Reviewed by Mary McWay Seaman,
Celtic Connection, April, 2008 How often do our mortal selves bear scrutiny as a mighty chunk of nature, chiseled as we are by technological realignments to flesh, blood and bone? Probably not too often; rather, we use “nature” as a reference to outdoor surroundings and the birds, the beasts and the blossoms of the wilderness. Nature writers like Robert Finch ordinarily focus on creatures and habitats outside the human realm, but Finch”s new book, THE IAMBICS OF NEWFOUNDLAND, makes a creative inspection of us as “nature” in a remote part of North America. His rambles across Newfoundland (including Labrador) from 1987 to 1996 are distilled in this captivating probe of the area”s prime natural commodity ” people. Generous helpings of anthropology, sociology, biology, botany, geology and politics season his studies, and loads of local humor and lively gatherings of the citizenry offer a graceful portrait of man”s adaptation to a punishing, resplendent habitat. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Newfoundland”s native Beothuk Indians were joined by succeeding waves of Basque whalers from France and Spain, British farmers from Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, Irish laborers from Waterford, and Portuguese fishermen seeking shelter from the tempests. Newfoundland”s capital, St. John”s, was once a prominent seaport famous for cod harvests, but the decline of its main fish brought hard times. This hilly port city is home to garrulous natives with accents akin to Irish, prompting the author to remark on its “charming lack of self-awareness.” The Old World is immediately brought to mind with structures boldly painted in contrasting colors, reminiscent of the Irish port of Cobh, County Cork. In 1949 Newfoundland became part of Canada, but St. John”s still summons an eighteenth-century character with laneways and pedestrian alleys layered over ancient footpaths. Finch”s vigorous analysis of the settlement”s turbulent history tenders some heart-rending testimonies. The city has a long reputation as a tough drinking town, “where, less than a century ago, children of ten or twelve years who worked on the wharves were paid in “lots” of rum by the merchants, so that scores of young boys staggered home drunk from twelve-hour workdays.” Observations about education and the oral history of Newfoundland before unification with Canada will surprise readers. “Schoolchildren . . .grew up with a more-or-less ordered idea of the sequence of British monarchs or the course of the American Revolution, while their own history survived in a dreamtime of stories, verses, ballads, jokes and a dialect that shared more with nineteenth-century Devon than with twentieth-century Toronto.” Finch is at his finest in depicting his relationships with individual Newfoundlanders in their distinct districts. A robust regionalism marks this land with its own time zone (Newfoundland Standard Time is 30 minutes ahead of the other Atlantic Provinces). Villages and towns are called and colored by their particular Irish or English ancestry, (the clans still cling together) and larger communities are defined by their Irish Catholic and British Protestant sections.Newfoundland provides a close encounter with the speech patterns of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland and Britain. Delightful passages of humorous, musical vernacular are a sublime treat. The author notes that, “Like most places with widely dispersed and long-isolated populations, Newfoundland has spawned a wealth of local dialects. In St. John”s and in most towns on the Avalon Peninsula, local speech exhibits a strong Irish rhythm and lilt.” Amazingly, the distinct Irish dialect of early nineteenth-century Waterford remains intact, and “Irishisms such as curwibble, flaboolach, glawvawn, kawnya-vawnya, loodle-daddle, noody-nawdy, shabeen, sleveen, and pampooty dance playfully across the palate.” People of all ages are greeted as “my son,” or “my maid,” (phrases still heard in the Ozarks and Appalachia), and the Newfie “f” is often pronounced as a “v.” Accordion players are called “fiddlers,” and a bounty of other idiomatic terms and phrases percolate across the pages. The verbal stew also combines bits of Celtic and French salted with some “mangled Latin.” The language of Virgil, Horace and Ovid weaves itself into daily discourse in the doorways of St. John”s with such terms as “Tallis Quallis,” a common colloquialism for “such as it is.” Linguists, historians and casual readers will find themselves glued to the pages as passionate conversationalists share opinions on everything from churches to caribou carcasses.The sparkling discussion of language continues with examples of mixed subject and verb forms, such as “I plans, and we wants.” Finch relates that, “Virtually all uses of present-tense verbs are given the third-person singular form” an example of which follows: “I plans to go up to the hall Saturday night. Is you thinking of coming along?” Some objects have genders, similar to Latin and French, although the genders might change – e.g., “He was reputed to be a good boat, but I didn”t care much for she.” Finch relays that he “caught most of what the men said when they talked directly to me, but when they began talking among themselves I was generally lost. This seemed to be a common trait among outport people, adapting their dialect somewhat to the person being spoken to, and then reverting to their native dialect among themselves.” Interestingly, many locals refer to the United States as the “Boston States,” a term from Depression days when many Newfoundlanders sought work in Massachusetts. I wished for a map within the book, but tracked Finch”s trail with an atlas close at hand. Evocative place names ring out harmoniously, and the geographic nomenclature enchants ” a “tickle” is a narrow passage of water between cliffs, and a “landwash” is a beach. Place names on tundra, barrens, boggy wetlands, forests and seacoasts allude to their histories. Signal Hill, Cuckold”s Head, Quidi Vidi Harbour, Salvage, Little Careless Brook, Squid Tickle, St. Bride”s, Placentia and Trepassy are just a few places with old stories behind them. From the Cape Spear lighthouse and park to Cape St. Mary”s gannet colony, from barren moorlands to the Cape Pine lighthouse, the author”s expertise on the natural world (beyond our own flesh) asserts itself with eloquence. Moose and caribou hunts are an important financial and cultural industry in Newfoundland. Finch went completely native when he deployed himself on a hunt with Newfie friends, and tales of this adventure include the added amusements of dodging tricky, bureaucratic hunting regulations. As in Ireland, governmental rules are subject to broad interpretations and loose translations. Indeed, our nature writer decided that the “whole system seems to be widely regarded as something to manipulate or evade.” Newfoundland”s seal hunts are under attack by animal rights groups, especially after a much-publicized incident involving the three Hearn brothers who supposedly “tortured” some seals a few years ago. Such brouhaha could only occur when an older, hardier, closer-to-nature culture rebuffs teachings from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Hunters continue to rail against blustering busybodies who interfere with natural resource interactions (hunting traditions) dating back several centuries.Towards the end of this memorable tour, I read and reread the author”s remarks as he watched a Seinfeld rerun and found himself “wondering what Newfoundlanders make of such a narcissistic, nihilistic, irony-drenched portrait of life.” Robert Finch, nature writer, correspondent, interpreter, historian and scout, salutes the bewitching, merry people of Newfoundland and their boundless bonhomie in this joyous, irresistible account.
Reviewed by Mary McWay Seaman,
Native-American lore preserves an illuminating record of a complex and extensive interaction between indigenous peoples and the Irish on many different levels. On one level, the happy consummation of native and Irish led to the emergence of the M”ti community, a mixed-blood people who trace their ancestry back to the intermarriage of Indian and Irish-speaking settlers and whose unique culture of music and dance is unquestionably of Irish Gaelic provenance. In more turbulent times, Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish patriot, Civil War veteran and commander of the “Fighting 69th,” and then governor of Montana Territory would use the fear of Blackfeet Indians to inveigle weapons from the federal government as part of a planned Fenian invasion of Canada. In June of 1876, Captain Myles Keogh, Carlow native, recipient of the Papal Medal, and Civil War veteran would join General Custer in the infamous and ill-fated attack on Sitting Bull and the Indian confederation camped on the Little Big Horn. Keogh”s bravery so impressed his foes that they honored him in not mutilating his lifeless body and leaving his horse, Comanche, by his side, the only living thing on the battlefield. Believing his Papal Medal to be a talisman and source of his courage and leadership, the Indians did remove the medal and gave it to Sitting Bull. Legend has it that later pictures of the great Sioux Chief show him with a crucifix and silver disk around his neck ” Keogh”s Papal Medal! Against this classic western background of cowboys, Indians and cavalry, there emerged a city unlike any other in the Irish experience; for where the Irish would come and accommodate to the great metropolises of the east coast like Boston and New York, the Irish in Montana would build the city of Butte from the ground up and shape its character to reflect their Irish, Catholic and Gaelic ethos and heritage. This Irish town quickly came to play a central role in American labour history and to exert a powerful influence on all movements dedicated to the promotion of Ireland, her culture and political freedom.”Great nationalist leaders such as Douglas Hyde, Eamon de Valera, Mrs. Mary McSwiney and others came to Butte seeking help for Irish cultural movements and the cause of Irish independence. They found a city where the Irish language was spoken, Irish dance and music were known to all, Irish Gaelic football was played competitively, and local papers reported tidings from Ireland as faithfully as local and national news.” The efforts made by Irish nationalists leaders to come to Montana is instructive of how important Butte and Irish-American communities were in the fight to preserve Irish culture and secure Irish independence. As far back as the time of the Great Famine, representatives of Irish nationalist movements had recognized that “it is on the Irish of America that every movement for the advancement of the old country is largely dependent for support.” It is highly unlikely that the old language and culture of Ireland would be around today were it not for the support of Irish-America; it is also improbable that the Irish War of Independence between 1919 and 1921 would have been won were it not for the support of the Irish of America.” The struggle to preserve Ireland”s ancient culture and heritage continues and Montana, as home to the largest per capita population of people of Irish descent, has once again assumed a prominent role in this effort through its Irish Studies program at the University of Montana, Missoula.The Irish Studies program at the University of Montana is a product of collaboration between faculty and the local community. For a number of years, research scholars have been examining the role of the Irish in Montana; in the meantime, descendants of the copper-miners of Butte, anxious to preserve their Gaelic heritage, established a local group to teach Irish language, music and dance. In 2005, members of this group and faculty worked together to formulate a program of studies that combined rigorous academic study with a commitment to preserving and promoting Ireland”s living Gaelic culture. Students will study Irish literature and history, learn of Ireland”s unique contribution to western civilization, the role of the Irish in America, and, in particular, the much neglected but extremely important contribution of Irish America to the evolution of politics, culture and society in Ireland. Allied to this is the cultural program where students will learn to speak Irish fluently, acquire modern teaching methods to pass the language on to others, learn and participate in Irish music,” dance, theatre and film. The objective is to make Irish culture accessible to those of Irish descent in Montana and the west coast, and to make this access affordable to all. In 2006, her Excellency, Mrs. Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, in officially launching this program, described it as a tribute by those who draw the water to those who dug the wells. Those who dug the wells were the early immigrants from Ireland who worked and sacrificed to pass on their faith, culture and heritage. In many ways, the Irish Studies program is a continuation of that work, part of a legacy or tradition inherited from an earlier generation with all the obligations such entails. One of these obligations is to make access to the tradition affordable to all. In this regard, the Irish Studies program located in Montana”s beautiful Rocky Mountains is relevant to all wishing to learn of the Irish and their remarkable culture. If you are interested in more information, please contact me, Traolach ” R”ord”in, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or our web site at http://www.cas.umt.edu/irishstudies.Traolach ” R”ord”in is a native of county Cork, Ireland and currently adjunct professor of modern Irish language and literature at The University of Montana. He is a graduate of the National University of Ireland where he was awarded a PhD in modern Irish literature for his work on the Gaelic League, the organization which spearheaded the revival of Irish and Irish Gaelic culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This work was the first comprehensive study of the Irish revival movement in all its aspects, and is considered to be of special importance for the light it casts on the political implications of cultural nationalism. Entitled Conradh na Gaeilge I gCorcaigh, 1893-1910, it was published by Cois Life, Teo in 2000. Traolach is currently researching the place of Irish Gaelic Culture in America and the impact of Irish American communities in the development of a coherent ideology of cultural nationalism in the era after the Great Famine. He has also devoted much of his time designing a teaching methodology specifically for American students. UM Irish Studies Testimonials…Lily Gladstone
Lily is majoring in Drama/Dance and recently acted in UM”s production of the Irish play Riders to the Sea, which was directed by Bernadette Sweeney, a professor of drama from University College, Cork who was visiting UM as part of the Irish Studies program. Lily is a member of the Blackfeet tribe of American Indians.“The Riders experience has possibly changed my whole life and given me new perspectives. I”ve had a pretty strong draw to Ireland for awhile”and to Irish theater in particular”due to the historical, political, and in many ways, cultural similarities that I see to my American Indian heritage. Perhaps the most striking similarity is the tie to the elements. Both cultures share a deep and profound respect for the natural world, as opposed to a more western idea of a “man taming nature” view. Other common themes are religious tension, foreign oppression, the battle for sovereignty and independence, and family to name a few”and these are practically identical to themes in Indian Country. The Irish Studies program has changed the way I view the world by allowing me to see these connections between cultures which are on different sides of the globe. The program will open up a world of different perspectives for others, as it did for me.Tom Stock
Tom is a current Irish Studies student who served a lifetime career in the U.S. Marine Corps. Upon his retirement, he decided to return to the university.“Irish Studies is important because it is a direct and active link with over 2,000 years of history and heritage for all persons of Irish descent ” Its loss or extinction would produce an irresolvable cultural void. The continued revival and use of the language will prevent such a tragedy. As a learner of Irish I sense that I am doing my very small part toward its perpetuation. I want to be able to again visit Ireland and live briefly among the Irish and converse with them on their terms, in their own bailiwick, with as much fluency as I can achieve to become, in a sense, one of their own as my ancestors were prior to 1880.”
Colorado United Irish Societies, the folks behind the annual Colorado Irish Festival, and The Celtic Connection newspaper are throwing an “All-Ages” “Thank You” party for their volunteers and supporters on Saturday, April 12 from noon to 6pm at the exciting multi-use entertainment hot spot, The Falcon. Colorado United Irish Societies, the folks behind the annual Colorado Irish Festival, and The Celtic Connection newspaper are throwing an “All-Ages” “Thank You” party for their volunteers and supporters on Saturday, April 12 from noon to 6pm at the exciting multi-use entertainment hot spot, The Falcon. Designed by the owners of Gothic Theatre, The Falcon was just voted Westword”s “Best New Venue”. Offering a casual “Rock-N-Bowl” ambiance, it has eight regulation size bowling lanes equipped with electronic scoring, billiards, pinball, a live music room with dance floor and state of the art sound system. Numerous food and drink options are served from a forty-foot fully-stocked “Space Bar” in an open kitchen environment and include a healthy gourmet cuisine menu with seared tuna, Angus beef burgers, gourmet pizza, veggie entrees, and specials during the day.Free bowling will be offered on a first-come-first-serve basis from noon to 2pm (bring your bowling shows or rent for a couple of bucks- bowling balls use is free). Live music starts at 2pm with the “Highland Rock & Roll” sounds of Angus Mohr followed by the “Kings of jig punk” from New York City, The Prodigals. Put your name in the purple tub when you come through the door to be eligible for free prize drawings all day. Admission is free to last years Colorado Irish Festivals volunteers, and for folks who will sign-up to help at this years festival July 11, 12, and 13. Colorado Irish Fest folks will have forms on hand to sign-up interested volunteers. Also, Celtic Connection subscribers, volunteers and advertisers are welcome. Kids are welcome too if under control of parents. Please RSVP to CelticEvents@rmi.net by April 10 if you are planning to attend the fun day at The Falcon. If you have questions about the event please call 303-777-0502 ” if you have questions about The Falcon please call them direct at 303-781-0414. The Falcon is located at 3295 S. Broadway in Englewood, (303) 781-0414.