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Before yesterday I had not heard of Maeve Brennan. Last night I fell in love with her. I was introduced to her by the Irish Jazz singer Emilie Conway via a captivating performance combining the spoken word and music.
Brennan grew up in Dublin in the years immediately following the 1916 Easter Rising. Both her parents were actively involved in that failed insurrection, her father condemned to death then reprieved and imprisoned. After his release he participated in the brutal civil war between supporters and opponents of the treaty that gave independence to 26 counties, leaving 6 of Ulster’s counties still in the United Kingdom. Echoes of what many saw then as betrayal by former allies who signed the treaty resonate today in arguments about the presently invisible border, a border which may need to be made more visible if the UK fails to reach a satisfactory solution on it’s proposed departure from the EU – a decision that threatens to be every bit as divisive for Britain as the 1922 treaty was for Ireland.
But that is by the way. In the 1930’s Brennan’s father was appointed as Ireland’s first ambassador to the USA. When the rest of the family returned to Dublin Maeve remained. She is best known for her columns in the New Yorker as “The Long Winded Lady”. But, like many other Irish and Irish/American writers, she was a master of the short story, as this tribute piece by Ann Enright in The Guardian from May 2016 makes plain.
Emilie Conway is a singer who discovered Jazz whilst on a visit to Chicago in 1999. She has, in the past, performed concerts featuring the songs of Billie Holiday among others. This latest set, of which last night’s performance at Portlaoise’s Dunamase Arts Centre may have been the last (there is nothing on her website to indicate any planned future gigs), is her musical tribute to the writer. It was compiled to celebrate the centenary of Brennan’s birth and was performed in New York and Chicago, as well as Dublin, last year.
Conway’s voice has the ability to encompass a number of different styles and this lends itself to such an innovative event. From the near operatic style of traditional Irish ballads, sung in Irish, at the commencement of the set, through swinging jazz standards, to the raw harshness of an alcoholic’s diatribe in Gershwin’s Vodka, she brings a poet’s sensibility to every number.
The first half draws on Brennan’s writing about Dublin family life and the inability of couples, in that time and place, to properly communicate their emotions. The second half is a meditation on those New Yorker columns, and the loneliness and insecurities of the woman behind them. At one point Emilie hides her cocktail dress beneath a trench coat and becomes that lonely, insecure, writer, seeking a voice in which to express her contempt for the pretensions of the actors, artists, musicians and, yes, her fellow writers, with which she came into contact every day in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and early ’60s.
Emilie, too, delivers her own prose poem to the Washington Square Hotel and the generation of young writers and musicians that lived, worked and played in and around it. Accompanied by skillful improvisations from Johnny Taylor’s piano this was, for me, one of the highlights of the whole show.
I congratulate Michelle de Forge for having the courage to devise a series of concerts she calls Jazz in the Mezz, utilising a previously underused space within the Dunamaise Centre, to introduce Jazz to the people of Laois. The problem is that, outside of Dublin and Cork, there is no appreciation of, or appetite for, Jazz in Ireland. I fear that the experiment may be viewed as a failure. Certainly that is the only conclusion to be reached from the small number attending last night’s event.
I have pondered this absence of Jazz from the Irish cultural scene and have developed a theory about it. I have heard that, in the decades following independence, the population was force fed Irish traditional music and culture in an attempt to counteract generations of Anglicisation. Moreover, under the oppressive influence of the Roman Catholic
Church, jazz was seen as “the devil’s music”. So, whilst the rest of Europe and North America embraced jazz before its evolution into rock, the Irish were unaware of its existence. When the resistance to tradition finally took hold, rock was ready and waiting to be adopted by a generation eager to dismiss what they derided as ‘diddly-aye’ traditional music in favour of rock and blues, giving us Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and so many others. Only now, thanks to people like Emilie Conway and Suzanne Savage, are the Irish beginning to understand the connection between their own folk traditions and the roots of Jazz.
If a performance by Emilie Conway is billed anywhere near you in the future, I urge you to attend. You will not be disappointed. Whatever her chosen theme, you can be sure that her voice and her interpretation of the music will delight you.
I am not a historian. I have recently begun studying history in a very informal way. I have not studied under a professional historian as one would if one took a university course. I read the works of others who are professionals. Sometimes reading about the same events as presented by different historians is instructive. One quickly learns that each historian brings his or her own perspective to understanding the event or events. Often that perspective is, consciously or sub-consciously, political. For example, I find that many Irish writers discussing the famine that afflicted Ireland between 1845 and 1852 seem to approach it from a politically left leaning viewpoint. This comes across in their condemnation of landlords and the overt market economics being pursued by the British government at the time.
Finn Dwyer is a frequent podcaster and blogger about Irish history having covered the Black Death in a recent series which became a book. I frequently share his posts via Twitter and my author page on Facebook. He is, like me, currently working on a book about the famine. In this blog post, published on his site today, he discusses the role of historians in apportioning blame. He does so in the context of the weekend’s revelations about infant deaths in mother and baby homes that were hidden from the public eye by means of burial without ceremony in mass graves.
My own view is that if we confine ourselves merely to establishing the facts, without attempting to understand the reasons why they happened, we have little chance of preventing their repetition at some point in the future. That may mean blaming circumstance and faulty thought processes rather than individuals or institutions. It is, after all, the thought processes that need to be challenged. And alarms can be sounded if we should ever see a similar set of circumstances appear.
Finn’s post is here: http://irishhistorypodcast.ie/tuam-will-historians-help-or-hinder/
One of the great pleasures of participating in the #atozchallenge has been the opportunity to look at what others have done with it. Over 1300 people completed the challenge so it would be impossible for any one individual to read them all. I have looked at a few – and intend to look at a few more over the next while. I’ll provide links to some I’ve liked and that you might like too. Here, in no particular order, are the first five.
The submissions from The Dublinhousewife.com take the form of conversations between husband and wife or wife and her friends, all in Dublin dialect. It’s a bit ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ meets Roddy Doyle and captures the various relationships well. In the process it manages to introduce comment on current events (check out Y for ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ for the day the verdict was announced from the Hillsborough inquest).
Damyanti Biswas used her 26 contributions to publicise the work of an education and support charity working in India called ‘Project Why’. Her stories about the volunteers and clients of the Project are truly inspiring and should live on long after April 2016 is forgotten.
Several writers used the opportunity to tease with quotes from their books, or to share some of the thing that inspired thee events or characters it depicts. Val Tobin is one of those, so is Yolanda Renee whose murder mysteries are set in Alaska. Her #atozchallenge posts evoke the Alaskan landscape and history very well.
Marjory Witt settled for 26 posts each exactly 67 words long and each relating to an obscure word. It’s fun to read and, with entries that short, doesn’t take long.
I’ll be back with 5 more #atoztreasures soon. Meanwhile I hope you enjoy this first selection.