Celtic Junction Arts Review
Issue 6, Samhain 2018
Archiving and Articulating Celtic Heritage
Meeting of Irish Cultural Organisations in the US Midwest · New initiative: The Irish College of Minnesota taking root in Celtic Junction in 2019 ·Baptizing the Mural: Phoenix Theatre pilots an innovative Halloween/Samhain play · Poetry in Slow Motion: appreciating W.B. Yeats · An Irish Pilgrimage in France · Whistle and I’ll Wait For You · The Mapmaker’s Tales: Billy in the Bowl and the Treasure of Dublin Castle
Welcome to the Samhain 2018 edition of the
Celtic Junction Arts Review
Devoted to archiving and articulating Celtic heritage locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally in both contemporary and historical and imagined forms, the Celtic Junction Arts Review continues to crackle and grow and burgeon. This edition is replete with fresh perspectives, new writers, and new initiatives.
Our Executive Director, Natalie Nugent O’Shea inspires with an account of a gathering earlier in October of thirty-seven organizations under the auspices of the Irish Consulate in Chicago that are determined to increase the footprint of Irish culture and deepen the connection to diaspora and affinity communities. CJAC’s attention to youth outreach merited special emphasis.
I give a thumbnail sketch of a very exciting new platform for reinventing and unifying our educational offerings in the McKiernan Library: the Irish College of Minnesota. Based on centuries-old structures for containing and bolstering Irish learning in European cities such as Rome and Paris, it will provide a unified identity for growing future programs and partnerships within Celtic Junction in a new structure of academic departments.
Another wonderful local development is captured in the account of a new resident theatre company, Phoenix Theatre, and their pilot and inaugural Halloween/Samhain production. It took the audience on a phantasmagoric pilgrimage to four stages in Celtic Junction’s energy-crackling Prior Avenue neighborhood: a stage set in the supremely easygoing Blackstack Brewery, a stage set at the tree splitting the brick edifice across from Blackstack, a huge stage placed to highlight the new 60-foot mural enriching the south wall of CJAC, and finished up within the haunted McKiernan Library itself. This production provided a baptism on multiple levels for the mural, the new ensemble company of musicians (with magnificent performances from the Celtic folk/punk group, Langer’s Ball, and the soloist, Courtney Buck), actors, writers, and artists. Most importantly, it baptized the concept of an innovative multidisciplinary exploration of Halloween’s roots in the Celtic portal-opening time of Samhain. And it featured raven-skulled Lord Death, a three-eyed antlered Seer, a blood-spattered banshee, a kelpie horse demon, Joseph Campbell with a West of Ireland accent, and even Edgar Allan Poe! I was proud and humbled to be its director.
A new writer, Don Flanagan, offers two articles. The first gives an account of the “Poetry in Slow Motion” Study group that has been meeting on a monthly basis since the fall of 2017 to offer free discussions and ruminations on the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). His second article is a spirit-warming and heart-warming account of an annual pilgrimage with a welcoming and friendly Irish chapter. The pilgrimage walks from Notre Dame Cathedral in the very heart of Paris to the famous Chartres Cathedral seventy miles away over three days in May.
Another new writer, Ronan O’Driscoll, a fiction author based in Canada, offers a charming and gentle vignette from his novel-in-progress concerning Chief O’Neill, the maestro of music collectors in nineteenth century Chicago.
I round out this edition with another Map-maker Tale in the genre of Young Adult fiction concerning the unlikely exploits of a notorious eighteenth century Dublin beggar and thief, Billy in the Bowl. In this episode, the vagrant miscreant pulls off the heist of the century!
Dr. Patrick O’Donnell, editor/contributing writer, is a full-time English faculty member at Normandale Community College. The founder/director of the Saint Paul Irish Arts Week (since 2016), a comprehensive ten-day program in April/May funded by the Irish Fair of Minnesota, he is primarily Director of Education at Celtic Junction Arts Center where he coordinates classes and also teaches American, British, and Irish Gothic tales, Irish-American short stories, Irish literature, literary history, and mythology. He co-edited the eighteen-author anthology, The Harp and the Loon: Literary Bridges between Ireland and Minnesota. Most recently, he is the Phoenix Theatre’s founder/director.
Meeting of Irish Cultural Organisations in the US Midwest
As you may recall from our Imbolc/February Issue of Celtic Junction Arts Review in 2018, we offered a report on the inaugural meeting of Irish Cultural Centers from across North America, held last January at the consulate in New York. On Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018, a gathering of thirty-two different Irish Cultural Organizations from across the Midwest was held in Chicago at the Consul General’s Office with the Minister for the Diaspora, Ciarán Cannon, T.D. We would like to share an update with you.
Report excerpt from the Consulate:
Minister Cannon addressed the meeting of Irish organizations in the US Midwest. The Consulate convened the meeting as it presented a good opportunity for the various Irish organizations to meet with the Minister with responsibility for the diaspora and to exchange views on how the government engages with the Irish overseas. The meeting also presented an opportunity for the various Irish organizations to engage with each other.
Minister Cannon was accompanied by Geoffrey Keating, newly appointed Director of the Irish Abroad Unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. Minister Cannon was also accompanied by his Private Secretary, Ann Griffin.
The Minister gave an outline of his visits to different regions and his appreciation of the work done by each organization. He emphasized the long-standing importance of the Diaspora to the Irish government as demonstrated by the fact that there is a Minister with a specific focus on it. He also noted the importance of the Diaspora in the USA, by noting that the government appointed Senator Billy Lawless – the first ever Senator based outside of the island of Ireland – in Chicago, to ensure that the Diaspora have a voice.
Minister Cannon gave a short overview of his role in connecting with the some 70 million global Irish nation. He stressed how lucky Ireland was to have such a large diaspora around the world, and how it is viewed as a community rather than a resource.
Minister Cannon noted that he was particularly interested in mechanisms to engage with the large Irish American diaspora that does not currently engage with any Irish/Irish American organization. He noted the results of a survey by Irishcentral which revealed that 67% of those who identify as Irish American do not engage with any particular organization.
Summary of discussion from CJAC attendee Natalie Nugent O’Shea:
The organizations appreciated the opportunity to meet each other and share ideas. Some common themes emerged: encouraging regular annual meetings, creating a directory of organizations, discussing network building, using better technology to share best practices, coordinating funding/programming, and communicating awareness of each other’s events and activities in the region.
One of the larger points of discussion was the changing demographics of Irish cultural memberships. With limited immigration, an aging population, and fewer 1st generation immigrants, there is a shared concern about smaller memberships and a shrinking audience. It was agreed that cooperation and shared ideas are required to bring these audiences into the fold and to retain their engagement and interest.
Discussion on this topic addressed engagement with diverse groups, including young people (children/teens/college & university students); parents; older people, the “affinity” Irish, LGBT+, etc., will be important for the future of Irish cultural organizations. A need to bring the next generation into the core activities of cultural organizations and to mentor and prepare them to take over management of centres/organizations/activities is required. It was suggested that groups learn from those successfully engaging with the youth sector, notably the GAA and CJAC Minnesota.
The multi-generational aspect is recognized as very important. Young people may not connect in the same way with their heritage in a dry way, such as in “memberships” or history classes, but are interested in “doing something” (sport, language, dance, music, etc.) Older people (many born in Ireland) are key to sharing their Irish heritage & culture (dance, music, language, arts, history, etc) with ensuing generations. Cross-generational efforts will help work to keep the connection with Ireland strong and engagement healthy. A plan is recognized as essential and required.
Several tasks and next steps toward these efforts are being considered and dates discussed for future meetings. We were especially proud to have Minnesota singled out in a mention of successful engagement with the youth sector. Celtic Junction Arts Center will continue to work with the consulate and other cultural organizations in the Midwest and North America. As we form these relationships, we hope to discover solutions to problems and forge new paths with this broader community as we, ourselves, grow and develop our own programs and future plans around these discoveries. We look forward to bringing you future updates here in the Celtic Junction Arts Review.
New initiative: The Irish College of Minnesota taking root in Celtic Junction in 2019
“Hammer your thoughts into a unity,” William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). What would be the best way to unify the burgeoning energy in new classes? The Celtic Junction’s Arts Center’s education programs which have been taking place continuously over fifteen months with more than a dozen classes in Irish language, history, literature, mythology, art, and Celtic spirituality since the fall of 2017 will be reorganized into a new platform: the Irish College of Minnesota. This Irish college initiative is the brainchild of Patrick O’Donnell, Director of Education. It will have the following mission: “College quality programs for community audiences.”
This redefinition will dynamically unify the classes being offered in the McKiernan Library on one single platform. Rooted in the traditional centuries-old concept of the Irish colleges which were spread across Europe in cities such as Paris and Rome from the sixteenth century, this new Irish college incarnation will provide a growing and dynamic structure allowing new ideas, new energies, and visions to have an encouraging focus. It will be a ‘good idea’ magnet and incubator for fresh thinking, fundraising, and creating partnerships with Irish-based organizations and universities. To facilitate this structure, the classes are being reorganized under Departments: an Irish Language Department, a Literature and History Department, and a Creative Arts Department.
Baptizing the Mural: Phoenix Theatre pilots an innovative Halloween/Samhain play
The ghoul-like musicians (Michael Sturm and Hannah Rediske of ‘The Langer’s Ball’ joined by Courtney Buck) still their instruments. A murder of cawing and shrieking crows (Kathy Luby, Sarah Kiani and Paul McCluskey) burst on stage. Their dark silk capes swirl. They are led by a formidable antler-crowned seer (Carrie Finnigan). She cries out in a summoning chant that the crows echo: “Lord Death! Lord Death!”
A mysterious figure, bearing a shepherd’s crook, flows up the steps to face them. It is the raven-skulled Lord Death himself (Eddie Owens) crossing the portal between the worlds of the living and the dead on Samhain, the enchanted Celtic New Year’s Eve, popularly but superficially celebrated in America with costumed trick or treating.
Lord Death summons in turn the poet, Patrick Kavanagh (Dan Gleeson) to sing “On Raglan Road” and the Irish-American mythologist and scholar, Joseph Campbell (John Concannon), who died on Halloween night, October 31 in 1987, to explain the history and significance of Samhain and to introduce the “ferocious banshee” (Karen Rene Peterson) whose wails and recurring scenes provide a motif unifying a production that would be peopled by quicksilver transformations of the ensemble cast into the Irish High King Brian Boru, a Kelpie horse demon, a Ceili Dance of Death at whose conclusion all the dancers fatally collapse, a Tir na Nog storyteller from the Celtic Otherworld of the Land of the Young, a ghost story tale teller remembering childhood apparitions from the west of Ireland, and even Edgar Allan Poe encountering his living father and ghostly mother on the night of his death in 1849.
Showcasing the crackling creative energy along Prior Avenue itself, Phoenix Theatre, the Celtic Junction’s new resident theatre company, presented its made-from-scratch Halloween show, Wails from the Cauldron: A Truly Celtic Haunting on Wednesday, October 31 in four Prior Avenue connected locations in St. Paul: the laid back Blackstack Brewery, the eerie solitary tree splitting the brick wall across the street from Blackstack, the eye-popping exterior mural at Celtic Junction, and the McKiernan Library upstairs in Celtic Junction Arts Center.
Before the production began, Carrie Finnigan, who with artist Marty Ochs painted the 60 foot long mural, splashed whiskey from her Seer’s flask on to her artwork to formally and ritualistically baptize it. This was fitting because the show was in many ways a multi-layered baptism. It was new on several levels. It was the inaugural production for Phoenix Theatre. It was its new ‘pilot’ Halloween/Samhain show. It was its most ambitious devised (i.e. made and improvised by the cast without one overarching script) show with the addition of musicians, Ceili dancing, folklore, mythology, storytelling and original theatre scenes. It was a pilgrimage theatre concept bringing a Celtic Junction theatre audience for the first time on a journey across multiple locations.
Primarily, besides piloting a truly Celtic Halloween show exploring the actual roots of Samhain itself through an invocation of ancestors, it was a blessing and baptism for the newly finished mural on the south wall of CJAC with the stage that was built in front of that wall showcasing both the ensemble cast and the art with great effect.
Created and devised by an ensemble cast of more than a dozen local actors, writers, and musicians (Carrie Finnigan, Sarah Kiani, John Concannon, Dan Gleeson, Kathy Luby, Eddie Owens, John Concannon, Patrick O’Donnell, Karen Rene Peterson, Paul McCluskey, Courtney Buck, Hannah Rediske, and Michael Sturm) and supported by the lighting and technical expertise of Tom Mays and Rich Fitzgerald, the production was directed by Patrick O’Donnell, Director of Education at Celtic Junction.
Poetry in Slow Motion: Appreciating W.B. Yeats
The Celtic Junction offers a great variety of educational events. There are courses that meet weekly, including one on Yeats and another on Gothic horror; there are one-off talks, and there are informal (and free) monthly sessions given to reading and discussing literary works. One of this latter type, called Poetry in Slow Motion, has been gathering during the past year or so to read poems by William Butler Yeats. What a rich and surprising feast it is proving to be. The surprises come in moments of enjoyment and epiphany that arise from taking one’s time and reading great poems aloud.
To participate in this friendly and informal group, I dug out my Collected Poems of Yeats, its dustjacket quite tattered, and with an inscription from my wife on the flyleaf indicating it was a Christmas present from over 40 years ago. A gift to appreciate anew.
We started moving through the Collected Poems one book of published poems at a time. The early lyrical, Celtic Twilight poems are not everyone’s cup of tea, but there are some unarguably great poems in here, like the folklore-inspired “Down by the Salley Gardens,” which with a few telling details sketches a love that ends unhappily. (It has been put to haunting music and recorded numerous times going back to John McCormack, or maybe even earlier.) And there are the poems like “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea,” in which Yeats plays a leading role in the revival of Irish Gaelic mythology as part of the growing Irish nationalist feeling in the late nineteenth century. This sense of belonging to, and making an important contribution to, the nationalist movement is explicit in some lines from the poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times”:
Nor may I less be counted one
With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson,
Because, to him who ponders well,
My rhymes more than their rhyming tell
Of things discovered in the deep,
Where only body’s laid asleep.
Perhaps Yeats’s most famous early poem is “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” It captures the longing for rural peace and beauty by an exile living in a city. It also lent its name to the mythical village in the classic film The Quiet Man.
The group moved on to the next collections, such as The Wind Among the Reeds and The Green Helmet and Other Poems. Here we encounter the towering figure of Maud Gonne, whom Yeats wooed but never won. Her presence (and her absence) continues to haunt and inspire the poet in poems like “Never Give All the Heart.” We also come across references to Coole Park, the estate of the literary patron Lady Gregory, who was a great friend and supporter of Yeats. By this decade (1900–1910), Yeats is established as a major poet and the great literary figure in Ireland. There follow great political poems like “September 1913” and “Easter 1916.” The latter poem ends with these well-known lines:
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
There are defenses of art and John Synge. There are more poems dealing with fairies, legends, and myths, but now they have more bite and heft.
All this time, Yeats is formulating a distinctive cosmology or theory of the universe. In 1917 he marries Georgie Hyde-Lees, whose “automatic writing” enables her to become a medium communicating with the spirit world. Yeats like many other writers of the period was interested in the occult, and his wife seemingly provided a direct connection to that world. From this connection, Yeats developed a complex system filled with cones and gyres, which I will not even try to describe.
Thoor Ballylee / Túr Bhaile Uí Laí This 16th-century tower house of the De Burgo (Burke) family was restored by William Butler Yeats as a retreat for himself and his young family, who occupied it for ten years from 1919. After 1929 it fell into disrepair again, until reopened as a Yeats memorial and heritage centre from 1965.
To this point, we have also touched on Yeats the politician (becoming a Senator in the newly formed Irish Free State) and Yeats the dramatist and theatrical manager (he was a founder of the Abbey Theatre). Reading a fair amount of Yeats’s poems compels at least this one conclusion: there is a lot going on! I think of Walt Whitman’s self-description: “I am large. I contain multitudes.” It applies even more so to Yeats. In fact, when we arrived at mature collections like The Tower and The Winding Stair, we found there was far too much to savor, so we slowed the pace even more. Who knows when we will finish? We are not eager to be done.
The mature poems show a wide range of styles and moods. There are famous and famously challenging poems like “Sailing to Byzantium.” There are the colloquial, hilarious “Crazy Jane” poems. There are achingly heartfelt, autobiographical poems like “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”
Our group has also looked at Yeats’s life and family, especially a particularly lively and non-academic biography by Brenda Maddox: Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of W.B. Yeats. Suffice it to say that W.B. had eccentric and interesting relatives, some wildly unorthodox and brilliant friends, a wide circle of fellow writers, and a late-blooming and unconventional sex life.
As a literary historian, Patrick O’Donnell brings to our small group a wealth of knowledge to share on Yeats’s life and times, as well as on the poems themselves. And he wears his learning lightly. Have you ever been discouraged from enjoying poetry by a pedantic, pontificating English teacher? (Think of Daniel Day-Lewis as Mr. Vyse in A Room with a View, for example.) This group is a great antidote to that crabbed approach. Its purpose is enjoyment and enlightenment. Renewing (or making) our acquaintance with these wonderful poems is great fun.
An Irish Pilgrimage in France
Making a pilgrimage is a public act of faith that can spring from several motives. Nothing new here: Chaucer’s pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn for lots of reasons, one of which was that it was springtime. I had a similar mix of motives when I decided to join the Irish chapter on the annual Pentecost pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres.
After wandering in a spiritual wilderness for 40 years, I gradually reverted to the Catholic faith of my fathers. At some point the feeling grew that I would like to participate in a pilgrimage. A Francophile, I was drawn to the current Paris-to-Chartres pilgrimage, now in its 36th year. (Of course, pilgrims have been going to Chartres since the 12th century.) These days, some 10,000 people join this pilgrimage every Pentecost weekend. Being attracted to the traditional Latin Mass (I’m a sucker for the smells and bells, Gregorian chant, communion rails, the whole nine yards), I was delighted to find that the Chartres pilgrimage featured the old Mass. In addition to expressing private intentions like gratitude for blessings received, the pilgrimage also offered opportunities for pubic intentions such as penance for all the clerical sexual abuses and coverups.
My research led me to discover the Chapitre Saint Patrick, a (mostly) Irish chapter that happily accepts other people, including Americans, Swiss, Argentines, even Russians. The Irish chapter is, in short, a most welcoming group. They even take a number of geezers like me. I signed up via email and proceeded to try to get in shape by taking lots of long walks. They weren’t long enough, as it turned out. The actual pilgrimage is a three-day, 70-mile walk through Paris, forest, and farmland, and I found it quite challenging, as they say. In fact, it was a lesson in humility to see other pilgrims of eight or eighty years often sailing past me without trouble.
The Irish chapter gathers, fittingly, at the Irish College, on the Rue des Irlandais in Paris. An Irish Cultural Center today, for three centuries it was a major educational institution where Irish priests and scholars could escape the penal laws and study. It’s in the fifth arrondissement, along with the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne. There is a Mass in the 18th-century jewel of a chapel, celebrated by the group’s chaplain; then we stroll to a nearby restaurant for a convivial dinner. The members of the chapter were most hospitable, and I felt immediately at ease. I thought of that old saying that in Ireland there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met.
At half-five the next morning, there are Masses at side altars in Notre Dame Cathedral. They make for a quietly moving sight. By 6:30, many more pilgrims arrive for a Mass at the high altar and a sendoff by the Archbishop of Paris. I tried that one year and discovered the severe limitations on my ability to understand French through a PA system. By 7:30, all the pilgrims are assembling on the pavement outside Notre Dame. Each chapter carries a flag, a cross, and a saint’s banner. Seeing hundreds of these stretched out along the route is a stirring spectacle.
One of leaders of the Irish chapter is Ciaran MacGuill, a Dundalk native who has lived and worked in Paris for 20 years. He also is a co-founder of Gaeltacht sur Seine (paris-gaelique.com), which hosts monthly Irish-language sessions at The Quiet Man Pub. His Irish charm and fluent French have helped the fair-skinned Irish chapter get into Chartres Cathedral at the culmination of the walk. Fewer than half the pilgrims can be accommodated inside, so it is a great blessing to make it past the big doors, even if you have to sit on the floor.
There are outdoor Masses at midday on the first two days, which I found strikingly beautiful. They are also a welcome respite from walking. Lunch afterwards with the Irish chapter sometimes and most improbably featured paté and Côtes du Rhône. At dusk, we make it to a campground, with rustic facilities and a simple dinner of soup and bread. But they taste wonderful for some reason.
The Irish chapter is, as you might expect, not a silent group. We chant the Rosary in four languages, listen to meditations, sing hymns like “Hail Glorious Saint Patrick,” “Chartres Sonne,” and “Non Nobis Domine.” And we sing a lot of Irish songs, including “An Poc Ar Buile,” “I’ll Tell Me Ma,” “The Black Velvet Band,” and “Oro Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.” The chapter provides everyone with a booklet with all the prayers and songs.
Along the route, I found that my thoughts were divided among the pressing and physical (Uh oh, I may be getting a blister, Do I have any more granola bars? Wow, this porta-loo smells really bad!), an appreciation of the sheer beauty of the procession and the surroundings, and purely spiritual considerations. Everything else, the thoughts that would mostly occupy my mind in ordinary circumstances, were simply swept away. I was living on the highest and lowest planes, with very little in between. It was great.
After the High Mass in Chartres Cathedral, most of the Irish chapter repairs to a nearby bistro, where the beer is especially tasty, then to a hotel for the luxury of a bath (Ahhh), then dinner together in the hotel followed by jokes and stories. The next day, there is time to explore this marvelous cathedral on our own, followed, weather permitting, by a memorable al fresco lunch just across the way from the cathedral. I think they were my best. lunches. ever.
I did this pilgrimage three times before my feet said no más. I found each one grueling and glorious, filled with moments of penitential discomfort, spiritual insight, great joy, high spirits, sore feet, and wonderful camaraderie. The members of the Irish chapter were the best pilgrimage companions I could have wished for.
Whistle and I’ll Wait For You
Francis O’Neill (1848-1936) is renowned for being the Chicago chief of police who saved Irish music. Not many people know the fascinating full story of his life: leaving Ireland at sixteen to sail the world, ship-wrecked on a Pacific Island, working his way to police chief while collecting and preserving thousands of Irish tunes still played around the world today. The following is an excerpt from Ronan O’Driscoll’s as yet unpublished novel of biographical fiction on O’Neill’s life. See http://chiefoneill.com for full details.
South Halsted Street, Chicago, October 1876
Behind the broad windows of the barbershop, men stretched out in reclining wooden chairs. Before high mirrors and ornate lamps, quick brilliantined barbers stepped around their customers, making conversation and tending to hair and whiskers. Francis rubbed the back of his neck, feeling the length of his hair. It would only take ten minutes. A shave too perhaps. The high door opened with a jingle as he entered.
“Officer O’Neill,” a barber jumped up from behind a counter. “What can we do for you today?”
“A trim, I think,” said Francis, taking his place beside a couple of other men in their dark suits. They studied their newspapers, pretending not to notice him.
“I can take you right away,” replied the barber, turning a chair around towards him.
Francis looked at the men sitting next to him. None returned his glance. “Ah no. I’ll read for a minute. Let these men go ahead.”
The barber smiled and ushered the next man forward with a flourish of a towel. Francis frowned at the misnamed Police Gazette, a burlesque dancer arching a leg ensconced in fishnet stockings. He selected the Daily News, a more seemly paper, and scanned the headlines. A handwritten sign to his right read “Challenge Laundry Service”. An older boy came through the shop pushing a handcart piled with soiled linen for the laundry in the basement. He loaded tagged bags into a dumbwaiter and cranked the black iron wheel, slowly lowering the clothes. Sounds escaped from the women working below: shouts, laughter, snatches of song. Francis jumped up.
“Hold it there, son,” he shouted.
The barbers froze, cutthroats and sharp scissors poised in mid-air. The laundry boy blanched. His eyes darted to the smutty paper on the low table.
“I didn’t do nothing with it,” protested the boy, face pale with fear.
Francis ignored him. He tiptoed over, ear bent to the dumbwaiter. He strained to catch a faint sound of song wafting up from below. Muffled shouts and laughter when the distant singer finished. After a minute of listening for more, he sat back down. From his pocket he retrieved a small Clarke tin whistle and repeated phrases from the melody, committing them to memory. The boy stared at him, mouth ajar. The owner motioned for him to continue his job. He winked to the other barbers who smirked back as they returned to their clients. Business resumed as the policeman played quietly, smiling at the new tune.
The Mapmaker’s Tales: Billy in the Bowl and the Treasure of Dublin Castle
[Editor’s Note: This tale concerns a notorious eighteenth century beggar called Billy in the Bowl. Born without legs and raised in a battered wooden bowl, he was both a ferocious and a sad sight clanking across the cobble-stoned lanes of old Dublin. The premise for the tales is that a young Minnesota-born Map-maker is returning to Dublin in 2018 to learn how to create esoteric maps of the city’s lost stories from a fierce old professor who tells her about its curious and wayward denizens.]
– My God, said the map-maker, what else did the disagreeable ould beggar get up to?
You must remember, murmured the great professor, glancing at the map-maker with an amused but slightly reproving eye, that Billy in the Bowl was a maimed person from birth who grew up to beg in a bowl in the muck and the rain downpours of a masked city. The old scholars before me described Dublin as a gorgeous mask. It hid its sordid face behind colonial finery– alabaster ceilings of beautiful intricate plasterwork – filigrees of rococo, classical pageants, and cherubim at play on high in spacious drawing rooms lit by hand-cut crystal chandeliers glittering above heavy dully glowing silverware and fine glasses and mahogany tables draped with the finest linen for the elite of the English-bred garrison while swarms of foul, illiterate, disgruntled peasants prevented by English penal laws from acquiring an education or property or businesses shambled like denizens of Dante about its elegant squares and the high railed enclosures of its university. Dublin, the heavily policed garrison city, was then really a grotesque mask.
Billy in the Bowl was acknowledged by the wealthy with their wigs and silver canes and the poor in their stinking and twitching rags with equal contemptuous mixtures of scorn and pity. They were united in their disgust. No matter their problems and the injustices of their lives, they at least weren’t legless beggars living in a sordid wooden bowl! They at least were better than the poor ould miserable figure of Billy in the Bowl!
Now Billy had no knowledge of the pathos that he invited. In his anger-blackened mind – disagreeable, spiteful, and as scorched with loneliness as an oven’s dark belly – he was a world-beating thief and a champion amongst beggars. He was always scheming and dreaming. As he clattered along amongst the cobble-stoned lanes dodging the latrine water that was flung out of overhanging casement windows, and the droppings of lingering horses, and the downpours of an uncertain mackerel-hued sky, his mind concocted a plan of tremendous daring and courage.
He would rob the gold-bearing treasury coach that brought the monthly tax takings from Dublin Castle to the Lord Lieutenant’s mansion in the Phoenix Park. It was heavily guarded, of course, but that only would work to his advantage. The following day the coach was careening down the elegant lane that diagonally traversed the Phoenix Park when a fashionably dressed lady plunged right out in front of it shrieking that a beggar had threatened her with a knife. The guards leaped down to hear her tale leaving the coach driver in place high above the four startled horses when out of the large spreading branches of an oak tree dropped a strange apparition – a glaring tramp-like figure in a large sturdy wooden bowl. With a muffled clunk, the driver was knocked off the carriage. Billy in the Bowl grabbed the reins, the horses leaped up and away the carriage, the horses and the beggar flew at top speed. The woman screamed: “There he is!”
The guards pulled at their muskets and swords and daggers, but it was too late and the driver groaned sprawled out on the park lawn with enormous bruises like the hoof prints of the devil himself on his forehead.
Away careened Billy in the Bowl fast as a leopard’s sneeze with the gold treasury of the city’s taxes in tight bound iron casks in the carriage beneath him. Through the gates of the Phoenix Park he flew, a lightning bolt on wheels, the horses’ legs accelerating to blurred impossible speeds urged on by his curses and shouts and roars and imprecations and maledictions of black roaring irresistible fury. Away they flew! But the guards raced after them blowing on whistles, yelling, filling their muskets and firing in every direction until a cavalry squad of soldiers cantering through the park was alerted and raced in pursuit of the raging carriage and its ferocious driver. Away! Away he went! Faster and faster he stormed lost in a terrifying cacophony of venomous curses, protesting horses, jolting scuttling wheels, exploding bullets, screaming women, shouting cavalry men, and rattling treasure chests. With his slouch hat falling over his eyes and the leathery reins gripped in his massive hand, he was a tremendous sight to behold sliding across the postern of the carriage in his tilting and jolting scratcher of a bowl while his other hand clutched at the railing to prevent his flying off! Sweat pumped out of his forehead, his muscles bulged and ached, but he felt free, he felt alive, he felt exhilarated and, for the first time in his life, he was the hub of the city: it revolved around him. He was not the static one lost in a tub of old oak wood, ignored and scorned by the rivers of variegated citizens, with purses vacant or bursting and faces equally vacant or bursting. Now who would stop him? Who would catch him? Let them try! He was a legend. He was a god!
Soon like a thunderclap, he burst through the Phoenix Park’s gates. The people of the town raised an uproar at the sight of him. Now crowds were chasing him as he approached the quays by the river Liffey. He raced along roaring without fear at all and sundry and they raced in his wake. After Billy in the Bowl hurried a huge cluttered mass of soldiers, cavalry, butchers, weavers, cutlers, stone masons, peasants, apprentices, cutthroats, paupers, merchants, students, aristocrats, functionaries and fools hobbling and sprinting and running while yelling and gesticulating and raising a tremendous hubbub of discordant protesting babble. The entire city seemed to be screaming.
How could he escape? It was impossible. But Billy had thought this out too in his anger-tinted plan. He pulled up at the river’s wall and with his butcher’s knife and the enormous strength of his arms, he pried open the carriage’s lock and grabbed armfuls of treasure casks and then as the soldiers and their muskets hurried towards him, he turned and leaped into the river.
The onlookers gasped as one. He would be done for! But they forgot one thing. He had not forgotten it. He lived in a bowl.
He flopped on to the water – turbulent and foul – and floated safely down the stream. His bowl floated. He was suddenly a sailor. He waved to the astounded crowds as the musket bullets splashed ineffectually around him and then sailed far away out to sea. Perhaps with that treasure he could buy golden legs for himself. Or, at least, he thought reaching up to feel the bullet holes in his hat, a new shaggin’ hat!!
All Map-maker’s images CC0 from Pixabay, altered significantly by O.C.McB.