Saturday 30 April 2016

Walking on water

The Given Note
On the most westerly Blasket
In a dry-stone hut
He got this air out of the night.
Seamus Heaney
The Blasket Islands (next parish Boston) are the most westerly extension of the Western European Archipelago - what we have to call the clatter of islands which the Brits and Irish (and a gallimaufry of every other nationality on Earth) call home.  Apart from being home to the fiddler tribbed in Heaney's poem [above and RTE] the Blaskets are also the most significant European nesting site, after the Faeroes, for  Hydrobates pelagicus the storm[y] petrel, Mother Carey's chickens, guairdeall [IE] stormvogeltje [NL]; stormsvala [SE]; Sturmschwalbe [DE]; pétrel tempête [FR]. This, the smallest of seabirds, is named in English for St Peter who, in a famous biblical story, tried to walk on water. Actually the name petrel is more likely an onomatopoeia for the pitterel-patterel they make when skimming the surface scarfing up small fish and crustaceans for dinner. Mother Carey?  may be a corruption of Madre Cara, the blessed virgin. Don't rush off to the Blaskets in hope of adding this bird to your twitcher's checklist because except for 12 weeks of the year, there is nobody home.  The birds return only to mate, lay one white egg, and raise the fledgling before they depart again for their storm-tossed wandering life at sea. They only survive on islands which are free of introduced cats and rats [not Kerguelen so]. When you weigh an ounce /25g, your surface to volume ratio is so adverse that you must keep eating all the time just to keep warm. But for the evidence of almost uncountable numbers of storm petrels, physiological ecologists would have to conclude that these tiny birds had been assigned to the dustbin of extinction.  But hey, there are worse ways of making a living than on a world cruise.

Nevertheless, living on the edge they can't handle really terrible weather and will fly for shelter when they feel a storm brewing. Since man left the safe confines of life on the land, stormvogeltjes have sheltered in the lee of ships and boats when the going gets rough. Mariners have long viewed them as heralds of the coming storm and will use their appearance as a cue to shorten sail and batten down the hatches.  But they will also, in the Neanderthal recesses of their minds, curse the bird for bringing the storm. And in the perverse logic of superstition it is bad luck to kill a storm petrel.

My more literate Russian readers will be hopping from one foot to the other waiting for me to mention Maxim Gorky's poem The Song of the Stormy Petrel which he wrote in 1901 in support of the Revolutionaries who were hoping, planning, plotting to overthrow the Tsar and create a socialist paradise out of Mother Russia. Wait no longer Comrades: Между тучами и морем гордо реет Буревестник, чёрной молнии подобный. which, being translated means: Between the clouds and the sea proudly soars the stormy petrel, as a streak of black lightning.  You can get the whole poem and an English translation here.  I must add that to my favourite poems about birds along with the Kingfisher Alcedo atthis and Dis al.

Gorky wasn't the only one to associate Hydrobates pelagicus with a troublesome harbinger of dramatic change. The storm at sea presaged by the petrel's appearance was a powerful metaphor for a political storm brought about by revolutionaries. Padraig Pearse and his cronies, in formenting their rising against 300 years of Tory misrule in 1916, also recognised the propaganda value of the small apparently insignificant bird that brought a huge storm in its wake.

100 years later, a trio of our friends-and-neighbours submitted a proposal to the GPO Witness History Public Art scheme called ‘Stormy Petrel/Guairdeall’.  As I said before, the centennial of 1916 got two bites at the cherry: once during Easter Week 2016 and again on the date Easter Week fell in 1916. What Alanna O’Kelly, Brian Hand and Orla Ryan wanted to do was recognise a small apparently insignificant group of women who played a key role in the boys' games that went down in flames and guns during April 1916 in Ireland Dublin.  I have amended the last sentence because the rising was essentially limited to the city centre of Dublin. A couple of handfuls of  women set off from Dublin with written and/or rote remembered orders for the local commanders to rise in support of the events that were about to unfold in the GPO in central Dublin. But they were comprehensively dismissed by the Men in charge in the provinces. Having delivered their messages, these doughty female patriots then had a far more difficult journey back to town . . . the shit having hit the fan and the British military on high alert.

How to celebrate the role of women in a long-ago-and-still-too-close rebellion which failed but which served as the catalyst for the foundation of a new state in 1921 just 5 years later?  O'Kelly, Hand and Ryan are from The Arts Block, so their tributes wasn't in the form of spreadsheets, pie-charts and data analysis.  It was more in the vein of evocation, allusion and empathy.  Not trying to document what happened but to show how the actions of Elizabeth O'Farrell, Eily O'Hanrahan Kitty O'Doherty and the rest impact on, and can inspire, our lives today.  The Stormy Petrel / Guairdeall collaboration is taking the revolution to Vietnam later in the year!  Because we are neighbours, we were invited to a performance of the 'living installation' in the courtyard of the GPO last Monday. We were warned that the performance would be running a) as soon as the audience entered the courtyard b) through and around the audience for about 25 minutes. An interesting experience; flat out obvious "he's beHIND you" pantomime, it was not.

At one point, a young woman starts running desperately through the crowd carrying a violin case. This evokes many things in different imaginations: given the violence of 1916, quite possibly an echo of the 1929 St Valentine's Day Massacre.  Not knowing the details and anecdotes of the journeys of Mother Pearse's chickens, I was probably missing a key reference. Would it be fair to say that Science tries to make things clearer but the Arts strives to make things more obscure?  ANNyway, just when things were getting tense with the relentless slapping run of the girl, her violin case burst open and the family silver spilled out on the ground with a tremendous clattering >!clang!<.  In the ringing silence that followed, the nearest performers got down on the ground and started, with infinite care and attention, to pick up the silverware and secrete it about their person. But here's the thing: none of the audience helped!  We were ALL institutionalised into believing that the girl's accident was 'out there'; in a far country; at another time; irrelevant to our cosy modern lives.

I take it from this that, if we learn anything from history, it is that we learn nothing from history.  The majority of citizens of Dublin in 1916 were mostly annoyed that their equanimity and privilege [Dublin was a long way from Flanders or Gallipoli] was being disturbed by Connolly and his Yahoos. The dispossessed of Dublin, of which there were teeming thousands in the tenements of the North Side, saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity for a little light looting. It wasn't until after bullets and the fires and the judicial executions, that people started to re-imagine the past with themselves in a heroic role.

Damn and blast it! if we cannot even pick up a silver fork to help a poor girl in a play, what are we going to do about a million refugees in Greece, or 6000 refugees in the Calais Jungle or the thousands of refugees currently lodged in unprocessed limbo in Ireland. "Pass the marmelade, darling" ???

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