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Tír na nÓg

Words & music by Steve Gillette

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Two hundred years ago, a young Irish fisherman was swept out to sea in a three-day storm. One man alone, lost on the immense Atlantic. No sign of the sun or stars in the darkened sky. He has come to understand that he may never see his home again.

His craft is a tiny currach, crudely made with simple tools, and with help from his father and brothers. A canvas skin over a fragile framework, sealed with pitch. It's the way his people have fished and journeyed on the water for generations.

What faces the young fisherman is the loss of all that we take as granted. He longs for a delay of the inevitable, but ultimately is prepared to accept the fate of so many who have gone before him.

In the lonely hours he is consoled by recounting the stories of the ancient heroes famed for their bravery and their loyalty. Finn Mac Cumhail the warrior king, and his son Oisín, hunter and warrior and poet.

In the Fenian legends, Oisín takes his bride to the island kingdom of Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth and abundance. But after a few happy years he longs to see his aging father before the old man dies. Warned of the dangers of leaving the magic realm, he sets out for his former home. As he steps down from his horse he is suddenly three hundred years old.

The young fisherman sees the great ocean as his doom, but if there is hope at all, it springs from the vision of his loved ones someday reunited with him in that fabled island kingdom.

Pull upon the oars my boy
All upon the water
To the land of never ending joy
To the shores of Tír na nÓg.

We know the story of the young fisherman because he was able to tell it to his rescuers, and his grandchildren. Many of their grandchildren still clamor for a clearer glimpse of the island kingdom of Tír na nÓg.

Limbs may tíre and strength may fail
All upon the water
But the waves will roll and the winds prevail
To the shores of Tír na nÓg

©2018 Compass Rose Music, BMI

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Here are some notes on the direction of my project to be called The Wild, Old Wicked Man. It's all about the poets; Yeats, Frost, Eliot and Pound, and those days just before WWI. There is so much there of interest, not to mention the wonderful tunes and traditions, that it's very satisfying to visit a time just one hundred years ago. This song sets the stage for an exploration of Ireland, and begins one hundred years earlier. So much of the traditional way of life remained intact in the beginning of the twentieth century, and so much of that had all changed by our time. Look for more from this effort.

Joshua Slocum had sailed alone around the world by the year 1900. In 1909 Louis Blériot flew the first plane across the English Channel to claim Lord Northcliff's £1,000 prize. By 1909 Robert Peary and Frederick Cook each claimed to have reached the North Pole, although neither of them had come within even a hundred miles of it.

Cecil Rhodes had strode like a colossus across the continent of Africa consolidating diamond and gold mines and yielding prodigious profits for his investors. In the last of his wills he dedicated his fortune “to the furtherance of the British Empire, for the bringing of the whole uncivilized world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, and for the making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire."

The Atlantic cable was laid by Isombard Kingdom Brunell in 1858. It stretched across the floor of the sea from Foilhommerum Bay in western Ireland to Heart's Content in eastern Newfoundland. Brunell built the Great Eastern to do the job. It was at that time the largest ship ever built. The cable was used to convene the first trans-Atlantic meeting of the Pilgrim Society in London and New York simultaneously.

William Synge wrote The Playboy of the Western World after visiting the little island of Great Blasket in 1903. It was one of the last places in Ireland where the pure Gaelic was still the everyday language of the people. In 1907 James Joyce published his first collection of poems called Chamber Music.

In 1912, John Pierpont Morgan, the American financier and owner of the White Star shipping line, removed several priceless sculptures from the ship's hold and canceled his plans to sail on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

It was in the summer of 1914 that Robert Frost arrived in London along with his wife Eleanor and their four children. It was a thrilling time in the literary center of the English-speaking world. But for Frost, nearly forty, and almost enTírely unpublished, it was a leap of faith. He was invited to the home of William Butler Yeats in the Mayfair district of London. There he also met the other Americans: Ezra Pound and Thomas Stearns Eliot. There in Yeats' living room, they heard and praised each other's work and talked of poetry and the world situation far into the night as the children slept on borrowed quilts in the corners.

Yeats was happy to recite his well-known poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree as he expected any visitor might have heard of it, but then allowed the adulation to give way to a genuine sense of discovery in the topics of the evening. There was one other point where the group honored the older poet, almost fifty by then, when Pound's wife Dorothy sat at the piano and began to play Down by the Sally Gardens, a musical setting of Yeats' poem.

The young, T. S. Eliot, only about twenty-five at that point, read a draft of his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and all were quite impressed. Pound had worked with Eliot to edit the poem and invited the younger man to meet Yeats.

Frost was astonished at how personal, and beyond that, psychologically revealing the poem seemed to be. It allowed the reader to retreat into metaphor at times when there seemed a danger of becoming too specific; that is, too revealing of the deepest pangs every man has felt about himself. It was just one of many insights of the evening.

Pound had written to Eliot's father in America asking that he not stop the small allowance that was enabling his son to pursue his writing career in London. He wrote: "As to his coming to London, well anything else is a waste of time and energy. No one in London cares a hang about what is written in America.”

“In a literary career, mediocrity is worse than useless. Either a man goes in to go the whole hog or he had better take to selling soap and gents furnishings. Henry James stayed in Paris and read Turgenev and Flaubert; while Mr. Howles returned to America and read Henry James."

At the end of the formal part of the evening they all sang the traditional Parting Glass. Sleepy heads went down on their blankets and the party continued with a smaller, more dedicated company.

Pound insisted that it was the images that a poet created that made all the difference in a good poem. He liked to call the poets he admired “Imagists.” This seemed to apply more to his contemporaries, often the poets he helped and guided to the small publications that he constantly romanced.

Pound recited a poem that strangely foretold of the war years that were to follow, but no one yet knew of the events of the following month in Sarajevo or soon thereafter in the trenches of Belgium and France.

See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind, and half turn back;

©2018 Compass Rose Music, BMI

 

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