e n d n o t e s k a t h e r i n e m c n a m a r a
I’ve been thinking about culture shock though wishing there were a more pleasing phrase for it, and have decided it must be like having the bends. The bends attack you when you rise too quickly toward the surface from the deep. Abrupt change of air pressure; oxygen bubbles in the blood; agony. Careful decompression required.
For the past eight months I have been traveling regularly in Ireland, the Republic and the North, and Scotland. This came about because of “Re-Imagining Ireland, ” a conference held last May in Charlottesville, to which a hundred or so people from Ireland and many more from North America convened to talk about new ways of thinking about tradition and change in those two nations inhabiting one island.1 And for thinking about what “Irish” and “American” mean, conjoined. For Archipelago came the pleasure of publishing an exhibition from AN LEABHAR MÒR / THE GREAT BOOK OF GAELIC. While traveling, I attended a number of events organized around LEABHAR MÒR and hosted by the arts councils of all three countries. Cultural politics are lively in the Gaelic archipelago. They work differently than in America. On that side of the Atlantic, it seemed to me, the arts and culture are not separate from the polity, although standing at a critical angle to it; nor are they separate from the urgency felt in those nations of re-inventing their civil societies. Arts organizations are mandated to assist them, even when artists very often make works that will answer back sharply the society that cradles, or mocks, them.
Another kind of culture shock is the one you feel on re-entry. From abroad, I kept an eye open on Bush’s America. Was that my country? Now I’ve come home, for a while at least. Writing this interim report, I wonder: Where is my country?
On the plane home from Shannon, at the end of February, my seat mate was a man born in Co. Mayo, returning to his home in America. He introduced himself as I stowed my bags, his manner welcoming yet discreet. As the hours passed our conversation grew intimate, as strangers’ can, without breaching privacy. He told me he had left Ireland in 1965, and lives in the Midwest, and was of the fifth generation of his family to emigrate. He named his people back to the great-grandparents and out to cousins, and their dates, having spent a good deal of time tracing relatives, a number of whom are buried in the cemetery of a small town near my birthplace. We smiled at this coincidence of place implying we did have something else essential in common. As he spoke, I thought: Imagine how many generations of mothers let their children go out to a New World, never to see them again or meet their grandchildren. Desolation. When recounting his mother’s death, nearly twenty years ago, a tear rolled down his cheek. His quiet voice was filled with hope, even wonder, as he talked of all those who had overcome truly desperate conditions and thrived. Thrived! He repeated the word, not in triumph but quiet satisfaction and relief. We are here, we have survived, we are living without want, in comfort. His family goes back twenty-three generations, he told me, although he does not know their names past the sixth or seventh generation before him: and here his only child, a girl, marries a Hungarian (born in America)! Twenty-three generations thrown away, he told her. An American immigrant’s rueful jest.
I had come to Ireland to have tea with President Mary McAleese, at Áras an Uachtaráin, the official residence in lovely Phoenix Park; nor was I alone in this. Into a great reception room came Irish and Scottish poets and artists, contributors to AN LEABHAR MÒR / THE GREAT BOOK OF GAELIC, and arts organizers and other friends, among them, Americans.
The history of the Gaels is old. Fifteen hundred years ago, the people known as the Scotti, later called Gaels, migrated from Ireland into the West of Scotland; over the next five centuries, they united the country and named it. For a thousand years, the Gaels’ lands were united by the Irish Sea and their culture and language were one and whole. Irish (as the Gaelic language is called) is the official language of the Republic; but, interestingly, in Scotland, native speakers of Gaelic (pronounced ‘gallic’) outnumber the native speakers of Irish today. The project of the book was to give expression to a great possibility, the coming-together of the Gaels making their own future. Or as the great poet Sorley MacLean wrote:
Mary McAleese is the second woman to become president of the Republic, following the distinguished Mary Robinson. Both were barristers; McAleese carries another distinction as well: she is from the North, having been born in Belfast, to a Catholic family. The theme of her presidency is “Building Bridges”; well-chosen. “Fáilte. You are very welcome here,” was her warm greeting. It said often in Ireland, and, you felt, in this house, certainly, it was meant. We fifty or so visitors had arranged ourselves loosely in a large circle within the handsome public room. Cordially, the president made her way along the line, shaking hands and speaking to every person, knowing, it seemed, at least half of them. Many, she spoke to in Irish. This was a scene unimaginable to an American, for we have grown used to our leaders’ being locked behind their barriers and protected from ourselves.
A bound, published version of LEABHAR MÒR was presented to her, first in Scots Gaelic and English by Malcolm Maclean, director of Proiseact nan Ealan / the Gaelic Arts Agency, then in Irish and English by the poet Theo Dorgan. These men were co-editors and devisors of that fine collaboration of Irish and Scots poets living and dead, visual artists, and calligraphers that resulted in a book as yet unbound that is in its own right a work of art. Mary McAleese received the volume speaking in Irish and English.
Theo Dorgan’s speech was made, characteristically, of wit and dark humor. “It’s been a pride of discovery among all of us involved in the Book, rediscovering the common Gaelic presence,” he said, “not just the past, although we’re happy to look backwards; but we’re very conscious, and very happily conscious, of pride in the continuing traditions.” Most people in the room knew very well the communities, some of whose traditions, if outgrown by those present, are none the less contentious and sectarian. The old fights between Catholics and Protestants, the politicization of language: he up-ended them. “The Book is full of all sorts of marvelous perceptions that were perhaps not seen in the public domain before. It gives me a particular, sardonic pleasure to have to say, the astonishment on the faces of those who were not conversant with, or they had not processed the fact that, Irish, for instance, in the North is spoken mostly among people of a Catholic background, and Gaelic is spoken by strong, honest Presbyterians, which incredibly confuses, in the most ungrammatical ways, issues that have been oversimplified.” And, turning to President McAleese, ended gracefully: “I know that you have set your face resolutely against simple versions of the things you have delighted in, the variousness and contrariness of who we are, and who we might yet be.”
“Who we are, and who we might yet be.” It is the future to which these new Gaels look. They do not agree their language is of the past, their culture dying. The earliest poem in the book dates from the 6th century; but the latest was written in the 21st, and the artists and calligraphers are of their time: now.
I don’t yet have the language for speaking about this Ireland I traveled in, for in many places were echoes of distant, childhood, new-world memories; of accents I was educated away from (“film,” not “fillum” as the old people said in my Pennsylvania valley); men in tweed jackets and soft caps tipping their head to one side in civil greeting, seen first at my grandmother’s house in America, again years later in the West of Ireland. The mysteriousness of language in a divided household. I believed once that the descendants of immigrants had only truncated memories of their ancestral country, “memories” which had stopped in a distant past, and, retold, become fantasies. What did it mean to be “Irish” when I was a child in America? First of all, it meant being Catholic. (Were there Protestant Irish? But the Lord Mayor of Dublin, who appeared on Ed Sullivan, was a Jew; this was noteworthy and admirable, we thought in my house.) On the other hand, “you’re going up there among the Prods,” said my father’s relatives, when we moved ten miles away to a town where the WASPS (as they said then) were the majority. Why had such distinctions mattered in America? Yet, they still matter in Ireland, and also in Scotland; this was an unpleasant surprise. About language, I learned, you have to be more watchful.
The island is full of ghosts.
The island is coming to terms with immigrants, or “incomers.” I read that forty thousand new people have swollen the voting ranks. In Dublin I had heard a smart stand-up comic riffing on how life in the city has changed – all the new cars, the new money, the new faces of dark people on the streets, the gang violence. Poking at his young audience, asking whether they felt good seeing their elders’ racism come out. The audience, startled, laughed painfully at the truth he had named.
The Irish and, too, the Scots, “the Gael permanent,” have many ways of re-imagining who they are now. Through their artists, they are investigating their ancient culture – by investigating new forms of multiculturalism, not formed on the American model of English-language and mass-culture dominance, but the civil society.
I fell in love with the youthfulness of Ireland, after my near-immersion in the Gaelic culture battles. Yet, who would not be moved by these heroic workers in the arts, people of my generation and older, who had labored for decades setting up the wonderful possibility that young people will love their culture as much as they do, and carry it on in new forms and media? It is gamble they’ve made, and not a bad one.
Now, what will the young do?
Here is one answer: use new media, with dead-pan humor and skill. In this issue appears “A Page from the Book o’Kells,” by Ronan Coyle, a young artist and animator living in Dublin. Sweethly parodying the older Great Book, he wrote his text in Irish not Latin, devising the capital letter of four entwined illustrators with twisty arms. (They must be artists locked in combat.) Ronan Coyle drew his page on a large sheet of ordinary paper, with pencil and felt-tip markers.
My friend Eldrid Herrington, an American scholar in Dublin, wrote, “Choose youth and age; distrust the camp that keeps to one.”
Do we remember easily, we outsiders, that that green island contains two countries, the Republic, and, across the River Boyne, Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom? The train from Dublin to Belfast takes two hours. The border-crossing is marked, not by Customs, but your mobile phone service, switching from Irish to U.K. signals. Your phone buzzes as the text message arrives informing you of the change. The land is so lovely, the Northern farms looking well and stolidly kept, and over the border, softer-edged. Two-lane roads run parallel to the railway line; cross it; turn off and away. A friend remarked on the loveliness of the countryside but couldn’t help but think, he said, of all the cars that had gone down those roads carrying torturers and the tortured. Northern Ireland prefers to call itself now a “post-conflict” society, because The Troubles came to an end, or were transformed, in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which laid the way for devolution to self-government. Although home rule is suspended, and the Agreement is – it seems – being re-negotiated, and although the two hardest, most deeply opposed men in the North, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, would, if London did not presently rule, be First and Deputy First Minister, observers say that everything in the peace process is better than it was even a year ago.
Across Ireland, artists and arts agencies have worked together decommissioning barracks, military hospitals, jails, convents, churches – sites of oppression – by turning them into arts centers. Every county has its arts officer. The arts are by statute part of the public life. This is true in the Republic and in Northern Ireland. I learned of another way of “decommissioning,” however, which is as hopeful. It is erasure. On the Shankill Road, in the Protestant area of West Belfast, a community group has been whitewashing some of the great political murals that cover sides of buildings and are the often-vibrant street art of conflicted areas, in an attempt to raise the hopes and spirits of an impoverished neighborhood. So far, the contractors doing the work have not been stopped by paramilitaries, and the venture has become less tentative.2
I was thinking about the ordinary acts of art, how they might drain moral poison from cultural wounds, when I read about Bush’s appearance recently at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner, in Washington. It is traditional that the president appear and make a speech in which he pokes fun at himself. Bush’s method, since he is not good with words, was to show a slide show with scripted commentary. A reporter named David Corn wrote about this event:
Such an appalling incident is part of what Frank Rich called, in The New York Times, “the fake narrative of 9/11.”4 As well, it seems to me blasphemous.
In Dublin, I was asked to give a radio interview about a book I wrote some time ago that was an account of the years I had spent among native people of the Interior of Alaska. Actually, I was advised to submit the questions as the interviewer would not have time to read the book. Another broadcaster who thought well of the book was a friend, and so I asked if he would suggest questions to interest Irish readers and radio-listeners. Here they are, addressed to an incomer:
Q.In Ireland, we’re aware of the contrast between an incomer and the native community. We have a long history of sociologists who come and live in a village or town, write about the people there with complete freedom, and then go away, often leaving the people themselves distressed and furious because they don’t recognize themselves in the resulting portrait. Did you have a preconception of yourself as an incomer? If not, how did you fit in? Are there layers of that country, and the lives of the people among whom you lived, to which you’ll never have access?
Q.What kind of response to the book have you had from people you wrote about?
Q.How do you recognize in yourself – or perhaps you do not – the romantic view of nature held by urban intellectuals? For instance, often the local people will look at the landscape and see jobs in it, ways of making a living, while the outsider, the observer, sees beauty, or sublimity, or even personal refuge, without reference to local desires. Would you have anything to say about this kind of dissonance in points of view?
Q.In terms of American citizenship, under which you have the freedom to come and go as you wish in American territory, what is the tension between someone like yourself, who feels free to do so, and people such as you write about, who know themselves as being so intimately part of their own country that they know it as their relative?
Q.Can there be personal relations across cultures, or do you think they are culturally specific?
They are good questions. He was an excellent reader, for I had asked most of them of myself when writing the book. But he had another point to make, about Americans and our presumption. The point was taken.
Last autumn, Bush went to London, invited by the Queen. He was the first American president since Wilson to go to Britain on a State Visit. It was an honor and courtesy extended after the September attacks and by then, an irony beyond measure. I was in Edinburgh at the time, where two major anti-war, anti-Bush demonstrations were held the day before he arrived. Overnight and the next morning, many Scots took the train to London to march in further protest. My landlady told me that a friend of hers, a judge on the high court, had gone to London to join the protestors. It was taken for granted among the people I met that Bush-and-Blair’s war was immoral and/or dangerous to the world.
A few weeks later, I was at an event hosted by the arts councils of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, celebrating the signing of an agreement under which they would work in common for the advancement of Gaelic arts and cultures. Because Archipelago carried the exhibition of LEABHAR MÒR, I was welcomed. I wondered what being American might have represented just then; but earnestly I was told – again and again – “No, I love America. We love America here. God, most of the books of poetry on my shelves are by Americans. Your music, your energy: we love this. I am not anti-American, I’m anti-Bush! I’m anti-Bush and his horrible war!” In separate conversations, with deep emotion, distinguished men begged me to carry this message back to the States:
The demonstrations across the United Kingdom are not anti-American, and we are not anti-American. We are against Bush and against this war. Please, tell this to your fellow citizens.
On February 28, 2004, the day I flew home from Ireland in the company of the decent man from Mayo, an article appeared in The New York Times:
Several years ago Archipelago published a powerful poem by the Iranian feminist poet Simin Behbahani. We offered the original Persian, and a fine translation by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safi.6 Later, I received a query from a professor at the University of Teheran inquiring how she might subscribe to this journal, as several of her students had requested it. I wrote back saying that Archipelago exists on the Web only and is without charge to readers, and suggested she might like to download the pdf edition for printing.
Shall I have another such opportunity? I hope so. Shall I think twice about my government’s strong hand on the editor’s shoulder? Indeed I shall. Both times, I will think: This is censorship, and I will not let them abridge my intellectual freedom.
The American Library Association is ardent and constant in its championship of the First Amendment, free speech, and intellectual freedom. Librarians may be our great defenders against the steady pressure the government brings on our civil liberties. The A.L.A., on their excellent Web site, quote Justice William O. Douglas reminding us of our true vulnerability:
“Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.” 7
I’ve ruminated long on the question of where to live, if not in America, and had considered both the Republic and Northern Ireland; why not? Archipelago in exile – if Bush is elected this year – could be published from either of those countries where digital technologies have been remarkably, successfully developed.
What do I think about when I think about living outside the United States?
I recall September 11, 2001, when the president was absent all day from Washington, our capital. I thought it was from fear, and am not yet dissuaded from the idea, but now read that the man in the White House who used to be in charge of knowing about al Qaida, Richard Clarke, whose recent testimony before the 9/11 Commission reminded us authoritatively how little this administration thought about the clear and present danger to our security, was responsible for keeping Bush flying from airbase to airbase that day. Clarke was seriously, badly wrong about that. The president should have been in Washington. Why did he let a subordinate tell him to stay away?8
I write critically of Bush. For how long will it be legal for me to do so? Archipelago is a non-profit, 501(c)3 organization: within months, such organizations may be forbidden from publishing or disseminating any opinion or even information considered critical of the president or members of congress. I am incredulous – the attacks on our civil liberties just keep coming! – but should not have been. Listen and learn. Then mobilize.
The night before I left Dublin, I went out with a couple of good friends who are well-known poets. We talked politics, as usually happens. The war is an undercurrent in any conversation. The subject arose of Sam Hamill, the poet and publisher of the excellent small press Copper Canyon, who in February 2003, responded to an invitation from Laura Bush to a symposium at the White House on Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes, by calling for poets to protest against the obviously-coming war.10 Laura Bush “postponed” the event; no Eleanor Roosevelt, she. “It doesn’t matter,” I said with some asperity. There came a startled response. I tried to explain: Hamill hasn’t the stature of Robert Lowell confronting Lyndon Johnson at the White House during the Vietnam War. Poets do not have the stature in our present society that they – some, at least, and the best of them – once had. So many of the assembled poems are mediocre; this is inexcusable. More to the point, this president is uneducable; nor would he ever become aware of a protest called “Poets Against the War.” And his wife had not the courage to welcome dissident citizens to our nation’s house.
I was more downhearted than my friends. Four more years of Bush-Cheney meant our democratic system would be changed permanently into the monolith that it has come to resemble, with three branches of the Federal government run by one party, for the benefit of a (wealthy) minority of citizens. This is power on a scale nearly inconceivable on this island, I thought. But I could not convey my meaning. The woman poet was deeply dismayed, and said, softly but in some agitation, that she could not agree: that poetry always matters; that we would be less than human without it, it was unbearable to her to believe otherwise. That the Poets Against the War had helped people see the injustice of the invasion of Iraq, and that their protests had already helped spread opposition to Bush. – She was utterly correct. I think she was sad for me, too, because I’ve been too long away from poetry.
I tried again to explain what I meant; I did not succeed. Her companion, a public man, said, “I don’t see how you can live in Bush’s America.”
Bitterly, more than I could have imagined, I said, “Where else would I live? Do you want another incomer?”
 See “Re-Imagining Ireland,” Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
 David Corn, The Nation, posted 3/25/04
 Frank Rich, “Operation Iraqi Infoganda,” Times March 28
 Adam Liptak, “Treasury Department Is Warning Publishers of the Perils of Criminal Editing of the Enemy,” The New York Times, February 28, 2004 .
 Simin Behbahani, “Banu, Our Lady,” Archipelago Vol. 4, No. 3. The translators set the scene:
The American Library Association argues that parts of the infamous USA PATRIOT Act (2001) are unconstitutional. Their web site is an excellent resource for resistance, issues, and action, including recent changes in the law.
N.B.: just before this issue went live, the Times reported as follows:
 It is well to remember that Republican administrations going back to Nixon have acted counter to traditions of American democracy, and that this habit is still strong. For instance, The Atlantic, in the March 2004 issue, published “The Armageddon Plan,” by James Mann describing decades of planning for change-of-regime in the event of nuclear war, in which planning our Constitutional separation of powers and order of succession were treated lightly, when not dismissed entirely.
 Sam Hamill established a Web site called “Poets Against the War” . The site is well worth visiting and reading in depth, and has useful links to related sites. Here is an excerpt of Hamill’s “A Message for the New Year”:
But see also, Robert Pinsky’s remarks on the subject, in Slate:
An Leabhar Mòr / The Great Book of Gaelic is an international collaborative artwork bringing together the work of more than 200 visual artists, poets and calligraphers from Scotland and Ireland. It has generated an international touring exhibition of 100 artworks, a book publication, a television documentary, a series of BBC radio programmes, a music CD, a schools pack and an events programme. Following the exhibition tour (until 2008) the artworks will be bound into one volume to form a visual anthology and a permanent visitor attraction. See the web site for the book.
An Leabhar Mòr / The Great Book of Gaelic was produced under the direction of Proiseact nan Ealan / The Gaelic Arts Agency, the national development agency for the Gaelic arts, which designs, develops and pilots new arts and cultural initiatives. Their address is 10 Shell Street, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, HS1 2BS, Scotland. Tel: +44 1851 704493 Fax: +44 1851 704734 E-mail email@example.com
Poetry Ireland / Éigse Éireann is the national organisation dedicated to developing, supporting and promoting poetry throughout Ireland. They are a resource and information point for any member of the public with an interest in poetry and they work towards creating opportunities for poets working or living in Ireland. Their address is: 120 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2. Tel: +353 1 671 4632 Fax:+353 1 671 4634
Iomairt Cholm Cille / the Columba Initiative was launched in 1997 to create greater contact and understanding between the Gaelic-speaking communities of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It fosters the chance for these Gaelic-speaking communities to meet each other more often, and in so doing to learn more of the language, heritage and lifestyles of one another. Projects must be at least bipartite, linking Scotland with either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. Priorities are given to projects linking all three regions. Contact information for each office is: ICC Scotland: Tel +44 (0) 1471 888590, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. ICC Northern Ireland: Tel +44 (0)2890 238293, e-mail email@example.com. ICC Republic of Ireland: Tel +353 (0)91 503278, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Re-Imagining Ireland was held May 7-10, 2003, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The gathering, opened by President Mary McAleese of Ireland, met to explore the meaning of Ireland for the world as a modern and prosperous, yet traditional, culture. Participants – more than 100 journalists, writers, politicians, artists, scholars, musicians, and citizen activists, most of them from Ireland – discussed how the Ireland of the future could emerge as a compassionate and vital society that created itself anew, while preserving the strengths of its heritage. Re-Imagining Ireland was produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
A bound version of An Leabhar Mòr containing all 100 poems in Gaelic and English and 100 artworks is published in hard and soft cover by Canongate , 14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE, Scotland. See: The Great Book of Gaelic.
The exhibition shown in Archipelago is by courtesy and with permission of the Editors and of Proiseact nan Ealan, whose generous assistance we gratefully acknowledge.
Archipelago would like to acknowledge warmly and with gratitude financial support from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy and Iomairt Cholmcille/The Columba Initiative for the production of the exhibition and accompanying CD-ROM.
Katherine McNamara, NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, A Journey into the Interior of Alaska (Mercury House , 2001)
The Only God Is the God of War, Vol. 7, No. 3.
Where Are the Weapons?, Vol. 7, No. 2.
Patriotism and the Right of Free Speech in Wartime, Vol. 7, No. 1.
A Year in Washington, Vol. 6, Nos. 3/4
Lies, Damn Lies, Vol. 6, No. 2
The Colossus, Vol. 6, No. 1
The Bear, Vol. 5 No. 4
Sasha Choi Goes Home, Vol. 5, No. 3
Sasha Choi in America,Vol. 5, No. 1
A Local Habitation and A Name, Vol. 5, No. 1
The Blank Page, Vol. 4, No. 4
The Poem of the Grand Inquisitor, Vol. 4, No. 3
On the Marionette Theater, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2
The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4
Folly, Love, St. Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3
On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2
Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1
A Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4
On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3
Fantastic Design, with Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1
Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4
The Devil’s Dictionary; Economics for Poets, Vol. 1, No. 3
Hecuba in New York; Déformation Professionnelle, Vol. 1, No. 2
Art, Capitalist Relations, and Publishing on the Web, Vol. 1, No. 1