Areopagus Volume XL
Welcome one and all to the fortieth volume of the Areopagus. Or perhaps I should say Céad Míle Fáilte! Today is St. Patrick's Day, and so it only seems right that this week's volume be themed around Ireland, that green jewel on the very edge of Europe, halfway between continent and ocean.
God is down in the swamps and marshes
Sensational as April and almost incredible
the flowering of our catharsis.
A humble scene in a backward place
Where no one important ever looked
The raving flowers looked up in the face
Of the One and the Endless, the Mind that has baulked
The profoundest of mortals. A primrose, a violet,
A violent wild iris – but mostly anonymous performers
Yet an important occasion as the Muse at her toilet
Prepared to inform the local farmers
That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God
Was breathing His love by a cut-away bog.
That was The One, written by Patrick Kavanagh, and a perfect prelude to this week's seven short lessons...
I - Classical Music
Irish Rhapsody No. 6
Charles Villiers Stanford (1922)
Powerscourt, County Wicklow by George Barret (1762)
Music performed by the Ulster Orchestra
The life of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) was rather tidy. Born in Dublin to a family of musical lawyers (lawyers who were also musicians rather than specialists in musical law...) he studied at Trinity College and afterwards at Cambridge University in England. Then he spent three years in Leipzig and Berlin before returning to England as Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music in London, in 1883. Musicians he taught include Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, Arthur Bliss, Ivor Gurney, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Stanford's students later recalled what an edifying teacher he was: intimidating because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of music, frustrating because of his deep musical conservativism, and exhausting because he expected his students to give everything they had to their studies.
So Stanford was a central figure in the music of late 19th and early 20th century Britain and the tutor to a whole generation of composers. Many of his students may have rebelled against him by embracing Modernism, but even reacting against a teacher is still to be influenced by them. And so much of the classical music now regarded as truly British, whether Holst or Vaughan Williams, finally disentangled from the influence of Germany, Italy, and France, would never have been created without Stanford.
But he wasn't just a teacher; Stanford was a prolific and popular composer. Irish Rhapsody No. 6 was the last piece of music he ever wrote. He finished it two weeks before his seventieth birthday in 1922. Thereafter his health declined and he died in 1924. It is perhaps fitting that this was his last piece. For Charles Villiers Stanford had spent most of his life away from Ireland, the land of his birth. And yet here, in his last ever composition, he returned to it for the final time.
What is a rhapsody? It's one of those wonderful musical genres which doesn't have a precise definition. The word rhapsody itself comes from the Ancient Greek term for a recital of excerpts drawn from popular epic poetry, almost like a "best moments" compilation. In the hands of 19th century Romantic composers the rhapsody was transformed into a one-movement instrumental composition of no set length or structure - a rhapsody can vary wildly in tone and style, jumping from one musical idea, technique, or mood to another.*
Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody, written in 1857, was infused with the folk music of his native land, and it started a trend of writing rhapsodies inspired by the music and character of a particular country or region. Such was the model adopted by Stanford with his six Irish Rhapsodies. George Bernard Shaw certainly thought Stanford was at his best when he indulged his "Irishness" and forewent the solemn seriousness of English Victorian music. What can we detect in Irish Rhapsody No. 6? Perhaps a composer who knows he is coming to the end of his time and, looking back over his life, recalls the love he felt for the land of his birth. There's gentleness here, and fondness too. Not sentimentality - Stanford seems to have been much too serious a man for that - and yet, I dare say, a certain poignance.
*This freewheeling musical form has its most famous example in Queen's 1975 smash hit Bohemian Rhapsody; it is a song remarkably well-suited to this genre.
II - Historical Figure
An Honest Man
Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. Today, the 17th March, is the date traditionally associated with his death and is therefore also celebrated as his feast day, the world-famous St Patrick's (or St. Paddy's) Day. It's a global festival of Irishness: Guinness, shamrocks, leprechauns, and all things green. A wonderful day, for sure, but hardly a true characterisation either of Ireland or of St Patrick. So who was he really?
Discerning the myth from the man can prove difficult. As with most saints the life of Patrick has been elaborated and mythologised down the centuries, turning a normal human like you or I into a figure more of legend than reality. The most popular myth tells how Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland. And yet the fossil records show that Ireland never had any snakes in the first place. Another myth relates that Patrick explained the nature of the Holy Trinity to an unbeliever with the three leaves of a shamrock. Thereafter it became the national symbol of Ireland. According to one 12th century account Patrick raised precisely thirty three people from the dead. What to make of such legends? Well, this tradition of mythologising the lives of saints is known as hagiography. Saints were incredibly important figures throughout the Middle Ages, and so the stories of their lives were among the most widely-read and known. The particulars of their stories were important because they provided the iconography for their depictions in art: think of St Catherine and the wheel. For Christians who could not read it was the paintings and stained-glass windows in churches that told the stories of the Bible and of the saints. Patrick could be recognised in the art of the Middle Ages or indeed of any era, then, by his shamrock or by the snakes fleeing in terror before him.
But who was the real Patrick? The first thing we should know is that he wasn't Irish. Patrick was born in England at some point during the 5th century AD either to a Roman family or a native one that had been Romanized. Here is how Patrick explains his origins:
And so the teenage Patrick was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland, where he was forced into six years of slavery and labour as a shepherd, among other things. But, says Patrick, it was during these long years of hardship that he found his faith:
Patrick eventually escaped slavery in Ireland and, notwithstanding another brief captivity (this one lasted only two months) returned to his family in England. But he didn't stay for long. Patrick felt a calling to return to Ireland. It was a largely pagan country and he was inspired to convert it to Christianity. That being said, Patrick was a naturally uncertain man, prone to doubting his own virtues and forever ruminating on his own unreadiness. Here's how Patrick described the vision which encouraged him to return:
His life as a missionary in Ireland was difficult, not least because he had the barbarous king Coroticus to deal with, a rather brutal ruler who had no compunction with murdering, pillaging, and kidnapping Patrick's converts:
Patrick held steadfastly to his work despite the crimes of Coroticus and despite being captured and enslaved yet again. He does seem to have wrestled with his own desire for an easier life, but a strong sense of duty prevented him from ever leaving his mission:
All of this comes down to us from Patrick himself. He wrote two surviving works: the Confessio and the Letter To Coroticus. They are both autobiographical and both remarkably honest; rarely do ancient writers reveal themselves as clearly as Patrick. He is open about his insecurities and doubts - that he is unlearned, uneducated, and a poor writer - and he is open about his own imperfections and sinful ways, ever ready to admit that he has made mistakes. He is also blunt about the difficulties he has faced during his mission to Ireland. What we have here is far from the picture of a perfect and saintly man. It is, rather, the portrait of a human no different from the rest of us:
It is also from these works that we know Patrick was something of a controversial figure. He seems to have been accused by other churchmen of taking bribes for his services, accepting lavish gifts, and other such pecuniary crimes. Patrick responded to these accusations with typical directness and earnesty:
Patrick pointed out that he was a foreigner and that the customs of the native Irish, especially with regard to the giving of gifts, might seem strange to bishops and deacons elsewhere in Britain. But he perservered, despite criticism and enslavement and violent resistance, laying the foundations for the Christianisation of Ireland which has endured to this day. At the end of his life Patrick was taken to Saul, where he had established his first church upon returning to Ireland on his missionary quest, and it was there he died sometime toward the end of 5th century AD.
St Patrick, then, is one of the liveliest and most relatable figures from that whole era of British history. He is a patron saint whose life we can reconstruct and whose personality we can clearly imagine: honest, doubting, passionate, inspired, humble, plain, brave, pious, practical, cautious, and devoted; such a legacy is far greater than any fantastical stories about banishing snakes. This is the man celebrated on the 17th March.
III - Painting
The Book of Kells
Anonymous (c.800 AD)
Among the many saints who followed in Patrick's footsteps was Columba, a 6th century Irish missionary who travelled to Scotland and there founded the Abbey of Iona in the Western Hebrides. It was thanks to Columba and the monasteries he founded, in Iona and elsewhere, that the Book of Kells was created. Nobody's quite sure when it was made, although the date now agreed upon by scholars is around the year 800. We aren't even certain where it was made. Perhaps at the Abbey of Iona, even if only initially. Or perhaps not. It may have been created at the Abbey of Kells in Ireland, where it was kept for centuries and after which it has been named. Perhaps it was the work of many different monasteries and more than one generation.
What we know for sure is that it was the work of a very specific group of people: those British and Irish monks in one or more of the abbeys founded by Columba. These were monasteries which weathered the storm of the Roman retreat from Britain and preserved both Christianity and learning more generally during the ensuing Dark Ages. In these years they were isolated from the rest of Europe and the rest of the Catholic Church, and a distinctive form of Christianity arose, infused with Celtic culture. This was the context of the Book of Kells.
And what is the Book of Kells? A handwritten copy of the Four Gospels, all in Latin. Its pages are filled with illuminations of extraordinary elaboration. Some of them depict recognisable figures, whether Mary and the infant Jesus or the authors of the gospels themselves: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. In other places we find goats and sheep and dogs, and in others we find fantastical beasts which defy description. But many of these illuminations are purely decorative and entirely abstract: we find spirals, swirls, laces, knots and all manner of bafflingly and beautifully complex intracies. And so the influence of Celtic and Saxon art is clear, for we find none of this fabulous pattern in the classical art of Rome. This unique style has been called either "Insular Art" or "Hiberno-Saxon Art."
All these wonderful images complement the texts of the Gospels, of course, and the fact that this is a book should not be overlooked. For books were rare and precious objects in those days. If nothing else, the Book of Kells is a reminder that we should cherish the abundance of books in the 21st century, whether in print or online. It is a blessing of which the Columban monks could hardly have dreamed.
Each page is work of absolute devotion; every detail seems to have been treated with the sort of scrupulous attention and love that can only arise from a certain degree of isolation. We must remember there was no electricity then. This was work done entirely by sunlight or by candlelight, without heating and without the conveniences of modern life. The waves must surely have been thundering at the rocks, the bitter winds of the North Sea draughting through the holes in the walls, and the threat of persecution or pillage ever looming over them. Indeed, it was around the time of this book's completion that the Vikings first appeared in the British Isles, all too happy to ransack monasteries and slaughter the brethren. But here, in the midst of all that darkness, these Columban monks brought forth a work of astounding light.
We can see why the Book of Kells is regarded as one of the great artistic and cultural treasures of the Middle Ages. The monastic tradition of illuminated manuscripts was one of the bulwarks of art, religion, learning, and culture for centuries; nowhere was it realised with greater imaginative power or spiritual force than in the Book of Kells. It is currently held by Trinity College, Dublin, where it is on permanent display.
IV - Architectural Masterpiece
Skellig Michael Monastery
Skellig Michael is surely one of the most dramatic places on earth. It is a fist of rock just over seven miles off the south-west coast of Ireland, almost entirely unapproachable during winter and dangerous even during the summer. Its highest point is over seven hundred feet above sea level and the island is surrounded, on all sides, by precipitous cliffs. Puffins, gannets, and seals have made Skellig Michael their home. So too did a group of monks who made that dangerous crossing in search of solitude and built on this rugged and inhospitable island a home for themselves. The origins of the monastery at Skellig Michael are shrouded in mystery and nobody is entirely sure of its age. We know that it was established by the 9th century AD at least, since Viking raids on the island were recorded in that century. Nor are we certain when it fell into disuse, though it seems to have become a site of pilgrimage by the late Middle Ages and has remained one ever since.
Nonetheless, for however long these monks clung to the windblasted rocks of Skellig Michael, they built a number of beehive-shaped stone huts, a graveyard, stone terraces, stone staircases, gardens, two oratories (prayer houses), and a church. These were constructed on a little shelf over one hundred and eighty metres above the sea. There's also a hermitage on the other side of the island, accessible only by an incredibly dangerous staircase and situated just fifteen metres below the highest peak. There is one small area of relatively flat land between the two peaks of Skellig Michael, known as Christ's Saddle. It seems the monks may have done a little farming there. The island is scattered with other remains of those long centuries of monastic life, including stone crosses and inscriptions on the rocks.
Why is it a masterpiece?
The monastery at Skellig Michael is a supreme example of vernacular architecture: buildings not designed by professional architects but constructed by ordinary people or craftsmen according to their immediate needs and with locally available materials. So much is obvious simply by looking at it. These monks were not architects; they were hardly even stonemasons. What they built on the precipitous cliffs of Skellig Michael was dictated entirely by the limitations of their skill and the demands of utility. I don't wish to take anything away from what they achieved. After all, a thousand years after this little monastery was built it remains standing. One doubts the same will be true of many modern structures. My point is simply that they were not building according to any models or theories or styles or movements. They weren't trying to build something that was beautiful or which looked a particular way; they were building what they had to in the best way they could manage. That's vernacular architecture at its purest.
And yet these beehives of stone, absolutely unadorned and without any fanciful notions of "design", seem to possess more aesthetic power than any theoretical analysis of architecture could ever produce. They are honest and beautiful in their simplicity; rugged but charming by their imperfections; diminuitive but impressive by the labour evident in each of their carefully placed stones. It is difficult not to be moved by the sight of these huts clinging to the cliffs of Skellig Michael, for in all their desolation they are also beautiful and, I think, uplifting. However crude this little monastery in comparison with the wonders of modern construction you'd be hard pressed to find something which embodies more clearly to the immense power of the human spirit and the remarkable ends to which it is driven.
One can only wonder what led the monks to live on such an island and build such a dwelling for themselves. Perhaps they sought to escape persecution. Perhaps they simply sought solitude and a place for contemplation and religious devotion, to rise above the trivialities and normal life and reach a higher mode of existence. Perhaps they just wanted a challenge. Whatever the truth of this mysterious monastery, one senses it will remain at Skellig Michael long after our tallest skyscrapers have fallen down.
V - Rhetoric
The Modern Orator
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was proud of his Irish heritage and open about it; all of his grandparents were Irish immigrants to the United States of America. And JFK was, without doubt, one of the greatest orators of the modern age, a man who would have been readily praised by the rhetoricians of Greece and Rome as an exemplar of what it means to be a truly accomplished speaker. What makes his speeches so memorable and persuasive? Well, JFK was evidently a master of the basics of rhetoric; he knew how to use antimetabole and antithesis. Sometimes that's all you need:
Of course, quips are one thing and speeches are another. I thoroughly recommend listening to or reading his speeches in full. For while I will always advocate the study of a Demosthenes or a Cicero, it is of equal importance to see what a great modern speech looks like. So here are some brief excerpts from the speeches of John F. Kennedy, both to show that great speeches consist not only in clever use of rhetorical devices and that people in the modern day are no less eloquent than our ancient counterparts.
On the possibilities of space science:
On the press:
It's rather tempting to imagine that the quality of public speech has withered even since the days of JFK. This line of thinking, that "things aren't what they used to be" in politics, was shared by the Romans of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, who looked back to the days of the Republic and compared their own age unfavourably with the era of Cicero, Caesar, Cato, and so on. And yet we look back on their age with admiration. It's something of an endless cycle. But as our old friend Pliny the Younger said, "I am an admirer of the ancients, but, not like some people, so as to despie the talent of our own times. It is not true that the world is too tired and exhausted to be able to produce anything worth praising."
Alas, where better to conclude than with part of a speech given by John F. Kennedy to the Irish Assembly in June of 1963? It's another fine example of how he mixed erudition and eloquence with simple rhetorical devices and straightforward emotional appeals. Whatever we think of his political views, John F. Kennedy was an exceptional orator. He is certainly somebody we can learn from in the 21st century.
VI - Writing
The Wit of the Irish
Strange how certain places seem to produce writers of a similar ilk; what Ireland has never lacked is writers of extraordinary wit. Oscar Wilde is perhaps the most famous, but he's not the only one.
There's also Jonathan Swift, most famous now for writing Gulliver's Travels but in his own time regarded as the greatest satirist of the age. He was bitterly and brutally funny. Just consider A Modest Proposal, in which Swift (writing anonymously, as he always did) proposes a simple solution to the problem of poverty in Ireland: that people sell their children as food to the rich. It is a mockery of the treatment of the poor, of course, but Swift carries through his satire without flinching.
And we cannot forget George Bernard Shaw. He lived to the grand old age of ninety four and his life, coming as it did between 1856 and 1950, was one that spanned eras. He was a colourful and controversial character, regarded by some as the greatest British dramatist since Shakespeare and by others as a gadfly. What nobody ever called him was boring. I find myself enjoying just about everything he wrote, whether I agree with it or not. He, like Wilde, had a gift for coining phrases of delightful and incisive wit.
Then there's Richard Brinsley Sheridan, one of the funniest playwrights who ever lived. Even two centuries after they were written and long after the specific social conditions they satirised have passed, you'll still find it rather difficult not to be amused by Sheridan's comedy. There's also Laurence Sterne. I haven't read his Tristram Shandy, published in the mid-18th century and apparently one of the most popular, influential, and well-regarded European novels of all time. Still, it's been recommended to me on enough occasions by people whom I trust that I feel comfortable mentioning it here. For somebody whose wit was rather darker we need look no further than the bleak and tragicomic genius of Samuel Beckett.
Lastly there's Edmund Burke, my favourite of the lot. He was an exceptional writer and that rarest of creatures: a truly independent-minded politician. Reflections on the Revolutions in France, Burke's answer to the French Revolution and the British thinkers who wanted to imitate it, certainly isn't funny in the same way some of the other works mentioned here might be, but it's one of the most incisive and prophetic pieces of political writing I've ever come across.
I suppose you can consider this a list of recommondations of Irish writers you might wish to consider reading. Of course, the potential list is essentially endless and these few have been selected only by a very particular metric.
VII - The Seventh Plinth
An online interview with... me
Next Tuesday (21st March) I'll be talking to David Perell, the founder of Write of Passage and the patron who supports my work. Anybody can attend and it's completely free. The recording will also be sent to everybody who signs up. Here is the link for the event. It's at 2pm ET, which is 6pm GMT and 7pm CET.
What will we talk about? My journey in creating The Cultural Tutor and the world of online writing. It should be helpful for any of you who are already writing online or have considered doing so. I've learned a great deal in the last year and I'm keen to share it with anybody who might gleen something useful from my experiences. Otherwise, if you simply wish to hear me talk about how I created and became The Cultural Tutor, please do come along.
Question of the Week
Last week's question to test your critical thinking was:
Where do good ideas come from?
This is David R's method for finding them:
Mazlow gave a brilliantly poetic answer:
Here was Vanessa G's musation on the topic:
And that of Sebastian E:
John C emphasised the need to engage with the world rather than merely sit back and wait for creativity to strike us:
And, to end, here was Mary G's answer, quoting her late father:
This week's question to test your critical thinking is...
Can any good deed be truly selfless?
And that's all
I look forward to seeing those of you who attend next Tuesday's talk. In case you missed it, here's a link for the event. Otherwise I wish a blessed Saint Patrick's Day to you all and a prosperous weekend thereafter. Farewell and Oíche Mhaith for now!