Tír na nÓg Words & Music & Story by Steve Gillette
This song and narration, and the video about a young man lost at sea, are a part of what will be a much larger work: a love story, a quest, and an exploration of the lives and work of a few great poets. It's all in the hope of a better understanding of our place in the world, and to help to alleviate the pain and sadness that accompanies the recognition that all lives must come to an end.
The meditation that contributed to this chapter was focused on mortality. Attending to one theme is not usually encouraged in meditation. Normally the emphasis is on not being constrained by any thought. Best to recognize that all thoughts are worthy of notice, yet none to the extent of eclipsing another.
The challenge is to suspend divergent thoughts in an open space in the meditative moment, where unexpected insights may appear. I guess that's what they mean when they say, 'outside of the box.' Not really that difficult, it's what we already do when we imagine, or dream or sing or play music. And yet the subject is one that may require many different approaches.
A wise teacher was heard to say, "Improving your writing may at some point mean growing as a person." Even small, incremental improvements can be triumphs. It may mean taking on lagging habits, or dark thoughts; remembering always that thoughts are just thoughts. Just the dancing of firelight flickering on the cave walls, the shadows of passing figures, or the call of some long silenced yearning.
The cave reference is, of course, Plato. In his Phaedrus he wrote: "But of the heaven which is above the heavens, what earthly poet ever did or ever will sing worthily? It is such as I will describe; for I must dare to speak the truth, when truth is my theme. There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colorless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to mind, the pilot of the soul."
In his very influential book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell explains his theory of the similar nature of the journeys of the archetypal heroes found in world myths. He uses the term 'monomyth' borrowed from James Joyce's Finnigan's Wake. Campbell studied religious, spiritual, mythological, and literary classics including the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus. His book cites the similarities of the stories in mythological terms.
Just as there are creation myths, wise sayings, and commandments for living found in all cultures, we also find there assurances of transcendent immortality. Story, and especially humor, can release us from the death sentence of being mortal.
"There is a country called Tír na nÓg, which means the Country of the Young, for age and death have not found it; neither tears nor loud laughter have gone near it ... One man has gone there and returned. The bard, Oisín, who wandered away on a white horse, moving on the surface of the foam with his fairy lover Niamh, lived three hundred years there, and then returned looking for his father and his comrades. The moment his foot touched the earth his three hundred years fell on him, and he was bowed double, and his beard swept the ground." - William Butler Yeats
This small story is part of a big project which could be a movie if there were ever a budget for such an enterprise. In the meantime, it's a love story and a series of inexpensive videos, and maybe at some point a performance piece, a celebration of Irish fiddle tunes and Irish humor.
For me the story began when Cindy and I were able to spend time in England, Wales and Ireland, and were especially enchanted with Great Blasket Island. It's thought to be the furthest western point of the European continent. As they say, the next parish is Boston. I've followed the threads of history and the lives of people who lived and wrote on the island. Along the way, I've encountered poets and philosophers and some wonderful storytellers, as you can imagine. Well into the twentieth century, Great Blasket was one of the few places where the old Gaelic could still be heard unsullied by the King's English.
J. M. Synge wrote The Playboy of the Western World after visiting Great Blasket in 1903. In 1907 James Joyce published his first collection of poems called Chamber Music. Joyce used a story that came to him from the Blasket Islands storytellers about a simple farmer who finds a mirror. The man holds up the mirror and in it sees his father and is startled and humbled. His wife takes if from his jacket and is shocked to see a hag in the mirror and throws it down, breaking it.
Eriugena was an Irish monk and philosopher who is still famous for his wit. He wrote this brief and stinging epitaph for the anti-Irish cleric, Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims:
Here lies Hincmar, crook.
But savage greed aside,
He did one truly noble thing - he died.
Many story tellers would use the device of Eriugena's contests of wit with the emperor. After much wine, the emperor asked him, "What separates a fool from an Irishman?" "Only the table" he replied.
"Unlike the continental church fathers, the Irish never troubled themselves overmuch about eradicating pagan influences, which they tended to wink at and enjoy. The pagan festivals continued to be celebrated, which is why we today can still celebrate the Irish feasts of May Day and Hallowe'en. The Lindisfarne Gospels, the work of Eadfrith, although written by an Englishman, is truly Irish in spirit. The Saxons also honored their ancestral past and continued to tell stories of their ancient heroes. Some re-imagined these stories and lent to them a Christian spin.
"Beowulf, a pagan warrior, is presented as a model of Saxon manhood, loyal, courageous, and generous and could be seen as a Christ like figure battling the monsters as devils or Satan. In this way, both Celtic and Saxon myths and legends were becoming secular Old Testaments, histories that lacked the direct revelations of Abraham and Moses, but symbolic salvation histories nonetheless, where one could read of a people journeying, by trial and error, prophecy and instinct, toward the truth, propelled forward through darkness and death by their own goodness." - Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization
There's a famous tune called "Port na bPúcaí," a gift from the fairies which is said to have been heard on the wind by a woman of Great Blasket Island. I use that tune in my larger project, but any session of Irish tunes will yield a richness of melody and arresting harmony. For a fiddler, it's what heaven must be like. For the rest of us, there are other rewards. The language of Gaelic is difficult, working with that might have to wait for another lifetime.
My tune, "Tír na nÓg" is simple. It relies on a mixture of major and minor themes which should be a familiar tactic to those who have followed these articles. The sheet music is available for purchase (here), but the melody is easy to hear in the progression of chords, and one can play along with the video. As with many traditional tunes there is an A part and a B part. Sometimes they will be simply alternated, and sometimes one part may be repeated. This can cause some furtive eyebrow gymnastics across the circle as players try to predict the sequence. Not to worry, it's all to the good.
This piece is really a preamble to the bigger project. It concerns a young fisherman from a previous generation, blown out to sea in a storm and facing what seems surely to be the end of his life. Confronted in this way, he conjures the heroes of his own mythology, which I suggest is all that any of us can ever really do.
Time is the medium of our great adventure. It is the sea upon which we sail. Our words clatter to convey a momentary truth, but the wiser echoes of the ages erase the distance between us and assuage the loneliness of our human condition.
Robert Bly wrote, "Far out at sea are white caps, answering questions no man has asked." Seeking to know his place in the great story, he realizes that 'though he cannot march to the sound of golden trumpets, still he must march.' And then, "the waves give up their answer as they fall into themselves."
This video from Derek Cullen describes a visit to Great Blasket Island very similar to the visit that Cindy and I made seven years ago. The notes on the page are very helpful in understanding the history of the people there.
The Great Blasket Island Documentary | Walking Around Ireland - Day 28
Video by Derek Cullen
Here is my video of "The Legend of Tír na nÓg:"
"The legend of Tír na nÓg" - Video by Steve
And here is the narration of the video:
Two hundred years ago, a young Irish fisherman was swept out to sea in a three day storm. One man alone, lost on the immense Atlantic. No sign of the sun or stars in the darkened sky. He has come to understand that he may never see his home again.
His craft is a tiny currach, crudely made with simple tools, and with help from his father and brothers. A canvas skin over a fragile framework, sealed with pitch. It's the way his people have fished and journeyed on the water for generations.
What faces the young fisherman is the loss of all that we take for granted. He longs for a delay of the inevitable, but ultimately is prepared to accept the fate of so many who have gone before him.
In the lonely hours he is consoled by recounting the stories of the ancient heroes famed for their bravery and their loyalty. Finn Mac Cumhail the warrior king, and his son Oisín, hunter and warrior and poet.
In the Fenian legends, Oisín takes his bride to the island kingdom of Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth and abundance. But after a few happy years he longs to see his aging father before the old man dies. Warned of the dangers of leaving the magic realm, he sets out for his former home. As he steps down from his horse he is suddenly three hundred years old.
The young fisherman sees the great ocean as his doom, but if there is hope at all, it springs from the vision of his loved ones someday reunited with him in mist enshrouded land of Tír na nÓg
Pull upon the oars my boy
All upon the water
To the land of never ending joy
To the shores of Tír na nÓg
We know the story of the young fisherman because he was able to tell it to his rescuers, and his grandchildren. Many of their grandchildren still clamor for a clearer glimpse of the island kingdom of Tír na nÓg.
Limbs may tire and strength may fail
All upon the water
But the waves will roll and the winds prevail
To the shores of Tír na nÓg
© 2016, Compass Rose Music, BMI