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I’ve been intermittently pursuing a minor historical mystery since visiting the Narrow Water Castle in Warrenpoint, Co. Down last summer. Across the river (as you can see from the photo at the top) a rather cool-looking round tower was peeking out of the woods, shadowed by a mini-tower on the muddy river bank (far left of the photo). The Narrow Water Castle is a pretty awesome place: they have a murder hole, a garderobe (medieval toilet — guaranteed to fascinate the elementary school set), and a gorgeous setting where the Newry river enters Carlingford Lough and then forms the Irish Sea, so I didn’t really think about much the round tower except as backdrop. Later I thought I should find out some more about that tower.
There’s a good website for tower spotters, roundtowers.org, that lists all the round towers in Ireland — at least the surviving ones — but I couldn’t find a tower listed in that part of Co. Louth. No problem, there are other resources, but again nothing listed this tower. I checked Google Earth, just to make sure I wasn’t mis-remembering the location. I Googled “round tower” with the name of every townland in the area, but found nothing except a couple of photos of “a round tower near Omeath” (the nearest village) on Flickr. So I appeared to have a round tower that nobody, except a few photographers, seemed to care about.
Finally, the “mini round tower” down by the river gave me a clue. Who builds a miniature round tower at the edge of a river in the shadow of a real one? Why build such a thing? Well, presumably as a marker for shipping, right? Then I found a different view of the mini tower and saw a solar panel hanging off the front. Then it clicked into place: this is a pair of lighthouses built to look like ancient round towers — one 16 feet tall and one 49 feet.
As we’re living in the internet age, there’s a lighthouse spotters database (actually a couple of them) where I learned these are the two “Newry River Range” Lighthouses, solar-powered channel markers built in the shape of round towers. It turns out there was a trend for building lighthouses to look like round towers in the late 19th century. Who knew? So there you have it: When is a round tower not a round tower? When it’s a lighthouse.
Dowth is one of the three necropolises in the Brú na Bóinne world heritage site, situated on a slope rising from the river Boyne near Slane, Co. Meath. In contrast to the other sites at Brú na Bóinne, Dowth is not restored and beautified, but this is a plus as some feel Newgrange and Knowth are a little too well-manicured. Also, access to the Dowth site is free and not controlled via the visitor center. After a morning spent being shepherded around the other two sites, everyone will revel in the freedom to explore Dowth and the ruined churchyard beside it on their terms.
Dowth was once a large mound like Newgrange (possibly of of a taller, conical shape, if old illustrations are to be credited) but amateur archaeologists (although treasure seekers would probably be a better description) damaged the mound severely in the 19th century, and at another point it was used as an easy source of stone for building projects. Miraculously, despite these desecrations, two passages remain intact, although both are tight, cramped and safely locked to keep the public out. (Although you can see some of the carvings inside one of them in this documentary.)
The mound is just off the road; a simple road sign points the way through an old iron gate. Like much of Ireland, parking is on the grass verge along the edge of the road. As you walk along the path towards the mound, the side of the mound that has been dug away is clearly visible. The rim of the mound remains in a horseshoe shape, and the views of the Boyne valley and Newgrange from the top are excellent. Children love to scramble up the mound — but beware of the thick clumps of waist-high weeds growing in the center; these are stinging nettles!
As you walk around the site in a counter clockwise direction, you come upon two low stone-lined entrances, of a size better suited to sheep than humans. (In fact, you’ll probably share the site with sheep, as Dowth, although owned and managed as a heritage site by the state, allows the local farmers’ sheep to graze around the mound — a not uncommon arrangement given the vast number of ancient ruins in Ireland.) These are the entrances to the smaller of the two burial chambers. It’s rather unusual to find two separate entrances to a single chamber; perhaps this reflects a change in burial ritual during the building of all three monuments or perhaps one afforded entrance for people, and the other allowed the passage of the sun for some ritual reason? Unlike Newgrange and Knowth, which were built to allow people to walk more-or-less standing up, this passage is tiny, designed for crawling only. The chamber is a short distance from the entrance, and you should have enough light to see inside fairly well. Be sure to take a few pictures holding your digital camera , the flash will show detail you miss otherwise. This is one of those times you’ll be grateful you have a flashlight in your pocket.
Like Newgrange, the South chamber is aligned with the winter solstice. However, a recently planted row of trees on the neighboring property are gradually impeding the sun, and will likely eventually block it altogether. At the back of the south chamber is a convex stone which is reputed to reflect the sunlight back against some carvings on the other side of the chamber. As the chamber is locked year-round, I have sadly been unable verify this phenomenon. It should be noted that the roof of this chamber had caved in — a legacy of the quarrying, maybe — and was rebuilt with concrete at some point in the past, so it’s not known how much later interventions has altered the precise layout of the chamber.
The curious aspect about this chamber is that the setting sun illuminates it not just on the winter solstice, but from sometime in November through February. This suggests the sun alignment had some other purpose than simply celebrating the return of the sun at the solstice.
When you’re done looking into these entrances, look over your shoulder and you’ll see a concrete “bunker” at the edge of the field, covered by a thick wire cage. This is the entrance to the second and third passages — one of which is believed to be a souterrain, an underground storage space or place of refuge, rather than a burial chamber. The construction of this souterrain is dated some 2000 years after the construction of the mound and the other chambers. Only archaeologists get to enter, but most dads and teenage sons like to check out the cage and think about how they could get in “if they really wanted to.”
Continuing to walk around the mound clockwise and you’ll see several large kerbstones peaking out of the lush growth at the base. It appears that Dowth originally had both a ring of kerbstones and was covered in white quartz rocks like Newgrange — now mostly removed for local building projects. On the south side, you come upon a beautiful tree growing out of the slope of the mound. In summer, this looks like something out of the Lord of the Rings, and you half expect to come across a Hobbit hole just past the tree. Instead, you come across one of the most intriguing pieces of neolithic art in Europe, The Stone of the Seven Suns.
Although most of Dowth’s kerbstones are overgrown or buried, Kerbstone #51, known as The Stone of the Seven Suns, has had the vegetation stripped away to reveal what appears to be celestial notations depicting the sun, the moon, and stars. Whether this is some sort of solar calendar, a record of eclipses and celestial movement, or some kind of teaching tool, we simply do not know. One of the seven “sun wheels” appears to show a lunar eclipse in some detail. Significantly, this kerbstone is carved on both sides, suggesting the key to its purpose could have lain more in the act of its creation than in a means of recording or transmitting information. Then again, perhaps the kerbstones where simply an abstract means to beautify the site and please the gods or spirits of the ancestors, or maybe the images on the back were simply a design that went wrong — the chisel slipped and the stone was turned to save the effort of quarrying another? An indentation in the mound has been cut behind the kerbstone to allow people to see these mysterious carvings in full. (There is speculation that this indentation may conceal the entrance to another chamber.) Encourage your children to try to guess at the meaning of the various symbols; their guesses will be as good as anyone else’s.
Across the field at this point, you will see the ruins of Dowth Church, destroyed during the 1641 uprising. A short walk across the fields brings you to the present day Netterville House and the ruins of the church.
The history of Dowth is a fascinating blend of the historically important and the farcically eccentric. The tomb sits on what was once part of the estate of the Nettervilles, an old Anglo-Norman family. When the Insurrection of 1641 began, the then lord, Viscount Nicholas Netterville, allegedly first offered his services to the Crown, but when he (as a Catholic) was not greeted with open arms, he threw his lot in with the rebels. He lost his estates for his trouble, and saw the Dowth church and castle reduced to ruins, but ironically had his possessions restored a decade later when Oliver Cromwell came to power and recent enemies of the crown were recast as heroes.
One century later, the sixth Viscount, John Netterville, built a gazebo on top of the Dowth mound from which he “attended” mass in the nearby church by telescope! In the 19th century, misguided amateur archeologists used dynamite to blow a hole in the mound searching for a fabled inner chamber they thought might contain the lost Ark of the Covenant. It’s not recorded whether these would-be Indiana Joneses found anything they could recognize after their destructive excavation. The heavily damaged site was then used as a quarry for stone for many years, until the mound was overgrown and forgotten.
Oddly, while Newgrange and Knowth have been extensively excavated and restored, little appears to have been done to Dowth other than rebuilding the roof of the south chamber and securing the entrances to the chambers and souterrain. But the contrast between the decay and damage of the ages on one side, and the glorious (if controversial) restorations on the other gives an indication of the magnitude of both the achievements of the restorers and the artistic skill, engineering know-how and organization of the original builders.
As you wander around the overgrown acreage of Dowth, you can draw on the insight gained at the Brú na Bóinne visitor center, inside Newgrange, and around Knowth, to fill in the blanks, to allow the mind’s eye to show you Dowth as it might once have appeared, and ponder what life at this bend of the river Boyne might have been like 5000 years ago.
You can wander around the church and friary/college on top of the Hill of Slane all morning without noticing the mound known as “the motte” because it’s in a wooded area behind the church. I know I (who grew up in Co. Meath) didn’t even know it was there until I read about it somewhere or other. There now seems to be a very interesting project to investigate this mound under way. Archaeologists have been scanning the motte and its surroundings (an earth resistance survey) to discover what it’s made of (a cairn of rocks brought from elsewhere, a mound of local clay?) and detect any subsoil evidence of the remains of buildings on top. The resultant 3D mapping gives a great view of the physical features of the Hill and suggests future locations to explore.
Going by the annals, it seems likely that there was an ancient grave of some importance on the hill: reputed to be the Fir Bolg king Sláine, from whom the hill gets its name. (Yes, that’s the same Sláine on whose legends the classic 2000AD comic was inspired. I daresay a generation of British and Irish megalithomaniacs had their imaginations kick started by that story.) The type of grave this may have been (cairn, passage tomb, dolmen, etc.) we don’t know. Likewise, whether that grave site was later exploited to build a Norman motte and bailey-type fortified position or whether the church was originally built on the tomb site is unknown. It seems the use of the motte as a fortified position dates from around 1170AD, but the mound now known as the motte could be much older. Sláine was reputed to have cleared the site for Newgrange, which would place him circa 3200BC. However, the earth resistance survey results from this project are intriguing, suggesting that the mound is man-made and revealing a second earthwork (possibly a ring barrow dating from 2500BC–although all dates seem approximate at this stage in the project) partially overbuilt by a rath surrounding the motte. Given the history of adaptive re-use of sites with strategic or symbolic significance by successive cultures in Ireland, there certainly seems to be a strong case for further investigation.
All the fieldwork seems to have been completed in 2010, so whether this project is still active or not I’m not sure. But, it’s definitely a project to bookmark and watch for future discoveries.
My fellow megalithomaniacs should check out this documentary from RTÉ Television. The first part looks at the evolution of megalithic tombs from “simple” dolmens (if manhandling a 12 ton rock could ever be called simple) through huge cairns, to passage tombs with elaborate carvings and solar alignments.
The second deals with the development of Christian churches and monasteries, from the beehive huts of Skellig Michael through to the high crosses of Durrow and Monasterboice.
Unusually for the rather staid world of RTÉ in particular and TV documentaries in general, the program-makers focused on the controversial theories, the exciting new research, and the minority reports. There are also some nice computer-generated artists’ impressions of what places like the Hill of Tara and Caherlehilla (site of what may be the oldest church in Ireland) might have looked like in their heyday, as well as bold denunciations of St. Patrick as base propaganda, and tantalizing hints that several of the high crosses may have been carved by a single artist, a Michelangelo of the midlands.
There’s an old board game in Ireland called rings. It dropped out of fashion at some point in the mid-twentieth century, but it appears to be making a slow comeback here and there. It’s simply a wooden board with 13 hooks mounted on the wall, at which you toss six rubber rings (like the small belts in old vacuum cleaners). Think darts, but a heck of a lot less dangerous
if when the rings bounce back. As far as I know, there are only three pubs in my hometown that have ring boards these days, but there is a small and dedicated groups of “ringers” who frequent these pubs to play.
When I was a kid, pool used to be the game of choice in our local, then gradually darts became more popular, and now it’s rings. The game is simple enough that kids can easily grasp it and join in. You simply stand the requisite distance from the board (I believe 8.5 feet is “regulation” — kids are usually let throw from a couple of feet closer) and throw your rings one at a time. I’m not sure if it was the way they were involved in the game by all the adults present, or the fact that we let them stay out until after midnight that appealed to my girls the most (and they weren’t the only kids out playing rings that late). Either way, playing rings was a highlight of our last trip home.Each hook has a set value (1 through 13) with the highest value being in the center. Each ringer totals up the rings that landed on hooks and subtracts that total from the number you’re shooting for. Like darts, you begin with a number (we usually use 301 at our local) and subtract each score. The egalitarian joy of rings lies in the way everyone in the pub competes (I’m sure this varies from pub to pub, but I’m detailing the practices at our local here). Two teams are drawn up from everyone present, with every effort to apportion the more proficient equally on each side. This ensures that everyone who wants to can throw, and even the youngest can take part without much fear of performance anxiety. Each team works their way though their order one time, then it’s the other teams’ turn to throw. (This was the way we used to play “team” darts in the pub, too. I’m sure the rules and practices will vary in other pubs.)
This Christmas, I made a ring board for the family. We’ve already had friends over and introduced the game to the neighborhood, and everyone enjoyed it immensely. The board I made isn’t quite “regulation” as I used regular cup hooks instead of the slightly different hooks they use in Ireland, but it’s near enough for practice. (You can theoretically land 3 rings on each on the hooks I used, I’m not sure that the hooks in Ireland are big enough for more than two.) I was thwarted in my efforts to find a ready made shield-type board in local craft stores, so I opted for a pre-made pine table top that’s bigger than strictly necessary. I also painted the numbers below the hooks, instead of above them. This was because the rings can cover the numbers on some boards I’ve seen, making it difficult for kids or the novice to total up the score. With the numbers below the hooks, the number is clearly circled by any ring that lands on the hook, making scoring quick and easy.
Anyway, the resulting board is providing fun for all and allowing us to brush up on our rings skills so we can hold our own with the pro ringers next time we’re home in Ireland.
(Basically, abide by the house rules wherever you’re playing.)
I love a good hot whiskey (and who doesn’t?). One of its many virtues is you have to be a fairly big eejit to mess it up. Even the laziest barman throwing a spoonful of sugar into a glass with a stingy measure of whiskey, a bit of lemon that’s been sitting in a dish all day and some recently hot water can be assured the resulting drink will be reasonably pleasant. However, with a little effort the hot whiskey can be a work of delicious art.
Some notes on terminology: a hot whiskey is often called a hot toddy, but the toddy is a name for the drink used mainly in Scotland, and as I understand it, is a fairly purist whisky, sugar, lemon & water concoction. In Ireland, we spell it whiskey — and if you can’t taste the difference between whiskey and whisky, you’re wasting your money. (A few other countries claim to make whiskey/whisky; how nice for them.) A hot toddy is also often used as a generic name for a hot alcoholic drink (thus a mulled wine or a hot apple cider are sometimes referred to as a hot toddy). So I call just call it a hot whiskey to prevent confusion. A hot whiskey used to be known as whiskey punch. The early temperance movements vilified it (hence the phrase “punch drunk”) and the name fell out of use. The drink, however, never really went away, just fell out of fashion.
First ingredient, and possibly the least important, is the whiskey (never whisky — don’t waste good Scotch Whisky by watering it down. Enjoy it neat.). Generally, use the cheapest whiskey you can find. Living in the US, I usually use cheap Canadian rubbish that I’d never drink neat. If you make a hot whiskey with expensive, smooth sipping whiskey, not only are you wasting your money, but the resulting drink usually has much less of a whiskey taste. The smoothness of aged Scotch or Bushmills is intended for a neat nip or a pair of ice cubes, and needs nothing more. When in Ireland I use Powers or Paddy, and save the Jameson for drinking over ice.
Start with the glass. You can use a svelte, small pub glass if you don’t want more than a single measure. This is the standard glass in Irish pubs. I prefer a half-pint glass tankard (a simple cylinder with a handle) for the simple reason that I’ve had too many thin glasses shatter after added the boiling water. However, this size is perfect for a double shot of whiskey, and means you need to leave the conversation to refill everyone’s glasses less often. (You can also use a highball.)
Fill the glass with boiling or near boiling water to warm it. Empty it out after a minute. This helps the hot whiskey stay warmer longer. Wet the top eighth of an inch of the tankard and dip it in white sugar to encrust the rim. Now, pour a measure or two (Ah! go on now…) of whiskey into the glass.
Add a spoonful of sugar (brown adds a distinctive and slightly different taste to white, the choice is yours). A thick spoonful of honey is great if you’re legitimately fighting a cold/sore throat and not just pretending to.
Wash an organic lemon well in warm water to get the wax coating off (don’t be messing with a regular lemon — do you want to drink the chemicals they spray on them?) and cut it in half. Cut a thick slice from what was the middle. Now, cut that slice in half and remove any pips. If you’ve already added a single measure of whiskey, just squeeze the other half of your slice into the glass. If a double, squeeze some of the remaining end of the lemon into it. The whole half a lemon would be a bit much, but it’s all dependent on your own taste.
Take four cloves and stud the half slice of lemon with them. Push them in fully so they won’t float out.
Fill the glass almost to the brim with boiling water. Stir to dissolve the sugar. (If you’re worried about the glass shattering, leave the metal spoon in, it’ll absorb the heat — although it’ll probably cool your drink a bit faster. Now drop the clove-studded lemon in — taking care not to splash and lose any;-) — and away you go.
Add a cinnamon stick to give a slightly different flavor to the drink. Don’t add ground cinnamon, the taste of that tends to be gone before you’re halfway through your drink and it doesn’t dissolve, it adheres to bits of the lemon instead, so you end up with this nasty looking brown sludge swirling through your drink!
One or two of these on a cold night will take all your cares away, and lubricate good conversation.
The archaeology geek in me is very excited about the current investigations at Newgrange for previously undiscovered passages or tombs chambers. I didn’t realize that most of the mound has never been excavated. The huge amount of reconstruction on the visible face made me assume the whole thing had been pretty well examined.
Archaeologists are currently scanning the mound for voids (which could suggest a second tunnel and burial chamber, and also for evidence of structures on top of the mound, which could change our understanding of the use and role of Newgrange in pre-celtic society. There’s plenty of reason to expect there is a second passage, as both of the other tombs in the Brú na Bóinne complex (Knowth and Dowth) have two chambers and passages aligned with the sun at different points of the year. The chamber at Newgrange is some way short of the center, leaving a large area to potentially contain another chamber.
Detailed summary of survey techniques being used.
If you look into the traditions and beyond the supernatural window dressing, many of them focus on reinforcing the ties between community members, which would have been vitally important pre-industrial agriculture with the winter starting and with it the possibilities of food shortages, illness, the approach of storms, etc. — not that they’re any less important now.
The bonfire was the center of the post-Christian Samhain/early-All Hallow’s Eve celebrations in the Celtic lands. Some traditions had every house in a village extinguish the fires in their own hearths (possible to make them less inviting to roaming spirits) and relight them with burning sticks from the communal bonfire (which they may have brought home in hollowed out turnips). The message was clear: we’re all in this together.
Another tradition has it that two bonfires should be set up a short distance apart and the villagers’ cattle herded between them for good luck. I’ve also read that this tradition was also practiced during the midsummer festival/St. John’s Night, so perhaps it was something that was customary at both the midpoint and start of the year?
When I was a kid people sometimes added a guy to the Halloween bonfire, but that was inspired by Guy Fawkes Night/Bonfire Night (Remember, remember the 5th of November…) and had nothing to do with Halloween or Samhain.
Turnips were originally carved and a candle or burning ember placed inside. Pumpkins only came along when New World was settled. There appear to be several stories that explain the “jack-o-lantern.” One is that the hollowed-out turnip was used to carry the burning ember from the bonfire back to a family’s cottage. The other is that the boys who went guising (“disguising”) — the medieval English tradition of going from house to house begging for soul-cakes (now known as hot cross buns) in return for prayers for the souls of the dead — would carry one, either to light their way or as something that was symbolic of the dead. Guising, which obviously evolved into trick or treating, was common from the middle ages on and I believe still goes on in parts of Scotland. Why they needed to be disguised is less clear: perhaps as a protection in case the vengeful dead were looking for you, or perhaps to allow the dead to infiltrate their ranks and enjoy a night partying as if they were alive once again? Again, the tradition would seem to be something that reinforced social connections and shared the history of the community.
It’s notable that in Ireland and Scotland, treats were given in return for performance (a song or a story) which is in keeping with traditions like the curaid (the circuit) and general respect for storytelling and musicianship.
Halloween, or Oíche Samhna in Irish, perplexes me. Read any wikipedia or general-interest article about the holiday and you find tradition heaped on tradition: Christian rite on pagan festival, local Scottish habit projected onto other nations, pre-Christian folklore labeled as Druid belief, and modern-pagan reinvention regarded as ancient rite. As somebody whose chief interest is in what Samhain, the old Celtic festival (or feis) was really all about, it’s hard to cut through the layers of tradition that have grown up around Halloween and come to be repeated endlessly as “fact.” The popular imagination (and those ubiquitous articles) generally assume Halloween to have ancient roots from pre-Christian times, yet when you poke into the origins of the major features they appear to have largely begun during the medieval period. (I’ll blog about some of those feature in the coming days.)
In ancient Irish mythology, Samhain (pronounced Sow-an) is a feis at the beginning of winter (or, translated literally, at the end of summer — indicating that then, as now, we Irish had a tendency to see the glass as half-full). There are tales of Irish kings and warriors having grand feasts and (as usually happens when a lot of men get together for a serious drinking session) starting big fights or being goaded into doing stupid things. No jack-o-lanterns, no bonfires, and no mention of the dead roaming the land. Although, there is tale in the Fenian cycle which tells how Áillén the Burner one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the gods of the Irish Celts (or possibly pre-Celtic Irish, depending on how you interpret the origin myths written down by Christian monks) caused havoc by burning down the King’s dwelling on the Hill of Tara every Samhain until Fionn defeated him. Was this an early “trick” or the start of the tradition of supernatural being running amuck on Samhain?
It seems to be accepted that Samhain was at heart an agricultural festival marking the successful harvesting of food, and probably involving or preceding the slaughter of cattle for the winter.
Samhain is definitely a time of change; one has only to look at the trees to see that. Celebrated as the Celtic New Year (at least by new age pagans) Samhain is a “liminal” period when one year ends and the next begins, and a time when treachery and the intervention of supernatural forces are to be expected and feared. Several Celtic warriors and kings seem to have met their downfall on Samhain or have the circumstances leading to that downfall set in motion, so it appears a little ironic that it was viewed as a day of peace in the heroic age. Of course, this does establish the tradition of gods and supernatural beings walking the land on Samhain, but it should be said that supernatural forces were always at work in the heroic age, so perhaps Samhain wasn’t so unique in that regard?
To paraphrase something I read recently, these times of change from one thing to another (old year to new, life to death, singletonhood to married) are times of danger; you’ve opened the door to change and anything might come in. So although there may not be a wealth of canonical legend about the dead walking the land, there is plenty of folk tradition. The sidhe were said to walk the land and people would leave food and milk for them. Others feared the spirits of the dead would rise up and visit their kin — even going so far as to leave windows open and offerings of food out for them. I’ve always regarded this as symbolic, but the recent discovery of 8th century zombies in County Roscommon makes me wonder. (Curiously, the 8th century was when the Pope moved to replace Samhain with the churchified feast of All Saints Day (the day after All Hallows Eve), so perhaps there was some genuine fear of the undead among the people and the Church’s action took advantage of this?)
I haven’t drawn any conclusions yet, but for now I’ll have to file it away under “must read more…”
Once upon a time I was on a long plane flight and an “Irish” film came on. OK, it was more Oirish than Irish: The Matchmaker, a fish out of water story wherein an uptight American (Janeane Garofalo) goes hunting for Irish ancestry in a tiny village in Ireland, and arrives right in the middle of the annual matchmaking festival. It’s exactly the broad collection of stereotypes and blarney that you might expect, but contained one absolutely hilariously true moment for me. Halfway through the film, the main characters are trying to stop and old man on the Aran Islands from pelting them with rocks (don’t ask, don’t ask…). The man is yelling at them in Irish and the American tells her guide to say something to him in Irish to make him stop. Like most Irish men, her guide hasn’t used a word of Irish since school, so he resorts to the one phrase every Irish person knows: “An bhfuil céad agam dul go dtí an leithreas.”
I cackled with laughter, causing all the people sitting nearby to jerk around and stare at me. (This being the days before individual seat-back TVs, everyone had to watch the same movie.) They had just long enough to wonder if this guy was losing it, and the flight attendants were just reaching for the panic button when the guide translated the phrase for the uptight American, and explained that in Ireland this is how you must ask to go the the bathroom when you’re in school, “otherwise you have to go in your pants.” It’s the one Irish phrase every Irish person knows. Everyone in the plane cracked up, and the flight attendants put the mace away.
I suspect the same lag-time between readers born and raised in Ireland and those not, will affect reactions to Julian Gough’s excellent novel, Jude: Level 1.
For the last year or more I’ve been laughing my arse off at the Twitter musings of Julian Gough, an Irish writer, musician, and sometimes sharp stick in the rhuemy eye of ye olde Oirish literary establishment. @JulianGough is one of the people who actually gets Twitter, managing to make it part performance, part honest commentary and part community. After a couple of years of “following” and occasional chatting, I began to feel vaguely guilty that I hadn’t read any of his novels.
Thanks to the wonderful Gutter Bookshop in Dublin, I got my paws on a copy of Jude: Level 1, Gough’s second novel, and it was everything his Twitter persona led me to expect: funny, irreverent and with plenty to say about the “real world” outside of the pages of the book.
In many ways, it seems a bit pointless to try to summarize the plot — it’s the classic case of boy leaves abusive Christian Brothers orphanage, boy falls in love with the first girl he sees, boy runs afoul of corrupt politicians/international arms smugglers/unscrupulous property developers and all hell breaks loose in his quest to find the girl again — because the whole point of a novel is to go along on an adventure for the first time, and many reviews just take the fun out of reading a book. A good novel should be a performance, an adventure, a memorable experience of getting from the first page to the last. (Of course, most aren’t: most are content to get from A to “Zee” via a well-ordered series of meticulously crafted sentences with just the right sprinkling of irony, untranslated foreign phrases and condescension, topped of with a black & white author photo, brainy glasses and a Brooklyn address.)
From the first page you have the impression that Julian Gough doesn’t give a toss about any of that preciousness, he just wants to tell a good story, make you laugh at the absurdity of it all, and if occasionally the joke falls flat or the cultural reference escapes you, the velocity of the story will carry you over these minor potholes like a teenager who’s finally been given the keys to his Dad’s car. Jude: Level 1 is a bravura performance of humor and satire that skewers blinkered Celtic Tiger thinking (and ignorant self-interest of any nationality), the good-old-boy network of Ireland/______ (fill in the blank with whatever nation you hail from), the abuses of the Catholic church and the cliches of coming-of-age tales like this one.
The book begins with a wonderful set-piece satire on worshipful party politics as practiced in Ireland until very, very recently (by which I mean that since the book was published the Irish people did indeed rise up and throw the feckers out — for quite how long they’ll be content to remain out remains to be seen). Our hero, freshly birthdayed 18-year-old orphan Jude escorts a group of younger orphans to a large political rally in rural Ireland. While there, he accidentally disgraces himself and causes the assembled slavering masses to burn down the orphanage in their frenzy to catch and punish him. Suffice to say, the memory of this opening section was making me crack up laughing at inappropriate moments for days afterwards.
Jude’s escape propels him to “the Sodom of the West: Galway City,” when he meets Angela, the girl of his dreams and resolves to win her heart. Mistaking her sarcasm for instructions, Jude believes that if he gets plastic surgery to look like Leonardo DiCaprico and becomes a millionaire she’ll love him forever. Hence he sets out on his quest to win her heart.
It’s possible that the perfect reader for this novel is a male born and raised in Ireland at the start of the 1970s. It may be that if he was not educated at a religiously segregated school, half the humor in the book will fall flat. The pop-cultural references might require him to have come of age in the ‘80s, and if he did not flee Ireland in the ‘90s he may feel the satire falls a little too close to home. But stifling religious dogma is stifling religious dogma regardless of creed, and political corruption and cronyism are endemic the world over, so I suspect readers will know exactly what Julian Gough’s writing about even if they don’t get the delicious humor behind the name Dan Bunne or understand why anointing Roy Keane, Gay Byrne and Dana as the three biggest Irish legends is one of the funniest asides in the book. Jude: Level 1 is a fast-paced, funny and occasionally savagely satirical read, and at worst, non-Irish readers will get the jokes just a beat behind everyone else.
The saga of Jude continues in Jude in London, which is being published just about now.
Update: There’s an “honor” edition where you can download a .pdf, read it, and pay afterwards. A brave experiement. Check it out…