Our Part To Murmur Name Upon Name: Irish History in Song and Poetry

“Our part to murmur name upon name” – William Butler Yeats, “Easter 1916”      

Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland; public domain

In college, we preferred William Butler Yeats’ fairy and esoteric poetry.  We instinctively knew that the world was “more full of weeping” than we could understand. In our own way we dreaded “the monstrous crying of the wind” even if for us it was only real-life after graduation. His “widening gyre” sounded cool if incomprehensible; “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” was fun to chant; while “what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” was delightfully subversive.  His political poems were opaque to us.

After college, I read for pleasure and self-improvement.  I learned some Irish history (not taught in schools). Last year I re-read Yeats and remarked to a friend that “he makes so much more sense if you know Irish history.”  In his poem “Easter, 1916,” Yeats deems that it’s “heaven’s part” to weigh the suffering of the Irish people, while “our part [is] to murmur name upon name.”

That is what the The Wolfe Tones did in their concert at the Commodore Barry Irish Center in Philadelphia on March 6. The night was a celebration and remembrance of Irish patriots. The best part for me, a professional librarian and amateur historian, was the slide show of primary source photos and documents. Historical images were projected on a screen behind the band as they played. Images of the 1916 Proclamation joined Belfast and Derry murals; photos of Dublin’s GPO under siege were interspersed with breathtaking views of The Cliffs of Moher and the Powerscourt waterfall; and photos of many of the men being remembered accompanied the songs of their valor.  As the band sang and played, I realized I had more history yet to learn.

Plaque in the GPO (General Post Office), Dublin, commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising

Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin











These are some of the songs that were sung that night, and the history behind them:

“The Foggy Dew” commemorates the 1916 Easter Rising against the backdrop of W.W.I. Many Irishmen refused to fight for England against the Central Powers when their own beloved Ireland was not free.  The 1500 patriots who fought for Irish independence on Easter Monday 1916 are remembered in this song:

“But the bravest fell, and the requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Eastertide in the springing of the year
And the world did gaze, in deep amaze, at those fearless men, but few
Who bore the fight that freedom’s light might shine through the foggy dew.”         

“Sean South of Garryowen” tells this tale: On New Year’s Day 1957, the I.R.A. raided the Royal Ulster Constabulary barracks in Brookeborough, Northern Ireland.  Two men, including South, died. (O’Hanlon is commemorated in the song “Patriot Games.”) This song proclaims:

 “They have gone to join that gallant band
Of Plunkett, Pearse and Tone
A martyr for old Ireland

Sean South from Garryowen.”

P.S. I heard he wasn’t from Garryowen.

Monument to South and O’Hanlon in Moane’s Cross, Fermanagh; CC 2.0

Brian Warfield called for respectful silence during “Joe McDonnell.” McDonnell participated and died in the 1981 hunger strike in Long Kesh/H-Maze prison protesting the prison conditions.  I.R.A. prisoners demanded the right to be treated like prisoners of war and not criminals; including the right to wear their own clothes and not a prison uniform, and the right to be exempt from prison labor.  He went without food for 61 days and died on July 8, 1981. He was buried in Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast next to Bobby Sands and other compatriots.  The lyrics to Joe McDonnell famously proclaim:

 “And you dare to call me a terrorist
While you looked down your gun
When I think of all the deeds that you had done
You had plundered many nations; divided many lands
You had terrorized their peoples you ruled with an iron hand
And you brought this reign of terror to my land.”

The night wasn’t all protest songs; the band did a fine job balancing love songs and war songs; fast songs and reflective songs.  The 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Celtic Football Club was remembered in their rousing “Celtic Symphony,” and the beauty of Ireland was celebrated in “The Cliffs of Moher.”

The Cliffs of Moher

Because Irish history isn’t taught in schools, we learn it only through poetry and song. I thank the Wolfe Tones for their music, the excellent slideshow, and for the impetus for encouraging me to delve more deeply into 20th Century Irish history. And I honor those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom.


Bonus Materials

Easter 1916 website and Easter Rising online exhibit and photo gallery from Century Ireland. Great documentary photos!

“Patrick Pearse: One of Ireland’s Noblest Martyrs” from Century Ireland. (November 17, 1917.)

Brian Warfield of The Wolfe Tones writes about The Great Hunger (The Great Irish Famine) and The 1916 Easter Rising.

Poems referenced in the first paragraph:

“for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” is from Yeats’ “The Stolen Child”

“the monstrous crying of the wind” is from Yeats’ “To A Child Dancing In the Wind”

“widening gyre;” “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” “what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” are all quotes from Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”


A Wild, Watery Ride [Book Review]

I take deep pleasure in a well-crafted mid-grade adventure reminiscent of a wonder tale. The Chronicles of Narnia is first in this genre. A Wrinkle in Time is another. Portal-fantasy stories are generally a child’s first introduction to fantasy literature. With one foot in the “real world” and one in an alternate realm, handled adeptly, the fantasy world informs the real world, and lessons learned in the otherworld provide the key to problem-solving the protagonist’s real-world problems.

K.E. Ormsbee’s The Water and the Wild is one such tale.

With a title alluding to Yeats’ famous poem, which is excerpted in the novel’s epigraph, the presence of the fairy realm is a given (although presumably not for young readers).  The magical apple tree in orphan Lottie Fiske’s boardinghouse yard is the source of improbable (i.e. magically-delivered) birthday presents and the entrance to the adjoining world of New Albion.

In New Albion, she meets the secret letter-writer and gift-giver, Mr. Wilfer, who promises a cure for her best friend Eliot Walsch’s terminal illness. But before she can return home with the Otherwise Improbable healing potion and save her friend, Mr. Wilfer is accused of treason. His children Oliver and Adelaide, and their friend Fife Dulcet, join Lottie to embark on a journey through faerie to save Mr. Wilfer and secure the Otherwise Improbable. Lottie discovers she is the Heir of Fiske, daughter of a sprite mother and human father, and prophesied to retake the Southerly throne.

Their journeys take the children through Wisp Territory, and across the treacherous River Lissome into dangerous Southerly territory. As in the best quest journeys and hero tales, Lottie learns about friendship, loyalty, bravery, and leadership on the way.

The well-drawn setting, both unique and reminiscent, evokes all the charm, whimsy—and danger—of the faerie mythos.  The entire book is equally as charming. Mr. Wilfer’s son Oliver speaks mostly in poetic quotations, footnoted and referenced for the inquiring reader, and his bird-companion, similar to a familiar, is named Keats after the human poet.  (Years from now, someday in college, a freshman will realize they first encountered Donne, Frost, Blake, Whitman, and others in this childhood favorite.)  Destined to become a classic, The Water and the Wild is followed by a 2016 sequel, The Doorway and the Deep.


Ormsbee, K.E. The Water and the Wild. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015.

431 pages.

My Red Shoes

Is there power in the color red?

Are red shoes inherently magical?

I put on my new mud-stomping, shorter-than-Wellingtons, prettier-than-duck-shoes sloggers, and suddenly, I wanted to dance.

I’m no Dorothy. I din’t inherit through the death of a witch. I bought them for walking our dog in our mud-pit of a backyard. All winter long it has snowed and melted, and rained, and snowed and melted again until our yard resembles gruel. I wanted to dance across the kitchen tiles, shaking mud from my soles.

I wanted to dance like Hans Christian Anderson’s bewitched heroine, who envied the princess with red Morocco shoes. The poor girl’s shoes were purchased for her Confirmation, and when the sacred becomes repurposed for the secular, her pretty red dancing shoes took on a mind of their own, and

“when she wanted to go to the right, the shoes danced to the left, and when she wanted to dance up the room, the shoes danced down the room, down the stairs through the street, and out through the gates of the town. She danced, and was obliged to dance, far out into the dark wood. . .”

The only remedy for Anderson’s grim heroine was amputation.

I wanted to dance like Anne Sexton’s The Red Shoes, “. . . . wound up like a cobra that sees you” that “could not listen” and “could not stop.”

I was saved by the mud.The mud which fashioned Adam. The earth which cradles our dead. The mud and the dog crap in our grass-bare back yard keep me humble. I poke the black rubber soles with a toothpick and paper towel over the trash can to dislodge the flattened feces. I rinse the shoes. I wash my hands.

I escape the curse, the compulsion.

I am only the princess of dog poop.


Other Reflections on Red Shoes

The Curse of the Red Shoes: Dancing Manias of the Middle Ages by Miss Jessel. April 4, 2013 on The Haunted Palace: History, Folklore, and the Supernatural [blog]

Fairy Tale Fridays: The Red Shoes by Juli McLoone. March 20 2015 on Beyond the Reading Room from the University of Michigan Library.

Guilt and the Lack of Social Mobility by Mari Ness. May 4, 2017 on Tor.com

The Red Shoes: A Dark Faery Tale of Compulsion and Addiction by Vivienne Tuffnell. March 26, 2011 on Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking [blog]

Why So Fascinating, Red Shoes? by Anna Sutton. September 28, 2011. The Australian Ballet.

“The Red Shoes: 1948 movie: notes from the Cannes Film Festival and the Internet Movie Database

“The Red Shoes” 2009 movie. from the Internet Movie Database

Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from the 1929 movie “The Wizard of Oz” Photo by RadioFan at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13824876

Here There Be Dragons [Book Review]

          Caroline McAlister’s John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien is a picture book biography for the whole family. McAlister takes the reader through Tolkien’s youth, war service, and career to and through his initial penning of those classic words, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.”

The cadence, pacing, and echoes (repetition with a twist) of the text is splendid, as in this account of Tolkien’s war experiences: “It was then that he most needed dragons. But, of course, there were no dragons on the battlefield—only ugly machines belching flames.”

Eliza Wheeler’s illustrations, only slightly too earnest or immature, aptly capture the text, especially the full-page expanses.

“At school John Ronald made good friends. The boys held secret parties in the library with tea and biscuits. The librarian scolded them for dropping crumbs on her books.”

These pictures also serve to skillfully extend whatever the reader has already encountered of Hobbitdom by offering homage, not imitation or attempted re-creation, of well-known  images of hobbits, dwarves, wizards, and the dragon Smaug.  Proto-Elvish and other invented languages also delightfully populate the art, as in the image of John Ronald as a soldier, above.

The author and illustrator notes provide interest to older readers, including adults, thoroughly informing and delighting. Artwork reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts beautifully grace the endpapers.

5 crocks of gold all around to McAlister’s and Wheeler’s expertly crafted tome.

McAlister, Caroline and Wheeler, Eliza. John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R.Tolkien. N.Y.: Roaring Brook Press, 2017.

The World-Pervading God: A Celtic Christmas Poem

That night the star shown

Was born the Shepherd of the Flock,

Of the Virgin of the hundred charms;

            The Mary Mother.

The Trinity eternal by her side,

In the manger cold and lowly.

Come and give tithes of thy means

            To the Healing Man.


Christ healing the paralytic. “Rise! Take up thy bed and walk” From the original painting by Murillo. Creative Commons Europeana Collection

The foam-white breastling beloved,

Without one home in the world,

The tender holy Babe forth driven,


Madonna of the Green Cushion; Madonna del Cuscino Verde, 1507-10 By Andrea Solari, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30208586

Ye three angels of power,

Come ye, come ye down;

To the Christ of the people

            Give ye salutation.

Angels Pray at the Birth of Christ. Nativity scene on Christmas card showing Mary and Joseph in the stable with the Christ child surrounded by angels with shepherds looking on and the star of Bethlehem in the background. Chromolithograph. Creative Commons, Europeana Collection

Kiss ye His hands,

Dry ye his feet

With the hair of your heads;

And O! Thou world-prevading God,

And ye, Jesu, Michael, Mary,

            Do not forsake us.

Folio from Walters manuscript W.106. By William de Brailes – Walters Art Museum; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18850973

From the Carmina Gadelica; Scottish oral tradition, collected by Alexander Carmichael in the late 19th Century.

The title given in Carmichael’s collection is “The Shepherd of the Flock Was Born” but I think mine is better. God–Christ–the God-Man–the Healing Man– pervades our world. I like Macmillan’s definition of pervade: “to spread through the whole of something and become a very obvious feature of it.”

This Christmas and always, may the Healing Man pervade our hearts and lives.



A Harrowing Thriller [Book Review of Under The Harrow]

Under The Harrow was the best book I read this year.  (Copyright 2016; I make no pretensions to timeliness.)

            This psychological thriller was literally page-turning; I finished it in a night. Who brutally attached Nora’s sister Rachel fifteen years ago? Who murdered her now? Are the two incidents related?

Nora still regrets refusing to walk her sister home that night in their teen years when Rachel was attacked.  Similarly, if she’d caught an earlier train from London, her sister wouldn’t have been alone.  Nora’s keen insight (or is it her imagination?) susses out her sister’s secret lover—a married man—as the first of many clues the local rural police are slow to find. Unlike many civilian-helps-the-police-solve-the-crime thrillers, Nora isn’t a wannabe Nancy Drew, she is a woman both obsessed and determined.

On the other hand, as the police investigation continues, they reveal to Nora previously unknown details about her sister.  Her sister’s dog wasn’t a rescue pet as she claimed, but an animal bred for defense. And why was Rachel planning on moving? The sister Nora thought she knew becomes a cipher.

This braided narrative alternates a present-day narrative with the sisters’ teen years to slowly reveal how the past informs the present.  The novel deftly uses first-person present-tense viewpoint to build immediacy and suspense. Author Flynn Berry makes skilled and ample use of the authorial art of refusing to blatantly state the soon-to-be-obvious as a way of involving—compelling— the reader.  The reader must piece together who Nora and Rachel are and their relationship to each other. I look forward to re-reading this, to ‘back-read’ it, in order to piece together all the dropped clues.

The suspense is harrowing. Reading engaged my adrenaline; my heart pounded in my chest. Unexpectedly, Nora finds herself a suspect.

What Does It Mean to be Under The Harrow?

I wasn’t familiar with the phrase “under the harrow,” so I researched it. Online dictionaries inform that a harrow is a farm implement like a many-spiked plow.  Being caught beneath a harrow would be extremely painful. “Under the harrow” means feeling “distress” and experiencing “great affliction.” In Rudyard Kipling’s 1886 poem “Pagett M.P.,” he wrote, “The toad beneath the harrow knows / Exactly where each tooth-point goes.” Here, Berry takes her title from an epigraph out of C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed: “Come, what do we gain by evasions? We are under the harrow and can’t escape.”

Rachel wasn’t able to escape her murderer. Will Nora? Will she be able to face her grief, to come to terms with her fears and her regrets? An extremely well-crafted, suspenseful thriller, even more impressive for being Berry’s first novel. An unexpected tour-de-force.


Berry, Flynn. Under the Harrow. N.Y. Penguin, 2016.

Nicholas! Saint Nicholas! Love Can Never End: Wisdom From Hans Brinker

My friend thinks I hate Santa Claus. Not true. I hate Christmas music in November; I hate Santa songs which eclipse, or don’t even mention, Jesus.

In the Lutheran tradition, at least in my particular church, we didn’t play Christmas music until December 24.  The first three weeks of December are about Advent, about anticipation, about waiting.  Our instant-satisfaction society doesn’t like to wait.

In the Netherlands, I’m told, people don’t much care for the early arrival of Santa.  They don’t like Santa eclipsing Sinterklass, their own local/ethnic tradition.  Dutch children celebrate by putting a shoe near a fireplace or windowsill “and sing Sinterklaas songs. They hope that Sinterklaas will come during the night with some presents. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse, they will be left some sweets or small presents.”

The Arrival of St Nicholas; woodcut; 1840. (nl) De intocht van Sint-Nicolaas – https://www.europeana.eu/portal/record/90402/RP_P_OB_204_441.html. Rijksmuseum –  Public Domain

Mary Mapes Dodge’s classic children’s novel Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates has an example of one of these songs in honor of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, merchants, and children. Children sailing on an ice-boat sing:

Friend of sailors, and of children!

Double claim have we,

As in youthful joy we’re sailing,

O’er a frozen sea!

Nicholas! Saint Nicholas!

Let us sing to thee. . . .

In 2008 Amsterdam an advertising agency in Amsterdam gave away Sinterklass figures with a raised fist to protest premature arrival of Santa.  I love it! Where can I get one? (Almost as good as Bishop Nicholas of Myra slapping the heretic Arius.) Can I hand them out to store managers who decorate before Thanksgiving?

Detail of a late medieval Greek Orthodox icon showing Saint Nicholas of Myra slapping Arius at the First Council of Nicaea; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70491617

A Dutch greeting card company, Boomerang, also features some good-natured Sinterklaas versus Santa cards.

Meanwhile, Mary Mapes Dodge’s characters continue to sing:

While through wintry air we’re rushing

As our voices blend,

Are you near us? Do you hear us,

Nicholas our friend?

Nicholas! Saint Nicholas!

Love can never end. . .

            Love can never end.

            Many of us have heard the tale of St. Nicholas saving three poor daughters from prostitution by throwing a bag of coins through their window to fund their dowries. In the Netherlands they put out shoes to remember his generosity; in America, we have stockings.

Saint Nicholas of Myra and Bari. Watercolour painting by M. Brindley, 1881; https://www.europeana.eu

“Christmas is love” is a little too sappy “Hallmark Movie” for me.

But maybe as we’re battling the shopping crowds and hustling to obligatory holiday parties on our way to commemorate the birth of the One who is love, we could remember those other famous words of Christ: to love our neighbor; and love our enemies.

Nicholas! Saint Nicholas!

Love can never end. . .


Christmas in the Netherlands

Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates

Rescuing St. Nicholas from Santa Claus

Who Is Saint Nicholas?