A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Winter 2020 / VOL. 20 ISSUE 1
Bards Gather at Irish Fest Lakefront for Fun and Verse
By: Elliot O. Lipchik
Milwaukee Irish Fest Poetry Editor
Every summer, crowds gather at the Milwaukee lakefront for the much-anticipated Irish Fest. Many folks are dressed in green, some in kilts and costumes, coming from far and wide, all grateful for the sunny weather and proud to share in the love of Irish culture. There is music, traditional dance and poetry, as well as parades, Gaelic lessons, Irish hound training lessons and culinary enticements of all sorts. No wonder many considered it the best fest of the summer!
The following are among the literary presenters I chatted delightfully with during this Gathering of the Bards.
Ciaran Cannon, Ireland’s Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade emphasized the importance of the Irish diaspora of 70 million people to the world economy. Half of this number resides in the United States, he said, proudly pointing out that Ireland spends $15 million a year to help needy people of Irish descent outside of Ireland. Cannon explained that Ireland, including the North, has the most booming economy in Europe. Forty flights from the US to Ireland daily and a steady flow of Americans of Irish descent moving back to Ireland attest to this.
Of course, as a member of the Irish government, he optimistically predicted that after Brexit, no trade problems or barriers will exist between the North and the Republic. Cannon’s main goal in his travels around the world is to build up connections and support for Ireland. That he does well , indeed, with his charming Irish accent and wit.
Prof. Roth, of non-Irish heritage, teaches English and Irish literature at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. In her presentation, “The Green Fairy-Faith of W.B. Yeats,” she explained how this great poet believed in fairies and utilized them in his political philosophy and poetry. Yeats drew on Irish fairy myths to help foster an Irish literary revival in the late 1800s, she explained. According to Roth, Yeats wanted to reconnect Irish cultural identity and pride to its heroic past in which fairies played a significant role. Fairies, in this context, were not only helpful, sweet and benign, but also fierce, mean and evil. They were thought to be one of the sources of sickness, death and evil deeds like the theft of babies. Yeats belonged to the “Order of the Golden Dawn,” a society furthering the belief in Ireland’s mythical past and recording many past myths. A “Fairy Investigative Society” still survives into the 21st century.
Roth gave examples from later literature about the influence of the myths of Irish fairies. For example, Shakespeare’s Puck is assumed to be based on a mean Irish fairy. In J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Tinkerbell is really an evil fairy because she wants to kill heroine Wendy. Noted author Conan Doyle’s works also have evidence of his belief in fairies.
The professor also explained that Yeats encountered much criticism for his focus on fairies. W.H. Auden wrote in Another Time that Yeats was “silly.” Other authors also lampooned Yeats for his beliefs. However, Yeat’s main purpose was indicative of a nationalistic fervor to spur a resurgence of Irish pride. To him, the fairies were archetypes for understanding Irish society and culture.
Michael Mahar is head of the Irish Fest Poetry Committee which annually chooses winners of the festival’s two poetry contests. One of the awards, the Donn Goodwin Poetry Award, now in its 26th years, was named after a Wisconsin poet, educator and publisher who inspired young poets with his love of poetry. The other award, the Joseph Gahagan Prize, is named for a man who directed the poetry events at Irish Fest for many years.
Mahar is a student of poetry and both of his great-grand parents came from Ireland. His own strong Irish background made that natural for him, along with the many trips to Ireland which his father took with the family. His involvement with Irish Fest began while he was studying the Irish language at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His studies of Irish and Latin continues. Mahar’s family is also deep into their Irishness. His eldest started Irish dancing as a youngster and progressed to a professional dance career, albeit mostly modern. Another son is an English professor. The beer we enjoyed together at Irish Fest was an event highlight.
Reamonn O’Ciarain is a professor at the University of Armagh, Northern Ireland, the ancient and first capitol of Ireland. He is noted for having detailed the importance to Irish literature of the ancient myth of the hero Cuchulainn. O’Cairain believes that we all enter mythology when we sleep and dream. He explained how the tradition of the written Irish myths started in the fifth century with the peaceful integration of Christianity into Ireland, and after Saint Patrick’s recording of legends from the Druids he invited into the Church.
O’Ciarain pointed out that many legends from other countries are based on earlier Irish ones. For example, the English Lancelot and Guinevere of Camelot, are based on Cuchulainn and Emir, his wife and first love.
In terms of Cuchulainn, Prof. O’Ciarain pointed out how the young mythological hero successfully defended his province against invaders while using only a sling. On the other hand, Cuchulainn is said to have turned into a ruthless killer of not only enemies, but also anyone who did him wrong, even someone who woke him too early from a healing sleep. There are many description and interpretations of this semi-divine hero. The following poem by Joseph Gahagan is just one example:
The Reconstruction of Cuchulainn
I saw you Cuchulainn
waiting for the Clark Street El.
You were hunched up in disguise, wrapped
in an old blue parka,
White Sox cap pulled down on your head.
You caught and cursed the grey winter sky with
a breath that smelled of too much beer.
I saw you again Cuchulainn
with a green card in your hand,
telling the foreman of how you worked
with stone back home,
a highly recommended boy with a pocket
full of druid references,
each letter chiseled in careful ogham script.
I saw you Cuchulainn
marching down Dearborn Street
behind Mayor Daley on the seventeenth of March,
your party badge all shined and polished,
and I knew Cuchulainn
that not even Fergus had ever been so well served.
I saw you Cuchulainn
stumbling at night in your fallen glory
along Archer Avenue,
leaving each bar spinning in fear
of your ashen club,
the likes of which no local GAA team had ever seen.
I saw you Cuchulainn
driving your chariot down the Kennedy Expressway
under the early morning sky. The sparks
from the hooves of your wild steeds sending funnels
of flame upwards,
rising to the stars with your fierce cry
of agony and delight.
I saw you Cuchulainn in a thousand movies and television
shows, boasting of your fearless deeds and feats.
I saw you Cuchulainn with the magic of your
Gae Bolga and the beauty of your Salmon Leap,
now so long forgotten,
eclipsed by electron beams and laser guns
and I saw the fear in your eyes.
I saw you many times since Cuchulainn,
still the beardless youth with a murdering sling,
too wild to be understood and
too angry to say why.
I once saw your name Cuchulainn
scrawled on the playground wall,
wedged between “rap rules” and “Jesus saves”
and I knew then Cuchulainn, that your spasmodic fury
would forever stalk throughout the world.
I saw you one last time Cuchulainn
standing in the summer rain at Mount Olivet
your hands turned to fists of marbled anger
as you wept over the grave of Studs Lonigan.
I saw you Cuchulainn and prayed the world
to take mercy on your bewildered soul.