Saturday 15 June 2024

Singing Lessons

As my daughter and I travelled home over the Wicklow Mountains, our voices echoed between the cliffs, turning the heads of passing sheep as we rolled into the wooded hollows below. She knows these songs by heart from years of lullabies and sing-alongs since, but doesn’t yet realize that children like her might have sung the same songs on the same paths hundreds of years ago.

The water is wide, I cannot cross over . . .
Neither have I the wings to fly . . .

We would turn the heads of most humans, too, these days; most people never sing aloud anymore, except meekly in church, and snicker at those who do. Older people, though, can remember people whistling as they swept the streets, everyone singing at the pub, neighbours gathering at each other’s homes in the evenings to sing, or people gathering around a deathbed to caoin. * This constant singing of songs our ancestors knew let traditions thrive and wisdom accumulate through the generations.

Today we cannot choose to avoid the latest hits; even here they blast from loudspeakers in buses, restaurants, gas stations, and the earphones of the kid sitting next to you, cranked up so loudly you can recognize the song. The problem is that after many years of this, we have lost touch with what music is for. For thousands of years, in every part of the world that I know of, songs were made to be sung by ordinary voices in communion, and they told the basic stories of the human condition.

Families here had their own sets of carols for any number of seasons or tasks. They told us who their people were and why this day was different. They kept the rhythms of churns and scythes, of tanneries and looms, and grew and changed as they were passed on. They were sung secretly about the days when earthly kings would be overthrown, by farmers who feared a rapping at the winter door.

The summertime has come, and the trees are sweetly blooming, I hear my daughter sing idly to herself, And the wild mountain thyme grows around the purple heather. . . .

The older the song, though, the more questions my daughter has, and the more I’m reminded of why I teach them to her.

Tell her to buy me an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand . . .
Tell her to harvest with a sickle of leather, and bind the crop with a rope of heather.
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt without any seams or needlework . . .
Tell her to wash it in yonder well, where water ne’er sprung nor rain ever fell . . .
. . . then she’ll be a true love of mine.

“Why are all those jobs impossible?” she asked. 

How do you know they’re impossible? I answered. 

“Well, you can’t really make a shirt without seams,” she said. 

You’re right, I said, and you can’t wash it in a dry well. You can get an acre of beach below the seaweed strand, but it disappears with the tide. The song is meant as a kind of joke, I explained—it’s a love spell, but it’s a sarcastic one.

“Is it a potion?” she asked, “and the herbs are the other ingredients?”

Yes, I said, but the potion will never work, because you can never do those impossible things, or if you can, they’re not worth it. And you can’t get someone to love you if she doesn’t, and if you can, you shouldn’t. Most dreams will be like that, I tell her; they’re not fun anymore up close.

That, I think, is what these songs were for—teaching lessons we abandoned when everything became cheap and fast and easily discarded. They do not tell us that we can accomplish anything if we believe in ourselves, or that we deserve to follow our hearts. They tell us our lives are brief and sad and funny, subject to injustice and bound by duty. They pass down, in a way spoken words cannot, our forbears’ grief and gratitude, their violence and remorse, their comfort and joy.

Sometimes I try to explain these things to her in common language, and her spirit is willing to learn, but her flesh is nine years old. So we go back to singing the old songs, whose lessons, I hope, she stores inside like seeds awaiting the spring.  


 * In Irish, a grieving wail. Pronounced keen.

Photo: Musicians celebrating Wren Day in our local woods.

Saturday 1 June 2024

The World Made By Hand

Apologies for not posting in a while; there's been a lot going on. I'll try to be more regular now. 

In the cellar of my parent’s house sit a series of tools that have served my father and grandfather and great-grandfather, for they were created before the throwaway world was conceived. They were created for a world of carpenters, like my great-grandfather, or like the saddlers, thatchers, farriers, smiths, cobblers and builders that I could still find in rural Ireland. They were made for a nation of craftsmen, of people who bore in themselves the power that all humans once had, to reshape wood and hide and stone into a human landscape. It was a world that humans had known and made and remade through the ages of the world, until less than a century ago.

I wrote a few months ago about the lost world of craftsmen, and some responded that people back then had no choices in life, and that’s true if you, again, compare the richest today to the poorest then. Census records from the late 1800s, though, show not just the basic crafts I’ve mentioned, but around 1,500 job titles: ale tunners, archil makers, battures, bozzlers, camlets, clouters, arbalesters, brachygraphers, culvers, danters, and many others just in the first few letters of the alphabet. They represent a way of life so alien to most of us that even when we look up the definition we still don’t understand what they did. A modern person can read on their screen that a “garthman” was the proprietor of a weir, but they’d need to learn what a weir was, and why people depended on them, especially during Lent.

All the tasks we unthinkingly relegate to machines today were once done by people, so most people’s jobs had obvious value; everyone needed shoes, so everyone needed a cordwainer to make them and a cobbler to fix them. Everyone needed tailors for their clothes, haberdashers or milliners for their hats, butchers to cut their meat and grocers for their flour, masons and carpenters for their homes. Everyone needed publicans to serve the beer on Saturday night and priests to forgive them the next morning. When they died they needed carvers of headstones.

There was little chance for a carpenter to become a CEO, but there is little chance you will become a CEO either. If you were a carpenter, though, you had a status and an identity no outsourcing or artificial intelligence could take away. Even if you lost your physical ability with age or accident, you could mentor others, for each craftsman represented a distillation of centuries of experience, of lore and secrets.

“A man who was a carpenter was more than a man,”  Irish journalist John Waters wrote in his book Bring Back the Bad Roads. “A woman qualified as a dressmaker was someone from whom an opinon emanated in a new way, seen to be born of a depth of endeavour and application to reality that made her worth listening to.”

All the crafts disappeared in a generation or two – the coopers, wrights, milliners, cordwainers and thousands more. All the stories handed down through generations disappeared in a few generations, until we all know only the same few pop-culture stories. Almost all the apprenticeships, lodges, clubs, co-ops and guilds disappeared, in Ireland and elsewhere. We are the survivors wandering the ruins of a post-apocalyptic society, but it has been a cultural apocalypse, a mass forgetting, and it’s still going on.

When I walk around Dublin today, or any city that has buildings or churches built before the fossil-fuel window, I see breathtaking architecture that spans the ages, church sculptures that shape marble like silk, art that ennobles and inspires, all works that – if they are not demolished, as many have been – are likely to outlast all our fragile modern architecture. These buildings used to house clubs and unions and libraries and schools that taught philosophy, literature and democracy. They survived unimaginable hardship to overthrow an empire and create a free, healthy and safe society.

I realise that we could not build some of these churches now; the crafts to create them are forgotten, along with the conviction to devote a life to them, and the social organisation, and the families to support the craftsmen, and the relationships between men and women needed to start families to create successors to these trades and ... everything. The entire human infrastructure.

And I think: None of this world could have been built by the people now living in it.


Photo: My daughter making sure we stayed warm at night.