Monday 18 December 2017

Another Jewish suitcase in another town

DEclan Lynch

The Story of the Jews (BBC2)

Raj in the Rain (RTE1)

The Woman who Walked Across America (TG4)

NEAR the end of the second episode of his magnificent series The Story of the Jews, Simon Schama is strolling through the synagogue in Venice. It is situated in a part of the city that gave us the word 'ghetto', and yet to Schama this feels more like a place of refuge.

He describes it something like this: "I have the strangest sense of having been here before, hundreds of years ago. It's a delusion, I know, but Jews are tied together by irrational bonds of memory, very often. There's an odd air of spice, and old Jews – of which I'm one now.

"This place is so beautiful it speaks for me of the deep pathos of Jewish longing for beauty, for grandeur. Jews never really think it's an obligation to build gorgeous ornaments, gorgeous buildings, because you always know you're going to have to leave them behind. You're going to have to reach for the suitcase sooner or later.

"And yet you want to believe that in the place you've just come to, where God has allowed you to prosper and for a few generations at least be safe, you honour your religion by doing this. By making something stunningly beautiful.

"So this whole place feels as though it reconciles the idea of refuge with beauty. And if you can bring that off just for a little moment in the hard lives of Jewish history, you have performed a mitzvah [a commandment], just as surely as if you've looked after the poor, the sick and the dying. That's what it says. That what Venice says ... that's what I feel."

It is a passage of documentary television in the great tradition, and I'm sure it will be replayed many times. It says so much in a couple of minutes that there's nothing much you can add to it, except to repeat that devastating line at the centre of it: "You're going to have to reach for the suitcase sooner or later."

THE Anglo-Irish have established themselves in such vast premises that even if they wanted to reach for the suitcase, it would probably take them about a month to find their way to the back door.

Patrick Cooney's film Raj in The Rain did the right thing in letting the old aristos do all the talking. Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth, whose family owned Lissadell until they famously sold it in 2003, spoke of the peculiarities of various relations of his, with what is known in the trade as "refreshing candour".

We heard much about how members of the Anglo-Irish tribe were regarded as English by the Irish, and as Irish by the English. But that wouldn't explain all of the oddness in these personalities. One was left in no doubt that the customs of the high-born may leave them with a delightful broken-down mansion somewhere in Ireland, but that it may also leave them with a very, very, strange way of being in the world.

Gore-Booth spoke of his father as a man who spent his days smoking and playing the grand piano "quite agonisingly badly". And that was all his father ever did.

You could listen to the legendary Sir John Leslie all night, talking about all the famous people he has known, which is just about all the famous people of the 20th century, from Winston Churchill to Paul McCartney. But to hear him say one name alone – "Lady Londonderry" – is to be transported to a different world, with "Londonderry" becoming "Londondree".

That's what it was all about.

WE native Irish, as such, have our own stories, and we cherish in particular the narrative of just one of us, Mary Devine, the subject of the excellent The Woman Who Walked Across America.

That's what she did, with her four-year-old daughter, in the 1860s, making it most of the way across the USA and back to West Kerry from where she had emigrated some years earlier.

This was directed by John O'Donnell, who is known to me from a documentary he did on the early years of Hot Press magazine. Which reminds me that one New Year's Eve, back in the early 1980s, I walked all the way from a gig in McGonagle's to Dundrum.

Not such an epic journey by certain standards except for this: I only got home three weeks ago.

Sunday Independent

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