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Yesterday, U2 unexpectedly dropped a new album, Songs of Innocence, on the world, and released it for free to anyone with an iTunes account.  But, is it any good?

U2's surprise album, Songs of Innocence. Free on iTunes until mid-October!

I say they released the album unexpectedly because although there has been chatter about a new album for years, we’ve grown accustomed to U2 taking a long time in the studio. They certainly don’t need the money, so they go to great lengths to get the songs right before releasing anything.  At the same time, there’s been a general sense over the last couple of albums of a band growing middle-aged and questioning whether they still have what it takes to create new music. Everyone changes, but U2 have clearly been asking themselves “Why are we doing this? Do we what to keep making music?” At a time when younger bands are coining it in on the nostalgia circuit and making no attempt to record new material, surely the temptation must be to take the easier road of touring a greatest hits show and reveling in past glory?

Songs of Innocence shows that any thoughts the band might have been entertaining about taking that road have been banished unceremoniously!

Read the rest of this review over on my other blog, A Trip to Ireland…

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack (US cover: Soho Press, 2013)

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack is a fantastic and unusual novel that strives to break many of the ‘rules’ of novel writing and gets away with it. On the surface, the story is about a troubled young man who decides to volunteer to be placed in a coma for three months as part of a public test of an experimental new form of imprisonment. But underneath, it’s a story about so much more: the slow strangulation of small rural communities through lack of opportunity; a commentary on the pervasive culture of low expectations in Irish life; and, an astute observation of the subtle ways a European legislative agenda has come to almost seamlessly and invisibly overwrite Ireland’s political life and process.

Mike McCormack tells the story brilliantly through the voices of five participants in the events described, but not through the eyes of the central character, JJ O’Malley  — something that appears to be a sly comment on the individual’s ability to influence their own life in the modern world, as well as breaking one of the cardinal rules of the novel.  We get JJ’s father’s concerned bewilderment, the voice of a well-meaning older generation unable to understand the half of their children’s world; his neighbor’s essential decency, the voice of the community in a sense; his old teacher’s tolerant hope, the (naturally clichéd) voice of modernism, of progress; his girlfriend’s approving passivity, the voice of hopeful but clueless youth; and the local politician’s cynical choreography of the whole situation so it reflects well on himself, without requiring him to actually poke his neck out of his profoundly conservative shell. The storytellers are wonderfully written, verbally colorful, distinct, even funny, and they give the voice of the novel the light, humane, entertaining feel that is the hallmark of good conversation in Ireland. As the old joke goes, the Irish can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you’re actually looking forward to the trip, and Mike McCormack has this ability in spades.

The other ‘half’ of the novel (although it probably accounts for less than 5% of the word-count) is made up of the ‘notes’ from the coma, footnotes that take a more academic, higher-level view of the coma project: an experiment to test the viability of putting prisoners into comas for the duration of their sentences, thus removing the ability of prisons to harden their population into master criminals, and reducing to overall cost of incarceration to the government. The voice of these footnotes is that of a slightly unhinged academic gleefully commenting on his work. Why many reviewers have praised the novel but felt the need to caution readers that it’s necessary to push through these footnotes as if they’re your necessary daily dose of fiber is beyond me. McCormack finds an erudition and lightness to this strand of the tale that belies the cold calculus of the economics of incarceration, and enables to novel to succeed as entertainment where it could have felt didactic.

The story of JJ O’Malley’s life that gently emerges is a sly mirror image of modern Ireland’s relationship with Europe: his adoption from central Europe, acceptance into the local community, the adoption of Irish ways and perspectives, leading to a existential struggle to know what to do with himself, indeed how to even think of himself. The Irish adapted to the great European experiment quickly, gratefully accepting the money and resources that flowed into the economy, but carried on as they always had done. Ireland is now struggling with the bill for those years, and must confront questions of national identity in a way that it hasn’t since independence.

JJ O‘Malley is blessed/cursed with an strong mind, but nothing particular to turn it to, except himself, and the riddles of his own existence. While others numb themselves with work, drink, or religion, JJ voices the endless questions and drives himself to a nervous breakdown. There’s probably a lot of Irish people who would welcome a few months away from worrying about their mortgage, their debts, their failing business. JJ O’Malley doesn’t offer a way out of our economic crisis, but he is an apt metaphor for the post-boom Irish psyche.

Irish lit is full of what I think of as “Directionless-young-bollixs-on-the-tear” novels. Inarticulate young men with nothing much to do, except feign cynicism and drown their uncertainty in drink. Every Irish male writer seems to need to get one of these books out of his system before going on to more original things. McCormack turns the genre on its head in many subtle and refreshing ways: JJ isn’t cynical at all, he’s disarmingly earnest; he’s a profoundly gentle soul, who turns the impotent rage inwards and thinks himself into an asylum, rather than going on a destructive rampage; and he has perhaps the most-decent father in the history of Irish literature. JJ is far more articulate than the average directionless-young-bollix, but perhaps his articulacy, coupled with his ability to appreciate every side of the story, every point of view, is as much of a problem as the inability to express himself?

Ireland has a suicide problem; whether to a greater or lesser degree than other countries I have no idea, nor do such comparisons matter. The apparent causes change from era to era — currently these can be summarized roughly as jobless young men in rural counties, farmers at the end of their credit, and teenage girls suffering online bullying — but the state of affairs has endured at least since the exodus from the countryside to the growing cities began, and probably much longer. You can read JJ’s decision as a temporary suicide, and the agonizing of his family and friends reads much like that of the bereaved, only without the raw, inescapable pain. The feeling is that the family, the community, even the enjoyment of life itself is diminished for those left behind when one person chooses to leave their company prematurely. That this leave-taking is not permanent, nor even the strange indefinite absence of emigration, appears to leave no less confusion. JJ’s enigmatic explanation for his decision (“I want to take my mind off my mind for a while.”) is as difficult for his family and friends to understand as silence. After suicide, everyone asks “Why?” McCormack’s novel seems to suggest that even if suicides could answer, we might not understand their reasoning any better.

Originally published before the Celtic Tiger sickened and died, Notes from a Coma reflects some of the contemporary undercurrents that the Irish are now bemoaning: a political system that strives to maintain the status quo and appease Europe, the dearth of opportunity for an educated population, an uncritical mass media that avoids uncomfortable questions. In those respects, Notes from a Coma now reads like a novel ahead of its time. It’s interesting that the book received a strong critical reception on publication (during the boom years), but poor sales. Five years later — after the bust of 2008 — it was being hailed by some as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade.” Now Mike McCormack is experiencing a bit of a comeback, with his first book, the collection of short stories Getting it in the Head, being republishing, a new volume of stories, Forensic Songs, out now, and Notes from a Coma finding a publisher in the US for the first time. Perhaps in the future this will come of be regarded as one of the touchstone novels of this period of Irish life?

An interview with Mike McCormack

This short interview was recorded as part of Poitics & Prose Bookstore’s reading series.

I came across an interesting documentary about the abandonment of Inis Airc, a tiny island off the Galway coast. Right next to the much-larger Inis Bofin, Inis Airc would have have supported about 300 people at the start of the famine (the famine being the high-water mark for the Irish population as a whole). By 1960, the inhabitants numbered just 24. The key reasons the population left seem to have been the incredible hardship of island life, coupled with the difficulty of getting to or from the island. Inis Airc lacked a pier or jetty, so tiny currachs were the only way on or off. The inhabitants could be cut off for weeks during winter, with no way to get help to the sick, or bring in food or supplies. Other islands remained inhabited once newer piers and berthing facilities were put in place, but the cost of such for all the Irish islands inhabited at the turn of the century would have been enormous.

TG4 made a documentary about the abandonment of the Irish in 2007, and it can be found, in several parts, on YouTube.

The tale of Inis Airc is similar to the abandonment of many other Irish islands over the course of the twentieth century. The Blaskets off Co. Kerry are the ones I’m most familiar with, mainly due to the compulsory reading of Peig Sayers’ Irish-language memoir in school. There’s plenty of info on the Blaskets and island life from the mid-19th century on, thanks to several memoirs written in the early days of the Irish state by several islanders.

Link: Blasket Islands History and Heritage…

I’ve only ever been out to the Aran Islands, so perhaps I should add the Blaskets or some of the other uninhabited islands to my bucket list. Before that, it’s time to dig out that old copy of Peig, and see how my childhood Irish has stood up to the years and life in a foreign country.

There are weird and unearthly places where the known laws of physics do not seem to apply. My first memory of this was as a child, reading an Enid Blyton novel in which there is a hill on which all cars stutter to a stop. Another such phenomenon is the fabled river where water runs upslope or the road where a car will roll uphill. There appears to be one  of these oddities in most countries. (I came across a stream in Western NC many years ago that appeared to flow uphill — but strangely I’ve never been able to find it again.) Needless to say, Ireland has several of these magical spots, in fact Ireland appears to have more of these gravity-defying wonders per square mile and any other country.

One, known locally as “The Magic Road” or “Magic Hill,” is in Co. Louth, near the Long Woman’s Grave in the Cooley Mountains. The American actor-turned-TV-presenter Andrew McCarthy recently featured this stretch of road on his show (video below). The Cooley penisula is an area of long association with legends and magical folklore. Much of The Tain takes place here, there are several neolithic tombs in the area (including the highest one in all Ireland on Slieve Gullion), and one of the oldest churches in the country is nearby at Killevy. Oddly, the agencies responsible for promoting the Ring of Gullion make no mention of the “Magic Hill” in their pamphlets, but then again, hordes of tourists stopping on a back road to try and make their car roll uphill really has disaster-waiting-to-happen written all over it.

Here’s a clip of Andrew McCarthy’s take on the “Magic Hill”:

Another “Magic Hill” is said to be found down in Co. Waterford, in the Comeragh Mountains. Along the road to Mahon Falls you appear to crest a hill and travel down into a valley. Near the foot there’s a Wishing Tree/May Bush on the left. Stop next to this tree, put the car in neutral, take you foot off the brake, and it appears you’ll find the car rolling uphill all the way back to the corner. (Don’t forget to put your blinkers on to warn other motorists you’re acting strangely.)

A YouTube video of people experiencing the effect in the Comeraghs:

The folkloric explanation for these magic spots appears to be that you’ve trespassed on sacred fairy land and the Fey are pushing you away. This makes me wonder if the phenomenon was well-known before cars came on the scene, or if this is just another example of our love of yarn-spinning. Did horses get pulled back upslope by their wagons if they idled in the same spot?

The scientific explanation is much simpler: these are actually optical illusions. The roads only appear to be going downhill because of the surrounding landscape. The distant horizon is not visible at these spots, so the eye takes its cues for what is a flat surface, an up- or a downslope from the relationship between the visible landforms. These two roads appear to be going downhill, but really they’re each a gentle upslope, so when you stop your car and remove the brake, gravity takes over and pulls you gently backwards down the slope, even though to onlookers you appear to be traveling uphill.

Even so, I don’t intend to let the scientific truth deprive me of an unusual experience. Next time we’re home, both of these spots are on the travel itinerary. (If anyone has good directions to either — or to one of the other two “Magic Hills” in Ireland — please leave a note in the comments.)

Brilliant bit of time-lapse photography showing off the Burren in all its atmospheric majesty. I could watch this for ages.

President Higgins nails the #1 virtue of the Irish people in his Christmas message:

“We are, for example, a country with a network of communities, that are increasingly active in responding to their own, and their society’s, difficulties.”

Unfortunately, it’s also the thing that enables successive governments to get away with inefficiency, lax regulation, and poor policies: the people will take care of other people, both at home and abroad. Still, it’s a virtue seeming to grow scarce in this world and should be celebrated.

Link: President issues Christmas message – The Irish Times – Sun, Dec 16, 2012.

My daughters are obsessed with Doctor Who. Besides the show itself, they love the trading cards and magazines. It’s their latest obsession, and one I’m very happy to support because — unlike Japanese Erasers or Silly Bandz — I actually credit this with turning my youngest from a very reluctant reader into an avid reading machine.

It all started with a trip to Easons this summer. I have fond memories of reading comics and kid magazines when I was a child, but the paltry few we have to choose from in the US are sheer drivel, and seem to have not a single redeeming quality. So, knowing Easons has the widest selection of magazines in my hometown, I took them in to see if anything caught their interest. After steering our youngest away from a predominantly-pink magazine with free chemical-laden make-up, she spotted an issue of Doctor Who Monster Invasion and decided that was her choice. The magazine came with a pack of trading cards, and when they opened it in the car, it was infatuation at first sight.

Each week all summer they waited for Wednesday with a quivering excitement usually only seen at bedtime on Christmas Eve. They each saved their pocket money to buy a copy of the magazine and studied the cards and read the magazine for days. They were in absolute nerdy nirvana. We had to scour the newsagents in Dublin to find one that sold the packs of cards, but find them we eventually did, and we stocked up and now use them as bribes rewards for reading. Finishing a book earns the girls 3-4 Doctor Who cards, and they are currently powering through books at a great rate — initially motivated by the reward, but increasingly by the enjoyment of the books themselves. (Our older daughter has been a great reader for years, but our younger needed all the encouragement she could get.)

After we came back to NC, we took out a subscription to the magazine. The day the monthly shipment comes is drop-everything-and-read day — and there can never be too many of those.

The front, or sunrise-facing, wall of Newgrange: white quartz, “river-rounded” granite/aka beach cobbles, and huge greywacke boulders.

We visited Newgrange recently, and paid more attention than usual to the walls of white quartz and “river-rounded granite” cobbles — rounded, gray rocks that look something like cannonballs embedded in the walls — because the day was very windy and we appreciated the shelter of the high walls. I idly wondered why they were part of the construction, what purpose they had, but didn’t have any ideas. Today, I came across an intriguing theory regarding carved stone balls found around large stone circles in Scotland.

More beach cobbles in among the quartz surrounding the roof box.

It seems these stone balls could have served as “ball bearings” when placed in a shallow wooden track, and allowed a relative few people to move heavy stones with economy. The method may have been easier than log-rolling, although the construction of the trackways would have taken time. Perhaps the left-over stone balls could then have been incorporated in the walls of Newgrange? But maybe the river-rounded granites of Newgrange aren’t regular or round enough to facilitate this? It’s hard to tell as they are now part of the walls, and secured in concrete. Some do appear slightly flattened, more like normal river rocks, while others look quite round. They apparently came from a different part of the country to the huge greywacke kerbstones and orthostats used at Newgrange, which raises the question of why these rounded granite stones were used, and not other river-rounded rocks.

Link: Feature: British Archaeology 117, March / April 2011.

Link: Nova special: Secrets of Stonehenge, a documentary which contains info on this theory of transporting huge stone slabs in the stone age.

The Lia Fail with the mound of the hostages in the background.

Sounds like souvenir hunters chipped off some pieces of the Lia Fail recently. Reminds me of the woman said to have stolen enough rocks from the “Quiet Man” cottage to build a fireplace in her house in the US. It’s a shame as well as a crime. It seems as if we enjoy quite unprecedented access to historical sites in Ireland, and actions like this will only encourage the OPW to control access, and remove what can be removed to museums.

LinkInvestigation after Hill of Tara monument vandalised – RTÉ News.

There was a piece on last night’s news that Knowth is getting the laser-scanning treatment. Hardly news, as it sounds like the journalists just wanted to get inside the chamber (a rare event) — and who could blame them? Hopefully the real news will come when they analyze the info and discover something new.

LinkSix One News: Laser scan of Knowth passage tomb – RTÉ News Player.

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