, as most people, would not call it that. He is at least aware that they appear not to blink while they’re awake. As symbols for logic and reason, physiological rigidity does indeed lend them an air of intense dispassion, besides unnerving everyone in the room. Their nictitating membranes are also the foundation of the myth that hawks and eagles can stare unblinkingly into the sun, a myth that appears in “Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation.”

Yeats also knows enough about falconry to know which hawks are used by the highest aristocracy in Europe for hunting. It is disappointing that he doesn’t cash in on some incredible puns in their names. Case in point, the gyrfalcon, named for exactly the spiral shape it symbolizes, is the most prized of hunting birds and is the species most likely to be used, say, by the highest aristocracy of Egypt. The falcon in the opening of “The Second Coming” is most likely a gyrfalcon, since a peregrine or a lanner would be too cheap for a prince hunting within sight of the sphinx.

“The Hawk” is a small poem right after “The Fisherman” on page 149 of the Finneran. “Let [the hawk] be hooded or caged / Till the yellow eye has grown mild,” Yeats says, apparently aware that hawks become more and more complacent as they age in a falconer’s care. He also seems aware that young accipiter, or woodland hawks, if indeed this is one, have yellow eyes when they are young. Though he doesn’t explicitly say it, the eye turns red as the hawk becomes fully mature. After this age, accipiter hawks really are quite mild. Some can even be handled without a glove. As Yeats implies in his poem, a pacified hawk has lost a lot of its fierce dignity.

Is Yeats too English?

The Arthurian language in “The Fisherman” threw me off a little. Medieval chivalry, Arthurian legend, and the dueling tradition of calling someone out as “knave” and “craven” is about as English as it gets. When W.B. Yeats uses English mythology to write poems about his ideal image for Ireland, we can’t help but think that he must be joking. “The craven man in his seat, / the insolent unreproved, / and no knave brought to book” he writes, in mockery of the Irish middle class. Knowing his attitude toward the bourgeois, we can only read the mockery as sincere. But it is the usage of Arthurian language in the first place that is ironic. I realized that medieval language is only highly suggestive of medieval Anglo traditions, not necessarily Arthurian England in particular. However, the language still suggests the chivalry and dueling tradition within Anglicized Europe. In using words that sound Arthurian as the most Irish of Irish figures, he underscores a core paradox of Irish cultural nationalism, that all of the poems, plays and songs, in order to be digestible by a gentrified audience, must be in English. The whole project of resurrecting and preserving an Irish national spirit with English tools is fundamentally paradoxical.

Stage Directions in The Only Jealousy of Emer

Yeats gives extremely specific stage directions in The Only Jealousy of Emer, which is unusual in the plays that I’ve read. Now I’m not a drama expert, but I found it strange that the stage directions were so specific about the costumes of the musicians being exactly the same as in The Dreaming of the Bones, and the dance scene with the Sidhe was so specific about her metallic appearance and her other-than-human qualities. In other respects of staging, however, Yeats is purposefully ambiguous, as in his including in the stage directions that “The stage as before can be set against the wall of any room.” In either case, Yeats is very controlling of what his play will look like, because he wants it to affect his audiences in a specific way. He imagines that there is a single formulaic way to do that and he includes the critical elements of that formula in stage directions.

I have been told that stage directions are often tossed to the wind when actually putting on a play, and that playwrights are generally aware of this, so that they provide only very general stage “suggestions” more than stage “directions.” Not so with Yeats. He writes so much of his own vision into this play that it would be tough for lots of different directors to stage it differently. I think therein lies the point, that Yeats imagines his plays as art that does something, that pushes audiences’ buttons in specific ways to achieve a specific effect. For example, including in a stage direction that the stage can be in any room invites people to put on the play in garages, shops and warehouses and not just theaters. If the working class takes Yeats up on his offer and produces the play in local underground, this would diversify his audience and possibly attract the lower class to his and the cultural nationalists’ vision for Ireland. Specifically including that the Woman of the Sidhe should look otherworldly, “more an idol than a human being,” nicely epitomizes Yeats’ vision for how women are to be used in his art, as symbols rather than people. Yeats wants to make absolutely sure that exactly his vision for the play is what audiences see, to that they are affected in exactly the way that he has calculated.

Douglas Hyde and Tommy Tiernan

Some Context: Tommy Tiernan is one of Ireland’s most highly awarded standup comedians, winning international awards every 2 or 3 years since 1996. He’s still a huge mainstream act. I was amazed by the common ideas of his opening bit of his 2008 world tour, Something Mental, and Hyde’s 1892 essay, The Necessity of De-Anglicizing Ireland.

Hyde: “Its inroads have been silent, because, had the Gaelic race perceived what was being done, or had they been once warned of what was taking place in their own midst, they would, I think, never have allowed it. When the picture of complete Anglicisation is drawn for them in all its nakedness Irish sentimentality becomes suddenly a power and refuses to surrender its birthright…”

“If all this were done, it should not be very difficult, with the aid of the foremost foreign scholars, to bring about a tone of thought which would make it disgraceful for an educated Irishman especially of the old Celtic race, MacDermotts, O’Conors, O’Sullivans, MacCarthys, O’Neills — to be ignorant of his own language — would make it at least as disgraceful as for an educated Jew to be quite ignorant of Hebrew…”

Tiernan: If the link doesn’t work try: Tiernan and Hyde , start 2:30 end 4:15.

When I read Hyde’s I immediately thought of Tiernan. I am amazed by how closely these writers are related ideologically despite the 120 years that separate them. Tiernan’s free and spontaneous style puts off how deeply rooted his material is in hotly political long-standing conversations about Irish national identity.

Tiernan says “the Irish soul is a much more fluid thing than [the English language],” which he ultimately cites as the reason for his severe words. He says, with mighty leaps and wild gesticulating, as if to make up for the handicaps of English to communicate his energy, that only the most intense English curses can stimulate the human core in a way that Gaelic does, to make a profound spiritual connection with the audience that “rises up mightily into the stars.” And he premises this by saying he should be speaking Gaelic, even though he doesn’t know it at all. This idea of “should be speaking” as the best way of giving voice to “the Irish soul” echoes Hyde’s idea that Irish people, being of the Celtic race, have a relationship to Gaelic and should speak it even if they don’t understand a word of it, and should reject the English language as an encroachment upon the soul of their race. In his words, “in all its nakedness Irish sentimentality becomes suddenly a power that refuses to surrender its birthright…”  In his conversational, infinitely charming though obtrusively vulgar way, Tiernan echoes Hyde’s central idea: that there is an Irish essence, a “Celtic soul,” and that the Irish essence cannot be expressed or linguistically fulfilled by the English language.

When I saw dates like 1840 and 1790 on the papers we read on Irish national identity, I thought the current Irish cultural attitude toward these issues must be different from back then, and that we are only reading such papers for their relevance to Yeats and his own political context. The implications of this idea, the “language that should be spoken,” are of course completely different for the literary scholar of 1892 and the comedian of 2008, where one cites it as grounds for large-scale political reform and the other uses it as a premise to a standup show. However, what strikes me is how prolific this idea of an Irish “connection” to Gaelic is, and how it still sells, even as the opening segment of a world comedy tour, as it did as a springboard for political reform.