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.