Stone Street Press Booknotes: “Herself Long Ago” –Six Irish Women, 1000 years ago: 8th-10th Century Irish Poetry. [Part One: Learning from the past.]

“Herself Long Ago” is one of my most popular books.
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The very title stirs the imagination.
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People want to know about these six Irish women from a thousand years ago. Their names: Liadan; Eve; Gormflaith; Creide; Grainne and Bui. Who were they?”
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This is a typical enquiry. If I saw you at a Book Fair and you asked me that question I could give you a quick twenty-minute introduction to these women of Ireland, and the poetry they wrote back then –poetry about their own lives, the times they lived in, what they wanted, what they did, their passions, their hearts and their souls. Their spirit.
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Unfortunately there just aren’t that many book fairs anymore where I can show my wares. Which is why I want to talk about them here in this blog.
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Six Irish Women, poets of the 8th-10th century. Their Ireland is an Ireland of Old ways and a New Church; an Ireland of Celts, of Celtic laws and tradition, full of families and kingdoms and poetry schools; full of poetry and epic and story and song and harp; an Ireland of beautiful books; an Ireland that feared Viking Invaders. An Ireland before there was an England, that brought Ireland to Scotland and down into the north of England. It was a world that knew a lot and still had much to learn.
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These women were poets, and of course, they all wrote in Irish. In the three “Herself Long Ago” little books, I give both the originals and my facing page translations –all done in my calligraphy. It is wonderful and powerful poetry.
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And here is the secret-in-plain-sight that I discovered: this poetry is also history, if you care to read it right. There is history in the lines, and history between the lines. History in the subtexts, history in the very air. History in their voices, in their cadences. You can learn a lot from their cadences.
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Their poetry speaks for itself. That is very clear.
But –like everything else– if you spend time with this poetry, it speaks to you. It tells you more about itself, about the person who is saying it, writing it, and it tells about the circumstances that the poet finds herself in, about the ways of the time.
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Stuff comes out. Stuff simply….comes out!
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The poetry tells us a lot about…then! About the times. Life in Ireland, a 1000 years back. But it also reaches across the centuries to us today, as we enquire; it tells us about now! That is what any body of literature does for us –the “littera scripta manet”, the stories that endure because they were written down. They connect the ‘then’ to the ‘now’. And vice-versa.
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The Canon of Irish Poetry is a rich archive, bursting at the seams, full of great stories, full of the exuberance and reflection and the magic of these compelling story-tellers. It is an important part of our heritage.
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And it is not “just” an Irish heritage –which it truly is– but a human heritage!
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This poetry has that “Made in Ireland” label on it, but –like all great literature– it educates the world; it educates our humanity.
Important as it is to us –and we have to think that these women, for the most part, knew only a world of “Irishness”– “Irishness” is just another lens, another flavor.
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And what is “Irishness”? What came out different in Irishness? These women of “Herself Long Ago” have some answers for us to consider; some suggestions for us to roll over in our minds.
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The classical ancient world recognized a great truth about human experience and human culture: “Littera scripta manet –the written word endures. And Columcille (521-597) Ireland’s great Book Saint, knew this. He told the convention of Druim Ceat, “We need enduring stories…stories that are wellmade and well told.”
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Today, in 2009, we look to the future of books, the future of the written word. Will our brilliant but often skittishly-competing multiple-technologies take us past books, away from the written word. There is no doubt an important place for all the technology, but is there not a danger that we will we lose our way, our full identity, in some sort of 140-character twittered-twilight world? A pen-umbra, indeed.
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We are fascinated, bemused by the future, enthralled by it: sometimes it feels as if we feel that we have nothing to learn from the past. And now, possibly more than ever, is a dangerous time for such glibness.
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As I look around at a world in crisis, it is hard to avoid feeling that there are segments of our society –very powerful, self-interested segments, that put their stamp on our world — who wish for us that kind of future that has nothing to learn from the past; who trade on the feeling that we are held back by our histories.
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[As it happens, we have a good example to hand in the gigantic struggle going on all over the globe, and the segment that so much wants us NOT to learn from the fiscal catastrophe it made for us and profited hugely from, and that we all participated in, one way or another –willingly, unwittingly, indulgently. Consumingly and consumed.
They want us not to learn, not to ask questions, not to examine, not to understand. They want us to Go Along.
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They dearly want us not to learn from history. So that we repeat it.
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We learn from history –the saying goes– that we learn nothing from history. It’s one good reason to connect with the women in “Herself Long Ago”. They may not have many of our “refinements”; they certainly didn’t have the latest technologies. And yes, they were very human.
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But they still seem to know a lot; have a lot to teach us.
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[Part Two of these BookNotes with give the introduction to Book One of “Herself Long Ago”. Do let me know if you have any questions.]


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