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A Strong Foundation to Stand On

josh'sfeet.jpg I and Pangur my cat… “Tis a like task we are at…Hunting mice is his delight…Hunting words I sit all night. ~ Excerpt from a stanza scribbled into a ninth century Latin manuscript by an Irish scribe.

In March everything is turning green and seems to revolve around St. Patrick’s Day. The March issue of the Museletter, the local newsletter I co-edit, is printed on green paper and the front page ad for this month’s Spoken Word Open Mic (Saturday, March 18, 7-9 at the Café Del Sol) reads: In the tradition of the troubadours and the ancient Celtic bards, come out and share your ballad poetry, limericks, and even your blarney.

Because their ancient Celtic culture was based on an oral tradition, and because Ireland was isolated from outside influences by the Atlantic Ocean for so many centuries, the Irish came late to literacy; but they more than made up for lost time when they did. Thomas Cahill writes in his 1995 bestseller book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act.

Although writing language down can be likened to trying to possess a butterfly, the Irish, steeped in the oral tradition of their poets, bards, and druids, embraced what was opened up to them by doing so. To the Irish, who were said to have invented rhyme, language was a living entity and the alphabet was magical. Soon after their introduction to the written word, they learned Greek and Latin, devised Irish grammars, copied out the whole of their native oral literature, and even began making up languages.

Cahill writes: The Irish thought that all language was a game – and too much fun to be deprived of any part of it…they found the shapes of letters magical. Why, they asked themselves, did a B look the way it did? Could it look some other way? Was there an essential B-ness?

Irish curiosity and playfulness led to their invention of the codex, the descendent of scrolls and predecessor of books as we know them today. By way of the codex, Ireland began to produce the most spectacular magical books the world has ever seen, as evidenced by The Book of Kells.

Reading Cahill’s book helped me to understand my heritiage and the tradition I write from. I especially related to the passages in his book where he describes how the Irish country folk, hired by monks to hand copy the classics, would write little ditties and poems inside the margins of their work. He writes of one example: in the margins of an impenetrable Greek commentary on scripture – we find the bored scribblings of the Irish scribes, who kept themselves awake by writing out a verse or two of a beloved Irish lyric – and so, by accumulation, left for our enjoyment a whole literature that would be otherwise unknown.

Although, I do write longer poems, I have a strong inclination, like my Irish ancestors who copied the classics, to condense language into scribbled-out small ditties, as the following excerpt from a press release introducing my first collection of poetry describes: The Irish side of my family is rich with storytellers; some poems and a song have been published, and there are a few unpublished novels still floating around. I think the Irish influence in my poetry manifests as humor, my love of wordplay, and my inclinations towards short poems, about limerick in size.

Photo: Self-potrait of feet taken by my son Josh.


I am surprised by that...esp. thinking of the Irish and the limmericks. Hollywood has given me the illusion of the Irish being such big talkers, and the Irish that I know are big talkers so it seems odd they'd be late to literacy. But I guess as you say they were oral only.

I love your stories. I always seem to learn something neat and new.

I think the Irish in general are masters of language and are big talkers/storytellers. Maybe they excelled because of their oral language background. They had the whole of their histories memorized as stories in rhyme! The Book of Kells was produced around 800, so we're talking a long time ago. The Irish also survived The Penal Laws,imposed by British occupation in the 1600s -1800s where they weren't allowed to go to school, speak their language, or own land. So they also have a lot of angst to fuel their expression.

I wonder if this Irish love of language was inherited by the mountain people, who are so strong in the love of story?

Absoluetly, and the Appalachian Mountains and those in Ireland and Scotland were once the same land mass pre-ice age, which is probably why so many settled in these mountains.

Like you, the Irish blood runs thick in my veins. Is it because I love to tell a good story or because I know words are alive?
I think of it like this - not only do we have to pay attention to the thoughts we think but also the words we use to express our thoughts. Words, and the feelings that accompany them, have power. You can even change your body chemistry by changing your words. And easy way to prove it (although I don't think I have to convince you) is to say, "I'm tired" rather than to phrase it, "I'm going rejuvenate with a nap." A different message is sent to the body because of the words and the feeling behind our chosen words.

You mention the letter B. This is from Margaret Magnus, of which you turned me onto.
She says: "The sound 'b' is heavier handed than it's unvoiced counterpart 'p'. Therefore verbs of physical contact are more violet if they start with 'b' (beat, bash, bonk, bat, brain...), than if they start with 'p' (pat, prick, push, punch...). Simiilarly, the people in 'b' are bawdier, braver, and more brazen than the prim and proper people of 'p' (bitch, broad, brute, bully, et. vs. prude, priest, prince, patron, etc.) If you don't know this about 'b' and 'p' you will be unable to feel the difference between 'boom' vs. 'pop' or 'bag' vs. 'pouch.' In order to use a language at all, you must have a feel for it's inherent meaning."

A great subject!

"Hunting words I sit all night." That's me!

It has been a long day. I think I need to hunt for the bed.
I just can't get that little ditty out of my head with your reference quote about cats, hunting mice and the picture of little feet.

Love to eat those mousies
Mousies what I love to eat.
Bite they little heads off
Nibble on they tiny feet -
Kliban Cats

How I enjoyed this post! It's funny ... now that I sit and think about it for a moment, my mother (Irish) was always more in-tune and excited by my writings than was my dad (German). She also told me countless times what a great storyteller I was. One day I asked her why she doubted me so much ... she looked at me like I was insane and denied such a thing. Then we sorted out that I had always thought "storyteller" was indicative of "liar" or, more nicely stated "fibber."
All the while she was, in fact, complimenting my ability to relate a story with great color and energy.

The thing is ... my mom could run circles around me in storytelling. Too bad she never took the time to hone it or project it onto paper.

Thanks. Interesting stuff I didn't know.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!!

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