The Many Coloured Land

THE MANY-COLOURED LAND: A Return to IrelandTHE MANY-COLOURED LAND: A Return to Ireland by Christopher J. Koch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Culture and its erosion, along with poetic sensibility, are examined through descriptions of Ireland, the author’s family history and his experience of the Irish heritage in Australia.

The opening chapters cover Koch’s background and early life in Tasmania. One of his maternal great-great-grandmothers was of patrician Ascendancy stock (he will ultimately find whose old family home in ruins, while its name has been given to a new housing estate). Another was a convict: he recounts her passage to and spirited life in the new country, speculating on the unknown details. In the next section, he tells how the harsh legacy of Irish Catholicism flavoured the schooling in life he received from the Christian Brothers. But he was also in touch with his Protestant heritage, and at university discovered the stories of gentlemanly Irish rebels exiled to Tasmania after 1848.

He visited Ireland in his youth, but the book is mainly about his subsequent trip, in mature years, with a musician friend in the year 2000.

By this stage we have already encountered his aversion to manufactured mass culture – the “torment of piped music on buses” being a case in point. But it is most clearly epitomised by the pathetic scene with obese children during a stop-over in Dubai. “The enclosed suburban shopping malls of the West have evolved and flowered on the equator into whole hermetic citadels”, a “machine-chilled hive” that “resounds with American pop music, piped through loud-speakers: here as everywhere on earth… the inescapable accompaniment to life in a public space”.

Dublin on his first trip in the 1950s had been a place of “strange echoing lanes that ran into the dark nineteenth century… urchins in braces and waistcoats and quiet, mysterious little bars” – filled with the spirt of James Joyce, even though this books were frowned on and hard to obtain. In today’s city, he discovers that James Joyce features everywhere – in cardboard cutouts, displays with Ulysses maps of Dublin: a “tourist logo” in a city which his spirit no longer inhabits.

Traditional Ireland, especially in the west, is a besieged bastion against such cultural impoverishment. People in traditional west Ireland pubs “simply sing when the spirit moves them, and are listened to respectfully. This is how it must have been once in England and Australia, until somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century. Then it was lost, as the oral culture was lost.” Such singing in an Australian bar lounge “would cause laughter or embarrassment or both.”

Ireland also borders, at many points, on Faery. Sometimes even in Dublin itself. “The tide is out; black flats of mud extend below the wall, and the seagulls wheel and squabble there… birds that always seem the same birds, birds that exist outside Time.”

“High, very high, Atlantic gulls wheel in the air above the ridge, and their cold, hungry cries come down to me… here are the territories of the Sidhe. Looking ahead up the road I recognise them immediately.” Certain landscapes seen in Tasmania were “its heralds: its distant, imperfect variations… Now, here is the true rise, and its grass grows with an uncanny tinge of gold… Ireland has a legendary frontier. There, where the real world ends, the four other worlds begin: the world of the Sidhe, the Many-Coloured Land, the Land of Wonder, and the Land of Promise. Here at Howth, I have come to the no-man’s-land between. I know better, though, than to try and cross it.”

But TV radio and IT seal this frontier, offering in instead “the knowledge and pseudo-knowledge and vices and despair of Dublin, London and New York. And the Danaan voices fade.”

“This post-Christian era in the West, despite its desertion of rationalism and its automatic reverence for alien religions, is not one that’s open to Faery, as Yeats and his circle were; as Keats was, and Coleridge, and Shakespeare. The idea of Faery has become absurd: an infantile whimsy, of little interest even to the juveniles of the computer age, who are preoccupied instead by pseudo-legendary warriors fighting and maiming in those screen-bound computer games… Legend, exploited and reinvented in the animation studios Hollywood and Tokyo, is supremely fashionable, and makes money. But not Faery; not those spirits in trees and streams and hills that the Greeks knew, and the Elizabethans, and even the Victorians.” Faery is linked to Beauty, which “as a grail to be pursued is a notion that’s absent from the West’s postmodern salons, and even from poetry, since Beauty and studied irony make poor companions”.

Sidhe is Gaelic for both ‘faery’ and ‘wind’. He quotes Yeats:

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.

“I’d always imagined that the Irish bogs would be dreary,” he writes. “The reverse is true. They’re very beautiful; or rather, they’re beautiful if your spirit is of a kind to be drawn by open, lonely moorland or by waste places that retreat into inscrutable distance. Such places resonate with a high, single note of mystery: a singing that’s only just audible, like wind in a wire. Their melancholy quiet is filled with waiting; with the nearby presence of something remarkable, just beyond the reach of the eye and the mind. Here on the edge of the boglands, I understand why a knowledge of the Otherworld was always so strong among the Irish.” But it is “now in danger of being lost – withered and stunted by the rays of our video machines, and the babble of the global culture.”

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