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Op-Ed Contributor
"Well, the heart's a wonder," says Pegeen Mike in John Millington Synge's comedy "The Playboy of the Western World." It was a sentiment first articulated by Patrick's converts, who put down their weapons and took up their pens. They copied out the great Greco-Roman books, many of which they didn't really understand, thus saving in its purest form most of the classical library.

Brian Cronin

No doubt, several reasons could be proffered. But for me one answer stands out. Long, long ago the Irish pulled off a remarkable feat: They saved the books of the Western world and left them as gifts for all humanity.

True enough, the Irish were unlikely candidates for the job. Upon their entrance into Western history in the fifth century, they were the most barbaric of barbarians, practitioners of human sacrifice, cattle rustlers, traders in human beings (the children they captured along the Atlantic edge of Europe), insane warriors who entered battle stark naked. And yet it was the Irish who were around to pick up the pieces when the Roman Empire collapsed in the West under the increasing assaults of Germanic tribes.

more after the jump

Rare Dorothea Lange photos of County Clare


Two photographs take in County Clare around 1954 by the American photographer Dorothea Lange, known as the "greatest documentary photographer of her era."
These photos are from an extraordinary collection at the Oakland Museum in California.
In 1954 Life Magazine took up a Lange proposal to photograph County Clare and she went there with her son Dan.

Man_mug.jpgLange sought out in Ireland the community created by village life and family farming and she implicitly compared the rooted poverty of Irish country people with the uprooted poverty of migrant farm-workers in dust-bowl America.
She saw Irish country people as happy and stable even as their children went barefoot to school. Somewhat idealised, and unrealistic her subjects seem immune to the economic turmoil all around.

LANGE 1.jpg

Migrant Mother
This is Dorothea Lange's most famous photograph entitled: "Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936."
The historian Linda Gordon has just published a wonderful biography of the iconic photographer of the Depression entitled:
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits  (W.W. Norton, $35)
Lange began her career doing society portraits
in San Francisco, but a growing radicalization led her to photograph the dispos-
sessed, the unemployed, and the inmates of the American-Japanese intern-
ment camps. This biography is also a thoroughly researched cultural history of
America from 1920s Bohemian California through the post-War period


Clare County Library's Local Studies Centre (The Manse) holds contact prints for c. 2,100 Dorothea Lange Irish photographs gathered in four volumes, the bulk of which are of County Clare. The centre also has a copy of "Life" Magazine, 21 March 1955 ("A rural world in Ireland. Dorothea Lange takes a sympathetic look at the parent stock of a far-flung race as it lives on calmly amid the culture of a bygone day"); the 1996 book "Dorothea Lange's Ireland" (London: Aurum Press); and a DVD copy of the documentary film, "Photos to Send" by Diedre Lynch.

Synge: entre Paris et Inis Meàin

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John Millington Synge ((1871-1909), poète, écrivain et accessoirement musicien, était aussi photographe. Issu de la bourgeoisie protestante irlandaise, il passa une partie de sa vie à voyager pour étudier les arts et la littérature.

En 1897, malade, il décide de vivre entre Paris et Inis Meàn, dans les îles d'Aran. Il y effectue un véritable travail d'ethnologue, sillonnant la campagne avec son appareil-photo, collectant récits et chansons à chacun de ses passages.

En 1907, il publie son livre Les Iles d'Aran, illustré par Jack Butler Yeats. Les photos prises par Synge dans les îles d'Aran entre 1898 et 1902 ne seront rassemblées et publiées qu'en 1971 dans un recueil intitulé My Wallet of Photographs aux éditions Dolmen Press.

en plus

Irish novelist's quest for a perfect Aran


It is hard for me to think about the Aran Islands, the three rugged outposts off the coast of Galway, without dreaming of a perfect pint of Guinness on a drizzling summer afternoon, when all hopes of walking, or cycling, or swimming had been gloriously dampened by the weather, and there was only one place to go, and that was the pub. And from the window you could study the gray sky over the fierce Atlantic ocean, the white wash of the waves breaking in the distance, and somehow the drink in your hand, the beauty of the black and white liquid, the silky softness of its taste, especially if you were on your second or third pint, meant freedom, ease, time you treasured and longed for.

Read more....

I--Colm Tóibín is the author of the novels "Brooklyn" and "The Master."

See also Sean Scully: Walls of Aran with afterword by Colm Toibin

O Ceallaigh's journey of longing to Inis Mor

The Pleasant Light of Day
Philip O Ceallaigh
Penguin, €16.89

By Emer O'Kelly
Sunday July 12 2009

When Philip O Ceallaigh's first collection of stories burst on the reading public, it had a fairly electrifying effect. The likelihood was that after Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse, his second collection might disappoint; and a dip would have been acceptable from such a disturbingly unique voice. But The Pleasant Light of Day merely confirms his reputation.

That, in itself, is phenomenal: to have become a respected fixture with only two books is, to say the least, unusual.

There are, by and large, three locales for this collection of stories (where there is a recognisable locale other than the uneasy world of a detached soul). They are set in Ireland, North Africa and eastern Europe, all made similar to each other by their individual narrators/central characters who obsessively seek salvation through a kind of grim self-sufficiency that withdraws fearfully from contact with the world.

From the student residences of Galway to the tourist hotels of Cairo and chalets of rest in the mountains of eastern Europe, the locale is actually a desert of the soul, a single journey of troubled longing, ending nowhere, but with arms still reaching out.

In Tombstone Blues, a man follows the reputed travels of St Antony to the roots of Coptic Christianity and settles in for what purports to be some research in a monastery library. Effectively, he is in retreat, indeed "on" retreat as Roman Christianity would put it. The supervising priest does not read the books which surround him. Questioned, he says merely, "I used to".

The pilgrim reflects on Athanasius' Life of St Anthony, in which the saint is mocked because he has no letters, and when he questions his mockers as to which is first, mind or letters of mind, they accept that mind is first and the inventor of letters. Antony tells them, "Whoever, therefore, hath a sound mind hath not need of letters."

The equating of anti-intellectualism with purity and peace of mind pervades most of the stories. That seems to be the universal search, broken only by a surging sexual desire that is almost profane in the context of its cold detachment. The narrator of Tombstone Blues seeks out a woman traveller he sees from his window, uses her as though she were hanging on a cross for him, but never wonders at the self-abasement of her compliance.

He makes no connection when she tells him she is dying of cancer; the darkness he later experiences when there is a power cut in his seedy Cairo hotel illuminates nothing for him: as long as he can locate the bottle beside him without knocking it over, it is enough. It's the light that is disturbing: when the power comes back, he is disturbed because the room is ugly.

In Uprooted, a young lecturer goes to a student party because, until he has tenure, he and his wife can't afford to live together, and he's lonely. The city is Galway, the hostess a young Circe who watches herself exercising power over men. There is damage in her smile, but Jonathan emerges relatively unscathed because he believes "the obstinate will inherit the earth".

Aidan, too, a sculptor at a loose end on a trip from Inis Mor, salvages his equilibrium with a return to the basics of collecting driftwood and preparing his barren island holding for planting after the visual and aural stench of the student party. Isolation is salvation.

Back in Cairo, in the story of the collection title, a man takes his small son to visit the museums, meticulously explaining the meaning of the words he uses to the avid youngster, combining truth with a tempering of realism.

When the boy asks why the ancient arrows on display are barbed, he tells his son it was "to hurt more", not that any attempt to pull them out would have ripped the flesh agonisingly. But he avoids the room of mummies, and as they sit to eat ice cream in the square named for the assassinated Anwar Sadat, he reflects that every generation goes about its business as if none of it had happened before.

This is O Ceallaigh's insistent, contradictory message. To find peace, the stories demand, man (and it is always man: women are receptacles in this strange world) must avoid analysis and immure himself in intellectual oblivion. But, by so doing, he condemns himself to learn nothing. And thus he remains an eternal traveller in a barren, unsure landscape of his own making, out of time and place.

It's a hell of a message; that O Ceallaigh delivers it so compellingly, enticing us, however reluctantly, into what he sees as its lonely certainties, is remarkable.

- Emer O'Kelly

Aer Arann's very own Peggy Hernon has written a collection of short stories chronicling her experience working with Aer Arann Islands and life in Connemara. Peggy's colourful and descriptive style is sure to draw you in.
Peggy is a member of the Ground Operations staff at Inis Mor Airport. She was born in the Bronx in New York, attended NYU and worked on Wall street for 18 years. She moved over to Inis Mor in 1990 where she married Micheal Hernon, Inis Mor Airport Manager and has been living on the island ever since.
Below is a collection of some of her short stories of life on The Islands. We hope you like them!

Peggy's short stories

June 16, 2009
From The New York Times

A LONDON nursing home. The shape of a figure beneath the sheets. My grandfather could just about whisper. He wanted a cigarette and a glass of whiskey. "Come up on the bed here, young fella," he said, gruffly. It was 1975 and I was 10 years old and it would be the first -- and probably last -- time I'd ever see him. Gangrene was taking him away. He reached for the bottle and managed to light a cigarette. Spittle collected at the edge of his mouth. He began talking, but most of the details of his life had already begun slipping away.

Long wars, short memories.

Later that afternoon my father and I bid goodbye to my grandfather, boarded a train, then took a night boat back home to Dublin. Nothing but ferry-whistle and stars and waves. Three years later, my grandfather died. He had been, for all intents and purposes, an old drunk who had abandoned his family and lived in exile. I did not go to the funeral. I still, to this day, don't even know what country my grandfather is buried in, England or Ireland.

Sometimes one story can be enough for anyone: it suffices for a family, or a generation, or even a whole culture -- but on occasion there are enormous holes in our histories, and we don't know how to fill them.

Two months ago -- 31 years after my grandfather's death -- I got a case of osteomyelitis, a bone infection. I was admitted to a hospital in New York for a surgical debridement and a high-octane dose of antibiotics. I got a private room, largely because I'm middle class and insured, but also because it was an infectious disease. The double doors clacked when the nurses entered, visitors came and went, but for long stretches of time I listened to the ticking of a Vancomycin drip.

There is a lovely backspin in silence.

I had brought an old copy of "Ulysses," James Joyce's masterpiece that takes place in the back streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904. I wanted to read it cover to cover. I have been dipping into the novel for many years, reading the accessible parts, plundering the icing on the cake, but in truth I had never read it all in one flow.

The messy layers of human experience get pulled together, and sometimes ordered, by words.

Soon my grandfather was emerging from the novel. The further I went in, the more complex he got. The man whom I had met only once was becoming flesh and blood through the pages of a fiction. After all, he had walked the very same streets of Dublin, on the same day as Leopold Bloom. I began to see my grandfather outside Dlugacz's butcher shop, his hat cocked sideways, watching the moving "hams" of a young girl. I wondered if he had a penchant for "the inner organs of beasts and fowls." I heard him arguing with the Citizen in Barney Kiernan's pub. I felt him mourn the loss of a child.

He walked the city alongside Bloom, then turned the corner into Eccles Street, and then another corner into my hospital room and sat on the edge of my bed. I could smell the whiskey and cigarettes on his breath.

The book carried me through to the far side of my body, made me alive in another time. I was 10 years old again, but this time I knew my grandfather, and it was a moment of gain: he was so much more than a forgotten drunk.

Vladimir Nabokov once said that the purpose of storytelling is "to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade."

This is the function of books -- we learn how to live even if we weren't there. Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be.

Today is Bloomsday, the 105th anniversary of the events of the novel. All over the world Joyce fans will gather to celebrate the extraordinary tale of an ordinary day. There will be Bloomsday breakfasts, and Bloomsday love affairs, and Bloomsday arguments and, indeed, Bloomsday grandfathers hoisting their sons, and their sons of sons, onto the shoulders of never-ending stories.

As for me, with a clean bill of health now, I finally know where my grandfather is buried -- happily between the covers of a book, where he sits, smoking and drinking still.

Colum McCann is the author of the forthcoming novel "Let the Great World Spin."

Nooteboom and the Aran islands

Los Angeles Times

April 8, 2009 Wednesday

Tim Rutten

Cees Nooteboom, now 75, is one of the two Dutch writers -- along with his slightly older contemporary, Harry Mulisch -- whose name always turns up on those mysterious annual short lists of Nobel Prize contenders so beloved of European literary journalists.

 Nooteboom is the sort of writer who can can describe Irish grass as "idiotically green" and observe that not knowing the language of the country in which a traveler finds himself turns him "into a very small child, a dog, or a foreigner -- for these three are none of them capable of understanding what you say." (The latter reaction came in a pub on the Aran Isles, where the author encountered his first native Irish speaker.)

The relatively short works here are not, in other words, pieces that slip easily into the conventional Anglo-American travel-writing genre. (That's part of what renders them rather mesmerizing.) Nor does it work to label them "travel sketches." Despite their brevity, these are deeply layered, richly allusive and -- in the best sense of the word -- demanding, wholly original pieces. Perhaps they best could be described as meditations on various destinations.

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A subtle way of seeing (Inis Meain)

A subtle way of seeing

Joseph O'Connor delights in the unusual talent on display in a short story collection

Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse, the 2005 debut collection of short stories from Philip O'Ceallaigh, garnered deservedly strong reviews and a handful of prizes. Its follow-up, The Pleasant Light of Day, will extend and deepen his already considerable reputation as an artist of extraordinary gifts. He is assiduous with words, a writer of craft and vision, and refreshingly so sparing with similes and self-announcing images that to read him is to be reminded of the power of plain prose to break into territories of the imagination. When he does use a metaphor, it bursts off the page. ("The hoofed beast of jealous panic ran through him.") Of the dozen stories here, perhaps 10 are so perfectly achieved and exhilaratingly confident that you feel O'Ceallaigh is developing a form all his own.

  1. The Pleasant Light of Day
  2. by Philip O'Ceallaigh
  3. 264pp,
  4. Penguin
  1. Buy The Pleasant Light of Day at the Guardian bookshop

There's a focus on telling it as it is, not on saying what it's like. In "Uprooted", a story unusual for being located in his native Ireland, "Gulls quiver on the wind, swoop, rise again, wheeling in the updraught." The wind is "picking up the crashing swell at the cliffs of Inis Meáin, propelling it halfway across that island as salt rain."

In "Walking Away", a strange and compelling piece set shortly after a funeral, the narrator resists facile or inherited assumptions of the meaningful. "What foolishness, to speak of beyond, when we hardly know what we have here, on this earth, right before our eyes." What can be seen is always important in these vivid, measured stories. This is an author who looks at things carefully, annihilates the clichés. John McGahern wrote that any artist needs first a way of seeing. Philip O'Ceallaigh has one.

This is a world where sexuality is tough, a contested ground, and the comings and goings of his hungry-hearted characters rarely yield a sense of communion. And in "My Secret War" he unfolds a nightmarish vision of suburban American life: "In the evenings, after the kids are in bed, me and Martha might drink a bottle of beer on the porch, listening to the crickets. A flag flies over our tranquil lawn, for our brave men and women in the service ... Evil lies in every human heart, awaiting the faltering of our vigilance. There is no need to say much to Martha because she knows already."

A resident of Bucharest, he conjures east-European cities with shimmering precision; these metropolises of trams and urban insularities and recently vacated pedestals. But the stories that have rural settings are brilliantly achieved too. In "High Country", a hauntingly beautiful piece, a man hikes alone into the countryside beyond a provincial town, the resulting spell of self-confrontation unfolded with such exactitude and delicacy that you feel you've walked through the same rainstorm. Revelations are few and epiphanies fewer. The trekker in the story is not quite sure of destinations but tells himself "the time patiently taken was what you offered up, trusting that the moment would come." It's a thought that often arises on the journey through this exquisite collection, for this is work that invites slow rereading, not in order to understand it, but so as to glimpse again the consolation of the world being described.

The standard is extremely high, which is one of the reasons why "The Alchemist", an only intermittently funny satire of the work of the Brazilian inspirational writer Paulo Coelho, might have been better omitted. Fish in a barrel sometimes need to be shot, but the 32-page death they receive from O'Ceallaigh comes to feel dismayingly drawn-out. There is also a slightly cluttering inter-textuality, tropes from one story materialising in another. (O'Ceallaigh's first book is referenced in the opening story, with a title so thinly disguised as to demand immediate recognition.) When the playfulness works, as it sometimes does, the result is an attractive complicating of the textures of the stories, a sense that they are linked like the verses of a song or the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram. This is a writer who is pushing hard at the boundaries of the form. If it doesn't always come off, you admire his courage and purpose, his avowal that there are still things undone that words might do, in a genre that might yet come to be important for our times. "In Another Country", the longest story, and thematically a central one, is a masterpiece that earns every line of its 53 pages. The prose is graceful and poised yet supercharged with the edginess that makes the events it describes unforgettable.

All in all, this is a profoundly impressive and haunting suite of stories, remarkable for being only the second collection from an author who is already touched by greatness. In one of them, a character kneels on a riverbank, "where the water was deeper than in other places and he could see the clean stones on the riverbed". It's what O'Ceallaigh's writing achieves, a clarification, a revealing, a pointing to realities so fundamental and unchanging that most of the time they go unnoticed. He is a scintillating talent and this is work of immense strength, but also of light and elusive hopefulness.

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Gealtacht suburbia on the cards

As the 50th anniversary of Peig Sayers is being marked, mini Gaeltacht suburbs are being considered in cities to help boost the language in the 21st Century.

Gaeltacht Minister Eamon O Cuiv said the native tongue must be encouraged to develop organically within communities in urban areas in the same way that Polish, Chinese and other immigrants promote their own language and customs.

The TD believes that future Gaeltacht areas should not just be based in sparsely populated areas in West Cork, Connemara or the Aran Islands. "There's no reason why we can't have bustling Gaeltacht areas in any part of Dublin, Cork, Galway or Limerick," Mr O Cuiv said.

Arts Trip to an Aran Island

A group of Sligo people are organising the 3rd annual weekend on the Aran island of Inis Meain, promising creativity, community and fun.
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HOLIDAY BOOKS - The New York Times


The New York Times  December 7, 2008 Sunday

(Joshua Hammer, a former bureau chief for Newsweek, is a freelance foreign correspondent. His most recent book is ''Yokohama Burning.)

''Treeless chunks of rock also loom large in J. M. Synge's ARAN ISLANDS and CONNEMARA (Mercier/Dufour, paper, $22.95), based on the playwright's sojourns in the west of Ireland during the last years of the 19th century. Reissued this fall, Synge's classic travel essays chronicle the harsh, dignified lives of the region's Gaelic-speaking inhabitants, who survived -- barely -- by fishing the storm-tossed waters of Galway Bay. ''The red dresses of the women who cluster round the fire on their stools give a glow of almost Eastern richness,'' he writes from the island of Inishmaan, vividly evoking a world of poverty, isolation and endurance, ''and the walls have been toned by the turf-smoke to a soft brown that blends with the gray earth-color of the floor.'' Synge's excursions in currachs -- lightweight canoes piloted by fishermen whose drowned corpses all too often washed up on the islands' beaches -- capture an existence bound inextricably to nature and intimately familiar with death. ''Down in this shallow trough of canvas that bent and trembled with the motion of the men,'' he writes, ''I had a far more intimate feeling of the glory and power of the waves than I have ever known in a steamer.''