Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.

 

'The life I lived was a woman's life': Eavan Boland, one of Ireland's finest poets
Tuesday, 28 April 2020 09:33

'The life I lived was a woman's life': Eavan Boland, one of Ireland's finest poets

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell remembers the life and work of the late Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland died on 27 April 2020. She ranks among Ireland’s finest poets, and was one of the foremost female voices in Irish poetry. She was born in Dublin in 1944, her father a diplomat and her mother a painter. She published the first of many collections, 23 Poems, in 1962 while still a student at Trinity College in Dublin. Her early work tells of her experiences as a young mother, and her growing awareness of the role of women in Irish history. She commented in an interview:

I began to write in an Ireland where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other. Ireland was a country with a compelling past, and the word ‘woman’ invoked all kinds of images of communality which were thought to be contrary to the life of anarchic individualism invoked by the word ‘poet’….I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.

So Eavan Boland wrote about the many subjects that she experienced, as a woman and as a human being – and this included historical and political themes. She worked as a poet, editor and teacher. In later years, Boland was Professor of English and director of the creative writing programme at Stanford University. In 2017, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards.

A favourite poem of mine is one written in 1975, at the height of the Troubles:

The War Horse

This dry night, nothing unusual
About the clip, clop, casual

Iron of his shoes as he stamps death
Like a mint on the innocent coinage of earth.

I lift the window, watch the ambling feather
Of hock and fetlock, loosed from its daily tether

In the tinker camp on the Enniskerry Road,
Pass, his breath hissing, his snuffling head

Down. He is gone. No great harm is done.
Only a leaf of our laurel hedge is torn –

Of distant interest like a maimed limb,
Only a rose which now will never climb

The stone of our house, expendable, a mere
Line of defence against him, a volunteer

You might say, only a crocus, its bulbous head
Blown from growth, one of the screamless dead.

But we, we are safe, our unformed fear
Of fierce commitment gone; why should we care

If a rose, a hedge, a crocus are uprooted
Like corpses, remote, crushed, mutilated?

He stumbles on like a rumour of war, huge
Threatening. Neighbours use the subterfuge

Of curtains. He stumbles down our short street
Thankfully passing us. I pause, wait,

Then to breathe relief lean on the sill
And for a second only my blood is still

With atavism. That rose he smashed frays
Ribboned across our hedge, recalling days

Of burned countryside, illicit braid:
A cause ruined before, a world betrayed.

 “The War Horse” is an ominous title, especially when we place ourselves in the time it was written. The Troubles brought daily deaths and terrible suffering. This poem challenges Southern Irish society’s turning of a blind eye across the border. This is one of several poems  where Boland tackles Southern indifference during these years.

 The title suggests power, masculinity and military force. War horses were usually stallions, bred and raised from foalhood to meet the needs of war. In contrast to the unease created by the title, the reader is told there is: “nothing unusual/ About the clip, clop”, something that alerts the reader to there being something “unusual”. Clip, clop enacts the sound of the hooves on the street. Run-on lines throughout poem somehow seem to contradict its rhyming
couplets. They suggest that what is being related is not neat and tidy, but bursts out of this apparent control.

The “casual// Iron of his shoes as he stamps death”, evokes violence, heightened in “coinage” suggesting carnage. The level stress in “stamps death” suggests a horse or a soldier in battle. At the same time, the image is linked to the making of money and the violation of the earth. The rhyming of death and earth emphasises that all is not is well.

The speaker opens her sash window, exposing herself to the experience. The horse comes closer and more into focus. The description moves from the general distant appearance to more specific details: “the ambling feather/ Of hock and fetlock” – the long hair on the lower legs, ‘hock’ referring to the hind leg knee and ‘fetlock’ being the horse’s ankle. The horse, the reader is told, is freed from being tied up in the “tinker camp”. The speaker focuses first on the animal’s legs, then its freedom and his “breath” and “snuffling head”.

The horse passes. And apprehension changes to relief. Yet, the proximity of this war horse has had an effect on the speaker’s space, even in suburbia. Two caesuras slice the line. “No great harm is done” alerts reader to harm! “Only a leaf of our laurel hedge is torn”. The choice of the leaf, “laurel”, connotes triumph, glory and peace but also funeral wreaths. The next line initially continues the idea of distance to the horse: “Of distant interest” but as the line progresses, this distance cannot be maintained. War in a remote place suddenly becomes vivid and fighting: “maimed limb” comes as a huge shock. It contradicts “distant interest”.

The reader is forced to reflect. This absence of emotional distance is underlined by the next image, the “rose” that “will never climb/ … our house”: the rose signifies beauty and a life destroyed before its flower and “our house” is more than the immediate home of the speaker.

It comes to represent Ireland. The promise of life and beauty stamped out is given the specific 20th century Irish reference “volunteer”. This one rose, the speaker states, is “expendable, a mere/ Line of defence against him, a volunteer/ You might say”. However, the reader is unconvinced. The emotional weight of the imagery is on the side of this victim who is anything but “expendable”.

This emotion is greatly intensified in the next image: “only a crocus, its bulbous head/ Blown from growth, one of the screamless dead.” Again, the word “only” belies the speaker’s empathy. The “bulbous head” evokes human heads, even skulls, and “Blown from growth” the violent killings of very young people, not even fully grown, by guns and explosives. The image of “screamless dead” seems to suggest the opposite – terrible screams. It adds sound to an already horrifying image.

Developed from the apparently small damage done by the war horse to the speaker’s hedging and garden, there has emerged a build-up of intense feeling for the youth and the dead of Ireland, indeed the world affected by war. Neither the rose nor the crocus will flower. O-sounds dominate, communicating deep sadness.

Following this intensity of feeling, the speaker addresses in similarly ironic tone her fellow dwellers in suburbia: “But we, we are safe, our unformed fear/ Of fierce commitment gone”. Neighbours hiding behind curtains, pretending not to know what is going on, afraid of the commitment and sacrifice made by others involved in conflict and war, and believing that turning away from suffering will somehow protect them from it. The speaker has opened the window and thereby herself to this experience and the grief it brings to her, while the others hide behind “curtains”.

Now the voices of neighbours are brought in: “why should we care// If a rose, a hedge, a crocus are uprooted/ Like corpses, remote, crushed, mutilated?” Boland exposes these people’s indifference by recapturing the terrible violence. This highlights suburbia’s attitude, where nothing matters unless it affects their own gardens. The speaker points out how the horse, by passing her garden does affect it; and this becomes an image for Ireland. The flowers are depicted as a very fragile line of defence against a powerful horse.

The speaker, too, is grateful that war has passed her house, but “atavism” reminds her that war has damaged Ireland: “for a second only my blood is still// With atavism”. The word “still” has two meanings here: still with shock, and still in touch with the past (atavism). What was sensed before now becomes explicitly clear to her: the rose that was crushed is scattered across the hedge and reminds her of the violence past and present in Ireland.

The final images bring us back to the “rose” that “frays/ Ribboned across our hedge”. The past (the Ribbonmen, an agrarian secret society who burned the countryside) and the present come together here surrounding “our house”. Ireland, and indeed the world cannot and must not ignore the devastation war brings. In the long run, nobody can pretend not to know.

The deep and realistic humanism of Raphael
Sunday, 05 April 2020 11:42

The deep and realistic humanism of Raphael

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell presents the life and some of the work of Raphael, who died 500 years ago 

The great Italian painter and architect, Raphael, died on April 6, 1520. He lived at the time of the Italian High Renaissance, one of the most progressive periods of history. As Engels put it:

It was the greatest progressive revolution that mankind has so far experienced, a time which called for giants and produced giants – giants in power of thought, passion, and character, in universality and learning.

The High Renaissance

Raphael was one of the three greatest masters of the High Renaissance, the brief period between 1500 and 1530 which was the heyday of early capitalist art in Italy. First beginnings of capitalist production arose in the 14th and 15th centuries in Florence and Genoa; artisanship and banking flourished in the cities of northern and central Italy until the 15th century. Wealth and luxury expanded, and the power-seeking ruling classes gave the arts great representative and decorative tasks, to express and legitimise their own importance.

The High Renaissance witnessed a highpoint for the visual arts. Even in the turmoil of the Italian wars from 1494 to 1559, when French and Spanish troops ravaged the country and the economy, the arts did not lose their importance. Florence had developed into a cultural metropolis under the rule of the Medici family, from 1450 to 1494. In the first decade of the 16th century, Rome took over this role.

 By the time Renaissance art reached its peak, Italy’s economic decline had begun, the Italian states were facing economic and political difficulties, and the Italian bourgeoisie withdrew from banking and usury, investing their capital in land. This ultimately led to a revival of feudal conditions in Italy. The successors to the powerful early capitalist dynasty and patrons of the arts, the Medici, made themselves dukes of Tuscany, as absolutism replaced republican control.

However, the progressive thinkers and artists of the 16th century all remained committed to the defence of the people and even democratised the philosophy of humanism, which had originally been limited to a small group of intellectuals. Their works appeared in the vernacular and emphasised national and democratic ideals. This made the Italian High Renaissance a significant and unparalleled event.

Raphael

Raphael was born in Urbino in 1483. At the age of 17, he joined the Perugino workshop. Here he first learnt to give expression to psychological delicacy, which arises with the Renaissance discovery of human beings as this-worldly individuals.

From 1504 to 1508, Raphael worked in Florence. When Raphael arrived in Florence he was only 21 years of age, and yet he was quickly regarded one of the giants of the High Renaissance, along with Michelangelo, aged 29 at the time, and Leonardo da Vinci, who was 52 years old.

900px CAPPELLA SISTINA Ceiling

Sistine Chapel ceiling, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512

As Raphael’s fame spread, Pope Julius II called him to Rome. Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the time. Leonardo da Vinci was at the height of his creativity. Leonardo and Michelangelo had both studied the anatomy of the human body and its movements, and created their compositions from the action and interaction of living bodies and moving faces.

So Raphael went to Rome at the behest of Julius II, nicknamed the Warrior Pope or the Fearsome Pope of the Rovere family. During the Renaissance, the popes were not only ecclesiastical leaders, but also princes of Roman territories.

Julius participated personally in wars and famously stated he preferred the smell of gunpowder to that of incense. He sought to construct magnificent buildings with monumental decorations, as witness to his power and that of the Church. In the Vatican, Julius II brought in artists to paint rooms and other spaces. In 1509, he commissioned Raphael to decorate some rooms, with monumental frescoes on the ceilings and walls. The most famous of these is the Stanza della segnatura (Signature room).

The School of Athens

Set in a great architectural illusion, the “School of Athens” portrays an entirely male ancient world. Curiously, Christian thinkers do not appear, although it is the Vatican. Although many of the figures lived at different times, they are shown together as part of the Athens school.

The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino 1000x500

The School of Athens, by Raphael, 1509

The two main figures in the work, centred under the archway, in the fresco’s vanishing point, represent two schools: Plato, to whom Raphael gives Leonardo’s features, pointing upwards into the realm of ideas, his student Aristotle gesturing to earthly, physical experience. Each of these philosophers holds his book representing his thinking: Plato holds the “Timaeus”, Aristotle his “Ethics”, both in modern binding of Raphael’s time. Their clothes support their stances: Plato is dressed in the colours of air and fire, Aristotle is in those of earth and water.

The painting divides into two halves along these lines. Philosophers, poets and thinkers on Plato’s side, and physicists, scientists and more empirical thinkers gather on Aristotle’s side. On the left, along with Plato, you can see the Greek philosopher Socrates, talking to Athenians.

Socrates famously expounded his philosophical thinking in conversation with people. He was Plato’s teacher. Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia and pupil of Aristotle, is shown listening attentively to Socrates, who is emphasizing arguments on his fingers. In the foreground, Pythagoras, who pre-dates Socrates, sits with a book and an inkwell, surrounded by students. Epicurus, on the other hand, lived after the other philosophers, is the chubby fellow with a crown of vine leaves. He taught that happiness lies in the pursuit of pleasures arising from freedom from fear and absence of pain.

Diogenes the Cynic, who lived off charity, lies happily on the steps with his drinking bowl, his body pointing to the Aristotle side of the painting. On the right in front, appears Euclid, explaining the laws of geometry with a compass. He is demonstrating the measurability of actual things – concrete theorems with exact answers show why he represents Aristotle’s side. His face is modelled on the great architect Bramante, whose design of St. Peter’s was based on a geometrical pattern of circles and squares.

Raphael was entrusted with the completion of this building after Bramante’s death in 1514, the largest ecclesiastical construction project in the West. Interestingly, the pope permitted German Dominicans to sell indulgences to pay for it, which ultimately helped spark the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

The classical statues on either side of the picture also reinforce the two philosophies. On Plato’s side we have Apollo, the god of the sun, poetry and music. On Aristotle’s side, Athena is the goddess of wisdom, medicine, commerce, handicrafts, the arts in general, and later on, war – perhaps more earthly concerns.

The foreground is less peopled than the rest of the painting, making way for the two philosophers. Two figures are, however, placed here in isolation, while the others engage with groups of people. They are Diogenes and Heraclitus, the latter being the first great European dialectician, wearing the clothes of a stonemason. Interestingly, Raphael appears to have given him Michelangelo’s features.

The great mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy, wearing a yellow robe, holds a terrestrial globe in his hand, facing the Persian Zoroaster showing a celestial sphere. Interestingly, the young man standing amongst these scientists, and the only figure looking directly at the viewer, is Raphael himself. Incorporating this self-portrait into a work of such intellectual history was a confident stance for the artist. Placing himself, and the portraits of some of his contemporary artists in this fresco along with the greatest thinkers in European history, elevates the significance of the arts in the High Renaissance.

The Sistine Madonna

Raphael is one of the great discoverers of the feminine in painting; his lifelong preoccupation with the Madonna that guided him to this subject, the love between human mother and child, indeed one might say that ancient mother cults live on in this theme.

Around 1512/ 1513 he created his three large Marian altars, among them the “Sistine Madonna”. Alongside the frescos of the Vatican, the “Sistine Madonna” (1512/1513) is considered Raphael’s main work.

RAFAEL Madonna Sixtina Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister Dresden 1513 14. Óleo sobre lienzo 265 x 196 cm

The Sistine Madonna, Raphael, c.1512

In this work, Raphael continues his effort to make Mary appear more maternal and human. The model is assumed to be Margherita Luti, the daughter of a Roman baker named Francesco. It’s believed that Margherita was Raphael’s partner for the last twelve years of his life.

Her person expresses a depth that cannot be found in any other of Raphael’s Madonnas. She comes barefoot, carrying her child like a peasant woman. Her left arm, his right arm and her flowing veil form a protective circle around the child. The child echoes his mother’s apprehensive expression, as he snuggles up to her. It is a profoundly human and this-worldly depiction.

The two angels at the bottom of the painting appear to have escaped from the heavenly hosts in the background but also look exceedingly human. The very original host of ghostly angels’ faces crowding the background add to the forward drive of the Madonna, who seems to be walking right out of the painting.

Raphael died on his birthday, aged just 37 years on April 6, 1520 after eight days of illness from pneumonia, and was buried the following day in the Pantheon.

Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill
Monday, 24 February 2020 12:57

International Women's Day 2020: A grieving woman resolves to liberate Ireland

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell celebrates International Women's Day with a presentation of an Irish lament by a grieving woman who resolves to liberate Ireland

The most famous, fabled and feted Irish filí (poets) are male: the reasons clearly lie in patriarchal class society. So all the more reason for us to seek out the female representatives of a skill that in the old Irish days was associated with prophesying, or seeing – in fact the Irish word filí derives from just this meaning.

The oldest extant piece of writing which has come down to us, albeit through the lens of early Christian monks, celebrates powerful women including just such a prophetess poet, Fedelm. This profession was largely oral, having initially developed in a pre-literate society, and it survived for a long time in story-telling and so on. Some types of poetic expression were the preserve mainly of women. Most notably among these, perhaps, is the keening – lamenting a death. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire”, “The Lament for Airt Ó Laoghaire”, spoken in 1773, is one of the greatest laments in Gaelic literature.

In this poem, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill describes the circumstances surrounding the murder of her husband Airt in Carriganimmy (Carraig an Ime), in county Cork, at the behest of the British colonial official Abraham Morris.

At the same time, the lament speaks on behalf of the oppressed Catholic Gaelic population of Ireland, suffering under colonial rule. Specifically, this is about the rebellion against the penal laws introduced at the end of the 17th century. Among other things, these laws prohibited education for Catholic children, restricted the right to property, for example a horse worth more than five pounds, marriage between people of different denominations, access to higher education and professions, etc. Morris outlawed Airt Uí Laoghaire for refusing to sell him a horse for five pounds, which Airt had brought back from his service in the Austro-Hungarian army. Morris decreed that Uí Laoghaire could consequently be shot on sight.

Airt and Eibhlín came from important families in the feudal Gaelic order. The earls had fled from Ireland to the European continent in the early 17th century following military defeats, consolidating the complete collapse of the old Gaelic order. Part of the surviving Catholic nobility, Airt was educated on the continent and served as a Hussar.

The Lament is divided into five parts. The first part was probably spoken by Eibhlín over the body of her husband in Carriganimmy. The lament begins with a short account of how the lovers met and, contrary to the wishes of their families, eloped and married.

My steadfast love!
When I saw you one day
by the market-house gable
my eye gave a look
my heart shone out
I fled with you far
from friends and home.

Next, Eibhlín reports what a good husband Airt made:

And never was sorry:
you had parlours painted
rooms decked out
the oven reddened
and loaves made up
roasts on spits
and cattle slaughtered;
I slept in duck-down
till noontime came
or later if I liked.

Eibhlín repeatedly addresses Airt personally - as friend and partner, as an equal. Here, she describes the awe and fear that Airt instilled in the English by his imposing figure and defying the penal laws. He carried a valuable sword, wore splendid clothes and rode his white-faced steed.

My steadfast friend!
it comes to my mind
that fine Spring day
how well your hat looked
with the drawn gold band,
the sword silver-hilted
your fine brave hand
and menacing prance,
and the fearful tremble
of treacherous enemies.
You were set to ride
your slim white-faced steed
and Saxons saluted
down to the ground,
not from good will
but by dint of fear
- though you died at their hands,
my soul’s beloved....

She also evokes their happy home life and Airt’s love for his sons. Then she speaks of the moment when Airt’s death became clear to her, when his horse returned riderless to their homestead. At this point, Eibhlín’s determination and courage, already hinted at in her marriage to Airt against the wishes of the family, become stronger. In three leaps, she jumps to the door, to the gate and into the saddle and gallops to the scene of the crime. Here she finds Airt’s lifeless body:

to find you there dead
by a low furze-bush
with no Pope or bishop
or clergy or priest
to read a psalm over you
but a spent old woman
who spread her cloak corner
where your blood streamed from you,
and I didn’t stop to clean it
but drank it from my palms.

This somewhat unexpected act of drinking blood corresponds to the tradition of lamenting the dead. Most remarkable, however, is the statement that no one is present, other than an old woman, who undoubtedly represents old Ireland. One of the ways in which this is evident is that she puts the ends of the traditional cloak where Airt bleeds. It is also significant that no Catholic clergy was present. Eibhlín is left alone with this woman. It is a desolate picture of the state of the country and its forgotten loyalties. Remarkably, in all this lamentation there is no hope for life after death, one might even say that the absent clergy at the scene disqualified it from a role in the liberation of the country. Eibhlín can only rely on herself alone - supported by the old woman, the memory of old Ireland.

In the second part, a dispute between Airt’s sister and Eibhlín takes place, in which her sister-in-law accuses Eibhlín  of having been in bed when she came to the farm from Cork. This may well be a commentary on the discord between the two noble families and, in a wider context, on the disintegration of the vanishing Gaelic order.

Given the very public appreciation of Airt in the third part, this was probably uttered by Eibhlín after the body had been prepared for burial:

My friend and my treasure trove!
An ugly outfit for a warrior:
a coffin and a cap
on that great-hearted horseman
who fished in the rivers
and drank in the halls
with white-breasted women.
My thousand confusions
I have lost the use of you.
Ruin and bad cess to you,
ugly traitor Morris,
who took the man of my house
and father of my young ones
- a pair walking the house
and the third in my womb,
and I doubt that I’ll bear it.

In this part, Airt’s last words to her are quoted, and then images from nature suggest that Airt was the true ruler of the country, even if this has been forgotten among the population.

Take the narrow road Eastward
where the bushes bend before you
and the stream will narrow for you
and men and women will bow
if they have their proper manners
- as I doubt they have at present....

Into every part of this lament is written Eibhlín’s resistance against foreign rule and the oppression of her people. This connects her very closely with Airt.

In the fourth part, Eibhlín’s sister-in-law speaks once more and explains how death and disease prevented her from coming sooner. Again, a metaphorical dimension suggests the disintegration of the old order. Returning to the murder, Eibhlín  explains her determination to avenge this. She will leave no avenue unused to obtain justice:

Jesus Christ well knows
there’s no cap upon my skull
nor shift next to my body
nor shoe upon my foot-sole
nor furniture in my house
nor reins on the brown mare
but I’ll spend it on the law;
that I’ll go across the ocean
to argue with the King,
and if he won’t pay attention
that I’ll come back again
to the black-blooded savage
that took my treasure.

Eibhlín's determination to do everything possible to achieve justice reasserts her previous boldness in her choice of partner and her ride to the scene of the crime. In her quest for justice too  there is a progression from the sale of all possessions to pay for lawyers, to visiting the king in person, to her own revenge if these paths prove fruitless. More and more Eibhlín develops into the woman who will not stand idly by but revenge the man who represented Ireland’s Gaelic order. By implication, she will stand up for her people.

The fifth and last part reflects a greater distance to Airt and was probably only available at the second burial. Due to some legal obstacles, Airt Ó Laoghaire’s body was not buried in the ancestral cemetery at the Monastery of Kilcrea, Co. Cork until a few months after his death.

Once again Airt’s generosity is evoked and Eibhlín states that she is successfully running the farm, that the grain and livestock are thriving despite her great grief. In many ways, Eibhlín  has taken up Airt’s legacy. There is no mention of a new man. Eibhlín will run the farm, raise the children, never forget Airt, and avenge him. Contrary to the expectations in the 17th and 18th century Aisling poetry, in which a female  figure awaits a male saviour, Eibhlín takes her fate into her own hands. She, like Aoibheal in Brian Merriman’s “Midnight Court” only a few years later, follows the tradition of strong Gaelic women, and will free Ireland from foreign rule.

Chopin and the revolutionary inspiration of his Polonaise in A flat major
Friday, 31 January 2020 18:02

Chopin and the revolutionary inspiration of his Polonaise in A flat major

Published in Music

Jenny Farrell discusses Fryderyk Chopin and the revolutionary inspiration, force and vigour of his Polonaise in A flat major

Fryderyk Chopin was born on 22 February 1810 in Żelazowa Wola near Warsaw, to a Polish mother and a French father. He grew up in Warsaw but left Poland in 1831, shortly before the Polish popular uprising against the tsarist oppressors. He moved to Paris, where he lived until his death aged only 39 on 17 October 1849. In Paris, he made friends with some of the most outstanding progressive figures of his time: with the great Frenchwoman George Sand, who became his lover, the Hungarian nationalist and composer Franz Liszt, the revolutionary French painter Eugène Delacroix, the great Polish poet and political activist Adam Mickiewicz, the German exiled poet Heinrich Heine, and others.

Chopin always remained close to Poland. During the 1830s and 1840s Europe witnessed political repression, unrest, and conservatism. In this atmosphere the great significance of national cultures in shaping national consciousness and the struggle for independence became increasingly important and apparent. This growing national awareness was also reflected in the arts and in music.

Polish music was no exception. The Polish people, who suffered triple occupation by Prussia, Russia and Austria, who were deprived of their independence, who suffered terribly under the pressure of the Holy Alliance, whose national culture was being suppressed – this people proved through its art that it was alive and fighting. The genius of a Mickiewicz in poetry, the genius of a Chopin in music, reflect this struggle in their art.

Chopin wrote mainly music for the piano. He chose smaller forms to express the struggle and aspirations of his people, frequently using Polish peasant dance forms such as mazurkas and polonaises. He revived the music of the whole nation. The folk music of Poland informed his harmonic language. Chopin’s music defined a tradition, not only in Poland but has contributed to our musical heritage internationally. It is an assertion of Polish resistance, something that all independence-loving people can identify with.

Polonaise in A flat major (1842)

Chopin created 17 polonaises in total, his first when he was aged seven, and composed seven of these after he left Poland. The later compositions opened a new chapter in the history of the genre in the direction of the “epic-dramatic poem”. Each of these seven mature, dramatic works has its own distinctive shape, style and expression. The last three compositions are grand dance poems. Chopin’s late Polonaise in A flat major (Opus 53, Héroïque) is written in a heroic tone. On hearing it, George Sand wrote in one of her letters “The inspiration! The force! The vigour! There is no doubt that such a spirit must be present in the French Revolution. From now on this polonaise should be a symbol, a heroic symbol”.

Its stormy octaves in the middle section have suggested to some commentators the image of attacking hussars, to others an attacking cavalcade. Some have called it the “secret national anthem” of Poland. However, Chopin did not leave a ‘story’ to go with this polonaise. I think it is perhaps best understood as the triumph of the Polish dance. The theme is confident and dance-like. It goes through various developments and returns jubilant, proud and heroic in a clearly victorious coda. And it is in this context of the triumphant people that Sand’s comment makes complete sense.

Laughing Old Woman
Friday, 27 December 2019 09:24

A deep and compassionate humanism: the 150th anniversary of Ernst Barlach

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell presents the life and work of Ernst Barlach, born 150 years ago

Ernst Barlach was born near Hamburg on 2 January 1870. He was the most important German sculptor of the 20th century. Brecht said about his work: “His genius, meaning, ingenious craftsmanship, beauty without embellishment, stature without over-stretching, harmony without smoothness, vitality without brutality make Barlach's sculptures masterpieces”.

Barlach was educated in Hamburg and Dresden, also studying in Paris. A trip to Russia in 1906 was a decisive moment in his artistic development. The sense of community among the ordinary people there impressed him deeply, but also their sadness, and a threatening silence after the failed revolution of 1905.

EB1

In 1910, Barlach settled in the northern town of Güstrow. Systematic slander of his art started even before Hitler took power. In Güstrow, Barlach created much of his work, removed and partly destroyed by fascists after 1933. In 1937, the commission for “degenerate art” confiscated his works exhibited in German museums, including the memorial for the victims of war in Magdeburg Cathedral. He wrote to his brother Hans following this event: “I will not be able to work for the foreseeable future ... I won't go abroad, I feel like an emigrant in my homeland - and worse than a real one, because all the wolves are howling at me and behind me.” In this year before his death, he created masterpieces such as “Freezing old Woman” and “Laughing old Woman”, testimonies to his courage, his terror and his humour. Barlach died on 24 October 1938 and was buried in the town of his childhood, Ratzeburg.

Barlach's independent sculptural style is sparse, weighty, expressing both serenity and tension. His masterful woodcuts strongly influenced Käthe Kollwitz and Gerhard Marcks as well as sculptors of younger generations.

Barlach's lithograph “Mass Grave” of 1915 was not deemed safe for printing until much later, in a very small edition. His lithograph “From a Modern Dance of Death” depicts the murderous grimace of war. His 1919 large-format woodcuts express social degradation as a direct result of the dehumanisation caused by war. They include “Death of a child”, “Robbers of the Cross and Coffin”, “Good Samaritans”. These works moved Käthe Kollwitz so deeply that she tried her hand at woodcutting, creating her famous memorial sheet for Karl Liebknecht.

In January 1952, Brecht recorded his “Notes on the Barlach Exhibition” at the German Academy of Arts.

EB3

Brecht wrote about “Russian Beggar Woman with a Bowl” (1906): “A powerful person with hard confidence, from whom no thanks for alms may be expected. She seems immune to the hypocritical assertions of a corrupt society that one can achieve something by diligence and making oneself useful.”

In “The Melon Cutter” (Bronze, 1907), Brecht praises “a work which created an eater from the people with great sensual power. He has seated himself exactly as it is best suited for this very activity, and he does not lose himself in his work.”

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Brecht liked this wood carving of “Three singing women” (1911) “because the combination of power and singing is pleasant to me.”

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Song is represented differently in this sculpture “The Singing Man” (Bronze, 1928). Brecht finds this man “bold, in a free posture, clearly working on his singing. He sings alone, but apparently has an audience. Barlach's humour desires him to be a little vain, but no more than is compatible with the practice of art.”

EB6

In “Dancing old Woman” (Tinted Plaster, 1920) Brecht praises the “humour, which is extremely rare in German sculpture. The grandeur with which the old woman lifts her skirt to dare another little dance! Her gaze is directed upwards: she delves in her memory for the right step.”

The Kiss groups 1 and 2 (bronze, 1921) are “of great interest” to Brecht “because the sculptor ... achieved a greater intimacy by roughening the material, i.e. by actually coarsening it. The work is a pleasing departure from the sweet, genderless Cupid and Psyche figurines in the drawing rooms of the petty bourgeoisie.”

EB 7 Freezing old woman

The year they were made is particularly significant for the sculptures from 1933 onwards. There is “The Book Reader” (Bronze, 1936). A man sits bent over, holding a book in his heavy hands. Brecht said: “He reads with curiosity, confidently, critically. He is clearly looking for solutions to urgent problems in the book. . . I like “The Book Reader” better than Rodin's famous “Thinker”, which only shows the difficulty of thinking. Barlach's sculpture is more realistic, more concrete, not symbolic.”

“Freezing old woman” (Teak, 1937) interests Brecht because this crouching “maid or small farming woman, so visibly physically and mentally abandoned by society” could not “protect her hands from the cold”. Brecht continues, “It is as if her job is to freeze, and she shows no anger. But the sculptor shows anger, far more anger than pity”.

In his commentary on “Seated old Woman” (Bronze, 1933) Brecht refers to how “masterfully the clothing is designed”. “One tiny detail makes it completely realistic: the woollen scarf... The old woman sits upright, she is thinking. ... I can imagine a worker nudging Barlach’s old woman with his elbow: Take power! You have everything that you need.”

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From 1937 comes “Laughing old Woman” (wood). Brecht enjoys its irresistible cheerfulness and points out that this was the year in which Barlach's works were banned from German museums as degenerate. “Her laughter is like singing, it has loosened the entire body, making it almost look young.”

All these sculptures point in a realistic way to the essential humanity in people and express Barlach's love of people, his deep and compassionate humanism. Brecht concludes, “Barlach writes: 'It is probably the case that the artist knows more than he can say. But perhaps it is so that Barlach can say more than he knows.”

Waiting for Godot
Friday, 06 December 2019 08:06

Waiting for Godot

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell discusses Beckett's Waiting for Godot and its message to us today

Great Carthage waged three wars. It was still powerful after the first, habitable still after the second. Gone without trace after the third. - Brecht, 1951 (transl. JF)

Samuel Beckett died thirty years ago, on 22 December 1989. He received the Nobel Prize for literature, 50 years ago, in 1969. Arguably, Beckett’s most famous play is Waiting for Godot. Typically, when presenting this play today, its comic content is emphasised, as is its ‘absurdist’ label, suggesting that life is meaningless.

Beckett had moved permanently to France in the late 1920s. After the outbreak of WWII, Beckett remained in Paris, where he joined the Resistance following the Nazi invasion of France. He only barely escaped the Gestapo on a number of occasions, and after members of Beckett's underground resistance group were arrested, he was forced to flee to the unoccupied zone in the South of France, where he continued to support the Resistance.

From 1947 on, Beckett wrote primarily in French. Waiting for Godot, written in 1948, is no exception. The Second World War was just over, and this is a supremely important factor in understanding the play, and one that is rarely recognised.

Although this is not specifically stated, Beckett’s play effectively presents the audience with a post-nuclear-war scene. The stage is practically empty except for a country road and a bare tree. In this landscape, two characters, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), just about exist. These two men struggle to perform the most elementary actions like taking off a shoe. They sleep rough and are regularly beaten up by gangs at night. This is so commonplace that they barely comment on it. The human experience is reduced to simply staying alive and performing, with effort, the simplest actions. Homo sapiens, it seems, has all but been stripped of the ‘sapiens’ part. The characters even find it difficult to stand upright.

In 1948, after World War II and the nuclear carnage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people have almost come to the end of their humanity and any positive human experience. The tree of life is almost barren; in this play, it becomes a possible prop on which to hang oneself.

Traditionally, plays begin with an exposition leading to action, or indeed in the middle of an action. In Waiting for Godot, there is no prospect for action. The first utterance of the play is “Nothing to be done.” The entire play presents us with the two main characters, Didi and Gogo doing nothing and waiting in vain. They have replaced the protagonists of the past – those who struggle against adversity, injustice or attempt to create a meaningful life. Narratives that were once useful to endorse human goodness have all been stripped of their meaning, including a clearly vain hope for God(ot) to arrive. In fact, waiting for God(ot) prevents any movement out of this state.

Past certainties are undermined; theatre as we know it has come to an end. The idea of human perfectibility is finished. The parables of the Bible too are useless. Didi and Gogo hardly remember them. When a boy appears to tell them that Godot is not coming today, Estragon refers to himself as Adam. Humankind has become what Shakespeare’s King Lear refers to when he speaks of the most destitute: a “poor, bare, forked animal”.

Our two protagonists are not defined in class terms. They seem to be vagrants. However, they are not completely alone in the world. Not only do we hear of random violence against them, at two points in the play, once in each act, Pozzo passes through with a slave (Lucky) whom he has tied to a rope and treats like an animal. Pozzo is a nod to the existence of a ‘master’ class, one who has money and still holds slaves. Lucky seems like a version of Prospero’s Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the indigenous native of the island, kept ignorant and enslaved by Prospero. In the one, all but incomprehensible, statement made by Lucky, he says: “Given the existence . . .of a personal God ... outside (of) time . . . who . . . loves us dearly . . . and suffers . . .with those who . . . are plunged in torment . . . it is established beyond all doubt . . . that man . . . for reasons unknown . . . (has left) labours abandoned left unfinished . . . abandoned unfinished . . .” In other words, God/ man has left labours unfinished.

When Pozzo sees Gogo and Didi, he comments: “You are human beings none the less. … Of the same species as myself. … Made in God’s image!” Any aspiration to godlike form and intellect has been annulled, or perhaps the reverse applies: God is this.

When Pozzo and Lucky appear again in Act II, Pozzo has gone blind and Lucky mute. This is a downward spiral in human development. Thinking is an effort. On one occasion, Didi and Gogo contemplate suicide by hanging from the bare tree (of life?). One reason, they do not do this is that one of them may remain alive and therefore alone. That is a fate worse than death. “I remain in the dark.” This gives some hope. Two characters are after all a small community and they do help each other survive.

Apart from this dependency on another human being, there is another example of common humanity. When Pozzo asks Gogo and Didi for help to get to his feet, they respond to this (after asking for money) “it is not everyday that we are needed.” This profound statement acknowledges that Pozzo’s call for help is addressed to “all of mankind,” and “at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not.” Ironically, all four men end up on the ground and their cries for help go unheeded. Standing upright has become impossible. Purposeful labour and action no longer define us.

Beckett’s play is of immediate relevance to the world today. Like Brecht, he warns of the ultimate destruction of humanity. However, Beckett leaves us with a sense of that all is not lost. His characters still help each other at times of need, they still have that humanity. The tree bears a few leaves at the end of the play, it is not dead. Yet that hope is tenuous. Will the characters be strong enough to move on? Beckett does not give his audience much hope. There is no progress in the play. All we can do is take this message to heart and change the world.

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland
Thursday, 21 November 2019 14:30

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland

Published in Festivals/ Events

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland

On Saturday, 23rd November at 3 p.m. in Connolly Books, Dublin, Fr. Peter McVerry will launch a unique anthology of poetry in both Irish and English by Irish working-class writers from the thirty-two counties of Ireland. There are sixty-seven contributors, women and men, of all generations, including both emerging and established writers. The common focus is on themes which reflect the texture and preoccupations of working-class life in contemporary Ireland.

The anthology is edited by Jenny Farrell, published by Culture Matters, and has been generously supported by the Irish Trade Union movement.

The ‘children of the nation’ were promised equal treatment in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916. However, the lived realities of the working class, the unemployed, the precariously employed, the homeless, and other groups have rarely appeared in mainstream published poetry in Ireland and Britain.

This is the first anthology to be published in Ireland which focuses on poetry written by and about working people and their experiences, cares and concerns. As Brian Campfield, past President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, writes in his Foreword:

The anthology is inclusive and egalitarian, and values authenticity, relevance and communicativeness as well as literary skill and inventiveness. It is grounded in individual effort, but has transformed these individual endeavours into a collective expression of the lives, aspirations, concerns and hopes of that class in our society which constantly has to struggle to get its voice heard and valued.

The poems are about life at the margins of society. The themes include class, the treatment of women, work and worklessness, poverty, violence, racism and many other social and political issues. They express suffering, exploitation and abuse, but also hope, solidarity and internationalism.

One of the central themes is homelessness – homelessness in the sense that people are alienated from this society, and forced into emigration; homelessness in the sense of not being able to afford a home, and being at the mercy of private landlords; but also homelessness in its starkest, most inhuman form of being out on the streets with nowhere to go. As one poet in the anthology concludes:

The/ rich get richer and the/ poor grow more/ poor, and most of us have/ nowhere to/ live. For there ain't no home/ in Dublin.

It is therefore fitting that Fr. Peter McVerry will launch this pioneering anthology. There will also be brief addresses from the Irish Trade Union Movement and from Culture Matters, as well as poetry readings by some of the contributors.

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland. ISBN 978-1-912710-25-6

Price: €10/ £9 plus p. and p., available here.

The Architects: a film about the reasons for the GDR's collapse
Friday, 08 November 2019 14:26

The Architects: a film about the reasons for the GDR's collapse

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell discusses The Architects, a film made in 1989/90 which traced the reasons for the collapse of the GDR 

30 years ago, on 9 November 1990, the inner-German border was opened, West Berlin was flooded with shoppers, and over the next few days and weeks the East German state toppled and collapsed. Why did it happen?

“The Architects” was one of the last films to be made in the GDR: the shoot began five weeks before the border opened, on 3 October 1989, and continued through to January 1990. It reached the cinemas in June 1990, as the currency union paved the way for the political joining of the two German states. Due to the turmoil of the times this film was viewed by very few; yet it is an interesting artistic document detailing – from the perspective of its artists – the reasons that led to the collapse of the socialist system, as it existed in the German Democratic Republic.

Briefly, the storyline is that a team of young architects is commissioned by the state to design the infrastructure for a vast estate of apartment blocks. They have to contend with the state and party apparatus, economic requisites, a fear of innovation and a lack of imagination. The architects are in their late thirties, the exact age of their country. They studied in Weimar, with all its associations of modern social housing during the Bauhaus and indeed, as referenced in the film, in the GDR itself.

The film follows their struggles to implement their dreams to design a habitable estate, one that does not merely provide the material conditions for survival like accommodation, transport and supermarkets. Their vision is a departure from prefabricated architecture. It is based on non-standard, imaginative elements, ecological construction, a cinema, a Vietnamese restaurant, and recreational facilities. In short, a place where people will be happy to live and stay. It is a metaphor for a society needing to live up to its own vision.  

The political critique could hardly be more obvious. Director Peter Kahane said that the screenplay described his own experience as a filmmaker, and the officials deciding on whether or not the film could be made appeared in their own roles in the film itself. Yet despite containing stark criticism of the state, tracing reasons for its collapse, the film was given the go-ahead and given the necessary state funding.

In the film the young team charged with the radical architectural design are cautiously hopeful that they can implement their plans. This is especially true of the team leader, Daniel, who puts up a heroic fight. The arguments used against the team are unconvincing and smack of fear of innovation. Hope is maintained almost to the end, and uncannily continues as everything collapses around them. But it comes too late for the team, and their belief in the project falls to pieces.

Why is this film of interest to us today, 30 years on? Perhaps because the socialist society depicted here shows people who have work and pleasant housing, at least indoors. There is neither poverty nor unemployment or homelessness. There is no evidence of social difference in terms of incomes. From this understanding, from this reality, people wish for more: individuality, imagination, variety. Their main complaint is boredom, paternalism, and an absence of trust. And here they come up against the political powers of the state.

The film is made from a position of achievement. The fact that full employment, cheap social housing for all, free education and medical care, all this social security is not enough, is a statement about the maturity of the society. After our basic human needs are fulfilled, we need cultural centres in the locality, cinemas, restaurants, and architectural art in every neighbourhood. People expect this, and not to have it is rightly seen as deprivation. This is another reason why so many leave the country. What expectations they have for the West and how this pans out is not the focus of the film.

The shoot coincided with people leaving the country in droves, and this is reflected in the film itself. However, Daniel’s Swiss friend, who had studied architecture in Weimar with him, visits because he wants to see the place again. When asked what he is working on, he says refugee accommodation, adding: “We from Weimar are architects with a social conscience.” He has not made money building wacky villas for the wealthy. As it happens, Daniel has the better prospects at that stage of building wacky designs for the working people of the estate. 

However, it was not to be, and Daniel loses hope and courage to continue his project, he loses the belief in himself and his ability to change things. The film was overtaken by history in the making, it documented the GDR’s reality as it became history. For me the interest lies not only in its awareness of what went wrong, but also in its lack of awareness of what had gone right.

“The Architects” is available on DVD with English subtitles.

Gandhi: 'The worst form of violence is poverty'
Monday, 07 October 2019 14:38

Gandhi: 'The worst form of violence is poverty'

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell reviews Walk with Gandhi, Bóthar na Saoirse, by Gabriel Rosenstock (Author) and Masood Hussain (Illustrator)

Bóthar na Saoirse (Road to Freedom) Walk with Gandhi is a beautiful book to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s birth on 2 October 1869. The book is a collection of haiga – a style of Japanese painting often accompanied by a haiku poem. The artists are the watercolourist Masood Hussain, from Kashmir, and the Irish poet and haikuist Gabriel Rosenstock. Hussain’s exquisite watercolours are a re-interpretation of historical photographs taken of Gandhi. Rosenstock’s haiku are in Irish and English. This is significant, as one of the main themes of the book is colonialism and Gandhi’s awareness and opposition to it, including the colonising function of language.

colder than all the prisons

you’ve been thrown into …

Downing Street railings

In addition to the amazing interplay of the two art forms, the book is interspersed with fascinating insights into Gandhi’s life and philosophy. These reveal that the book is designed to make Gandhi accessible for the younger generation. They invite readers to consider historical events, forms of protest, the effects of colonialism, and relate them to the present.

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The information put together for the readers is not designed to turn Gandhi into a saint. It relates aspects that surprise us, for example, that “He achieved much for the status of his fellow Indians in South Africa … but native Africans – such as Zulus – do not hero-worship Gandhi today. Au contraire! Gandhi took the side of the British in the Zulu uprising of 1906.” It was in South Africa that Gandhi’s journey began, when he was thrown off a train for sitting in a “whites only” carriage. This awakening was the beginning of his lifelong quest for freedom and justice. Mandela said about him later, in India: “You gave us Mohandas; we returned him to you as Mahatma.” Many of the tactics Gandhi first used in South Africa, he employed again in India.

Back in India, in 1915, his friend the poet Rabindranath Tagore gave him the name title “Mahatma”, Great Soul, a name Gandhi never warmed to; it deified him in some way. Tagore makes several appearances in this book. One of these connects him to the Irish anti-colonial struggle: Pádraig Pearse was in correspondence with Tagore and his play The Post Office had its world premiere in the Abbey Theatre in 1913.

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The Book “Bóthar na Saoirse” explores many facets of Gandhi’s life. For the younger readers it could well be a first introduction to exploring ideas of colonialism. For example, the following haiku echoes Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth:

are there hats enough

to go round …

the wretched of the earth

In the following haiku, Rosenstock gently hints at India’s own discrimination of the ‘Untouchables’, not without a reminder that “many societies have their own forms of class discrimination, snobbishness and exclusiveness, often based on dress, accent, schooling, money, property and other outer distinctive markings”.

a hand

like any other hand …

the untouchables

A fascinating insight Rosenstock provides in this book is linguistic links between Irish and Indian languages. Readers of this book discover that the “Irish word for a cow is bó and the Sanskrit is go…. The Celtic name Bovinda (White Cow) is the same as Govinda, another name for the Indian deity Krishna. A little clue to the cradle of Indo-European civilisation!”

This book is a gem. It is beautiful, a wonderfully enriching pleasure in terms of aesthetic appreciation and engaging the mind. It quotes many people on the significance of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, such as Albert Einstein’s: “I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men in our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil.”

To finish with a quote from Gandhi himself, one that struck a particular chord with me is: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

The book is published by Gandhi 150 Ireland, 5 October 2019 Paperback: ISBN 978-1-9162254-0-4 Hardback: ISBN 978-1-9162254-2-8 Ebook: ISBN 978-1-9162254 -1-1

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