Friday, 13 May 2011

Bending The Boyne by JS Dunn

Irish folklore is full of giants, shapechangers, fearless warriors, sultry queens and mighty battles - yet it is possible that these stories could be huge exaggerations of real events.
Historically Ireland was settled by countless waves of invaders, many of whom have left their own mark or cultural strand.
The Celts are the best known, while the Vikings, Normans, English and Scots have all added their influences to the melting pot.
However, Ireland was inhabited long before the first Celts came around 2,000 years ago. The memories of these earliest settlers have been woven into Irish mythology and folklore and they have been personified as the Tuatha de Dannan, Firbolg and Fomarians.
JS Dunn goes back to fringes of Irish oral history and uses her background as an archaeologist to create a credible narrative of what may actually have taken place 4,000 years ago.
The Starwatchers have lived in Ireland for many hundreds of years and have built huge monuments at Newgrange to help monitor the subtle shift in the positions of stars over many lifetimes.
They are close to the land, living in harmony with nature, foraging for food and hunting in the forests and rivers.
However, their lifestyle is being endangered by the Invaders, who have set up camp on the banks of the River Boyne, close to Newgrange and its sister mounds Knowth and Dowth.
They are miners searching for copper and gold and have cut down huge swathes of forest to fuel the furnaces they use to smelt their metal to make artefacts, including swords.
Meanwhile the Starwatchers are protohippies, living off the land in small close-knit communes, close to nature, communing with their ancestors and deities.
They spend much of their time observing the night sky and the almost imperceptible shifts in the orbit of the stars and the sun, recording these movements in huge monuments.
Dunn convincingly recreates the societies in which her characters live in terms of food, clothing, housing, lifestyle and religious beliefs.
While the characters are firmly fixed in their milieu, the narrative is littered with knowing nods to the future, a word or phrase that will draw a link between evens 4,000 years ago and contemporary Ireland and western Europe.
The two main characters Cian and Boann are Starwatchers but their lives become entangled with the Invaders with Cian visiting their mines in Kerry and travelling to 'Seafarer' settlements in Europe - the Basque Country, where even then the inhabitants are distinct from their European neighbours - and along the Spanish coast into Asturias and Galicia and eventually the Loire Valley in modern day France.
Boann has been schooled in Starwatcher lore but is forced into a marriage with Elcmar, the Invader's High King and into the coarse materialism of Invader society.
The names of the characters all echo those familiar to us from Irish mythology - Connor, Dagda, Lir, Maebh and Bolg - and their characteristics or aspects of their lives foreshadow the exploits of their mythical namesakes.
One of the joys of this novel is that it can be read on various levels - a straightforward historical novel, a commentary on contemporary global politics, a parable of what happens when capitalism tries to impose itself on ancient tribal values.
It also carries a strong environmental message as the Invaders plunder Ireland's natural resources to create material wealth - copper and gold which require thousands of trees to be cut down and burnt before they can be melted and cast into elaborate ornaments and weapons.
It is a sad novel as we carry the foreknowledge that ultimately the Starwatchers way of life and their values will be lost and that their human, individual lives become a mere rumour that barely exist on in the echoes of myth.
But then equally the Invaders themselves who brought about that downfall would eventually succumb to future waves of invaders and they in turn would suffer the same fate as those they had usurped.
Vists JS Dunn's website here.


Wim Wenders biopic of the late choreographer Pina Bausch caused half a dozen people to walk out of the QFT in Belfast when I watched it this week.
There is a barely suppressed sexual energy, often violent, about many of Bausch's pieces but I also suspected that the walk-outs may have had more to do with people not really understanding what was happening. I certainly didn't.
The highly stylised movements and interactions between the dancers set to a mixture of classical, jazz and contemporary music defies interpretation.
Like abstract painting or avant garde music, contemporary dance is intended to express the inexpressible, to tug at some emotion that can not be articulated by mere words.
Bausch's best-know piece, Cafe Muller, involves women in clinging white chiffon dresses, with their eyes shut tight, seeming to be reluctantly dragged by some unseen force from one end of a stage to another, while a waiter hurls tables and chairs out of their way. It features as the opening scene of Pedro Almodovar's Hable Con Ella.
It is a Beckettian scenario, absurdist and non-sensical. I haven't a clue what is going on while watching it, what it is supposed to mean or symbolise, but it is strangely moving.
The film Pina was narrated by members of the German-based dance ensemble who worked with Bausch, some of them for more than two decades.
There was footage of Bausch herself, occasionally dancing or talking about her methodology, but Wender's, correctly concentrated on the dances she choreographed - visual representation of her psychic landscape.
There were generous extracts, sometime recreated in the urban setting of Wuppertal in northern Germany where Bausch's Tanztheatre company were based.
Even though the QFT screening was in 2D it was cinematographically stunning. I would love to see the three-D version but can't see it getting an airing somehow in our local moviehouse.
Pretentious? Probably, but a superb and inspiring 1hr 45min experience.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Tree planting

One of Ireland's leading environmental activists has called on writers to take a leaf from the book of a Co Down novelist.
Tony Bailie’s second novel ecopunks is described as an “environmental parable for the 21st century” and features a troubled eco-warrior as its central character.
While the novel, published by Belfast Lagan Press, was printed on recycled paper Bailie decided to go one step further and has planted 20 native Irish trees to help offset the carbon footprint resulting from the production process.
Bailie said: “I felt that taking on an environmental theme for my fiction brought additional responsibilities to me as a writer and even when I was writing it I decided that I would have to do something more than making sure it was printed on recycled paper.
“While ecopunks is aimed at a general readership, I did not want to simply tap in to the green zeitgeist without making a genuine effort to be true to the principles espoused by my main characters and the ethos of the novel.”
Bailie, a journalist with the Belfast-based daily The Irish News, worked with the paper’s gardening columnist John Manley to identify a plot of unused land beside the Co Down coast and what trees to plant.
Mr Manley said: “We planted native species such as crab apple, beech, hawthorn, elder and birch – all sourced bare-root from Conservation Volunteers tree nursery at Clandeboye, just outside Belfast.
“The patch we planted is close to the sea, out on the edge of the Lecale peninsula. We hope this small copse will one day provide a welcome shelter and resting place for migrating birds as they come in off the Irish Sea.”
The initiative and the theme of the novel have been welcomed by Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland Director James Orr.
Mr Orr said: “This book is not just a great story but a parable for the way in which we need to stop taking our planet for granted.
“The interlocking themes of a road destroying ancient woodland and nuclear catastrophe is set against the context that our time on Earth is a fraction of geological or ecological time. This book reminds us of man’s hubris and short-sighted arrogance in assuming that we are not party of nature.
“This is an also international story but could easily have been set in Ireland given what is happening to the natural world.
“With this superb book, Tony Bailie has given us great literature with a powerful message that none of us can ignore.”
Ecopunks is part adventure story, part psychological thriller and part New Age philosophy that raises serious questions about the impact of modern living on the world’s climate.
It tells the interweaving stories of eco-warrior Wolf Cliss, alternative archaeologist Kei Yushiro and Irish musician Lorcan O’Malley. All three are troubled characters in this intimate story about principle and belief that stretches from Eastern Europe and the rain forests of Asia to South America.
ecopunks by Tony Bailie is available from Lagan Press or from Amazon.

Above press release went out to media in Ireland and Britain this week.