Sunday, May 17, 2009

Blackthorn to Finnegan's Wake












Blackthorn in flower at Doorus, Co Clare


If gorse, the subject of my previous blog, lights up the Irish landscape with splashes of yellow in early spring, then blackthorn follows with a liberal dusting of white. Only to be replaced by the more intense white of hawthorn blossom in May.

All three are thorny, but blackthorn takes the prize for the most vicious, as we’ve discovered to our cost when we’ve been trying to cut it back or clear it. The thorns will penetrate leather gloves, the soles of Wellington boots and many layers of clothing and leave themselves buried painfully deep in fingers. It’s these qualities that make it a hedging plant of choice in this part of Ireland to retain livestock and provide protected shelter for game birds.

Not surprisingly it’s been given the Latin name Prunus spinosa – the Prunus part, a reminder that this is a member of the plum family and it does indeed produce small plums – commonly know as sloes.

They’re really much too tart to be used in cooking, but most people know about Sloe gin – not really a gin, but an infusion of the fruit in gin or other distilled spirit to create a liqueur.

But what makes the blackthorn a plant steeped in Irish folklore is the shillelagh – the walking stick or club which was very often made from the dense wood of the blackthorn – using the knotty stem base and root as the club end. Suitable sticks were suspended in the open chimneys to harden and acquire the sooty blackness of the true shillelagh.

These days the shillelagh is an object of fun bought, often with a shamrock painted on it, as a ‘souvenir’ of Ireland. But in reality it was a serious weapon used in stick-fighting contests, and the skills of this marshal art were passed on from one generation to the next.

I remember singing along to The Clancy Brothers, who revived the wonderful 1850s Irish drinking song, Finnegan’s Wake and wondered quite what was meant by:

“Shillelagh law was all the rage and a row and a ruction soon began”

Of course, this was a reference to the laws that governed the use of the shillelagh in formal fights.

By the time Finnegan’s Wake was written, the shillelagh was much more the weapon of choice in gang warfare and faction fights that had a habit of breaking out at social gatherings – particularly when there was a lot of drink around.

Listen to this performance by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem of this wonderfully funny song – with a bit of explanation about the song and the lyrics ….. and sing along.



The singer Tommy Makem, in the introduction refers to James Joyce and his book Finnegan’s Wake – said to be loosely based on the story in the song.

Most people know Joyce for Ulysses – and that’s considered to be a pretty hard read – but it has nothing on Finnegan’s Wake. It was Joyce’s final work and written over 17 years in Paris and published in 1939.

I think the style would be described as experimental. To me it’s a bit like the literary equivalent of abstract art. You’re not entirely sure whether it’s a work of genius or a lot of nonsense. Still, it’s kept a lot of worthy academics busy trying to interpret what it all means.

What makes it so hard to understand is that Joyce made up a language with references to Latin and other languages and then threw in a lot of made up words –often combinations of other words or made-up words conveying sounds or emotions.

Here’s a sample:

Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

You can get an impression of what he's writing about - or at least you think you can!

So there we are. The humble blackthorn has got a lot to answer for.

13 comments:

BT said...

Well what enormous fun, I loved the song. I'll have to learn a bit more of it before I can sing along! Again, you've taught my old brain something new.

Jason said...

Good stuff. You learnt me some more. Didnt know sloe gin wasnt gin!

Or what that stick in the back of me car was. ;-)

DK Leather said...

~grin~ how wonderful to learn more about the Shillelagh, I had one for years but could never remember where I'd got it from!

Rachel makes sloe gin & it's scrumptious!

Leatherdykeuk said...

I learned a little shillelagh combat, and I think there's a chapter on it in Hutton's "Stick Fighting."

david mcmahon said...

What a great blog you have here. A good friend of mine, Jinksy, told me to come and read your work. I'm glad she did.

Twisted willow said...

Thanks BT and Jason - I'll be testing you on what you've learned at the end of the month!

I remember Rachel's excellent sloe gin, K - I've still got the engraved bottle.

Rachel: There's a bit of a movement here to revive the shillelagh fighting as a serious marshal art with a long tradition. But I think it's going to be hard to shake of the jokey leprechaun, shamrock, shillelagh image.

Twisted willow said...

Thanks for coming by, David. I appreciate your comments.

CONEFLOWER said...

Hello Twisted Willow. It was interesting that you were the first visitor to my latest blog post Thank you for coming.

My husband and I make Irish Uilleann bagpipes. Our work website tells the whole story. We've not been to Ireland but it's high on the list of dream places to go. We've been to Scotland a couple times so I can relate to gorse and to 3' thick stone walls. Both are so beautiful. BTW what is the difference between gorse and Scotch Broom anyway?

We've been fans of Planxty and Bothy Band as well as Clancy Brothers and others, for many many years. At an Irish feis in Columbus, Ohio a few years back, I met Tommy Makem who sang with Clancy Brothers for a while. We had a small booth for our Irish pipes and he came around and played them and LIKED them. It was very nice.

I hope to see you back at my blog again and I've put you on my blog roll.

Lluvia said...

I need more time to read all of your posts about flowers. Read some, but there is a lot of information. Pics are beautiful.

lakeviewer said...

You combined three of my favorite things, plants, history and literature. I think I'll order a beer and hang around.

Twisted willow said...

Lovely to have you visit, Coneflower. Your website about the Uilleann pipes was fascinating. What a great job to end up doing. We're in a very strong trad music area and the remarkably talented violinist Martin Hayes, who now lives in Connecticut, was born in our local village of Feakle.
Lluvia - many thanks for looking in. I hope you weren't too put off by all the information. It's the connections between plants and so many other important things in life that fascinate me.
Is the beer allowed on your diet, Lakeviewer?! If it is, your more than welcome ... but actually there's only Guinness served around here. Will that do?

Lluvia said...

Not put off at all; just not enough time to read. I like to take my time.

lakeviewer said...

Thanks for visiting me. Guiness will be great; I just have to watch the munchies on this diet of mine, count carbs the way we counted days in elementary. How did you find me?