Saturday 15 December 2018

The Gaeltachts are not Gardens of Eden. They have snakes, too

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Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Noel Hill has no rival as the master of the humble concertina, which he raises to high art by playing it as if it were a set of uilleann pipes.

He is also a saoi, a seer, a philosopher, a noble soul who I feel compelled to call Hill rather than Noel out of respect for his status.

Art calls forth art. Paddy Hayes's TG4 film Aisling Ghear (Bitter Vision) is a work of art in its own right.

Here is a sudden-death synopsis of the tragic but finally redemptive story it tells about its hero, Hill.

A native of Clare, Hill worshipped the music of Willie Clancy, another deep thinker whom I met through Breandan O hEithir.

Hill, an artist with words, too, captured Clancy's playing as I remember it, in a 2005 interview with Brian O'Connell.

"Clancy seemed to be unpredictable on the outside of it, all careless fantastic melody, and all of a sudden he would come down like a clap of thunder on the regulators, invariably in tune."

In 2000, Hill moved his family to the Connemara Gaeltacht, to speak Irish and drink at the pure well of duchas, a sometimes mystical concept covering heritage and tradition.

His daughter Aisling says Connemara was his utopia. But in 48 seconds in 2008 it turned into a dystopia.

On St Stephen's Day, a local builder, with whom Hill was having a dispute, followed him into the men's lavatory of his local pub and knocked him to the floor.

The builder then kicked him so hard in the face as to stave in his eye-socket, in the words of his doctor, "like an egg driven into an eggcup".

Thanks to his surgeon's skill with steel plates and screws, Hill is still a handsome man. But inside he felt the ruin of his face.

Aisling told us how her traumatised father went up to his bedroom and shut the door for a year.

Somehow, in that darkness he found the stoic courage to start again.

One day he came down to the kitchen and shakily made his way through a tune, accompanied by Aisling and his son Sean.

Hill's physical suffering was followed by an equally traumatic rejection. Some Connemara people blamed him, the victim, not the local perpetrator. And they let him know that.

How bitter to find your paradise harbours snakes. Hill took his counsellor's advice and left Connemara before he died from grief.

Aisling Ghear is fearless in facing the fact that Hill was effectively driven from his Eden. Which prompts a reflection RTE might note.

Aristotle says courage is the supreme virtue. Aisling Ghear called for courage from conception to creation to final transmission and the text complaints afterwards.

Alan Esslemont, the director general of TG4, commissioned it and defended it on air himself.

Edel Fox, the producer, and Paddy Hayes, the director, refused to soften the story or retreat from the dark side of rural Ireland.

Noel Hill narrated his tragic tale without self-pity, showing the same deft touches of light and shade he deploys on the concertina.

So did Paddy Hayes, who directed a peerless film where show and tell were one seamless robe.

Breandan Mac Gearailt, reviewing the film for the Irish language online magazine Tuairisc, took a different view.

He praised the film - but also kicked for touch by telling us he found Hill a bit melodramatic and wished he had moderated his comments on Connemara.

Well you will get no moderating from me on the status of this film. Although I am a rival film-maker, I believe Aisling Ghear is the best documentary film of the past 50 years. Check it out.

The rest of what I have to say concerns three troubling themes raised by the film: the fragility of the outsider, the dark and delusionary side of the concept of duchas, and the flawed notion of forgiveness.

First, the outsider. The speed with which rural Ireland can round on an outsider is something that Aristotle in the Poetics would call a shock but not a surprise.

As an outsider myself I am still not too popular in the Dunmanway area for bringing up the sufferings of West Cork Protestants in the period 1920-22.

But Sean O Coileain's biography of the poet Sean O Riordain contains a cruel story that shows the Connemara Gaeltacht is not a place apart.

In 1920, the IRA in the Ballyvourney Gaeltacht abducted Sean O Riordain's mother and kept her from her newborn child for weeks. Her crime? She was an outsider who lived near the RIC barracks.

Alas, Sean O Riordain, whom I knew well, never let her suffering get in the way of his tribal ideology.

Time was I shared O Riordain's neurotic notion that the Gaeltacht was the sole gateway to a pristine Gaelic past - the only source of our true nature.

This malign myth was the product of the Gaelic revival and the brief sojourns of Gaelic Leaguers with native Irish speakers who often viewed the visitors with sardonic amusement.

Above all, the myth was the product of one book: Daniel Corkery's The Hidden Ireland. It took many better books to cure me of it.

Corkery's disciples, Frank O'Connor and Sean O Faolain, were briefly gripped by the same passion to preserve a dying duchas, the holy grail of our psyche.

But there was nothing special about our neurosis. We were simply under the spell of 19th-century Romanticism and the cult of the noble savage.

Shelley & Co travelled through the Alps enthusing about the simple lifestyle of Alpine peasants without noticing the huge goitres on their necks caused by dietary deficiencies.

Later, reading about the forerunners of the Nazis, I saw the sinister side of their search for an Aryan duchas, based on blood and soil.

Sean O Riordain's poem, Fill Aris, shows the warped effect of the cult of duchas in the following shameful lines.

Remove from your mind

The civilised halter of English,

Shelley, Keats and Shakespeare:

Return again to your own

O Riordain reinforces his nationalist call to "return to our own" by stating the obvious: "It is not natural for anyone to abandon his house or his tribe."

No, it's not natural if you're a natural fascist. But reaching outside our tribe is what makes us human.

Flann O'Brien's An Beal Bocht, his satire on delusional Dublin Gaelgeoiri in Dun Chaoin, also helped cure my habit of heroising native Irish speakers.

An Beal Bocht reminded me that as well as poets and musicians, the Gaeltacht also produced gombeens, greedy farmers and builders who would use their boots on your face.

The hard truth is that the cult of the Gaeltacht and duchas demeans Irish city and town life and its equally valid and vital traditions.

Hill believes that his music lets him commune with past generations. But I believe he himself is conjuring up that mythical past through his art.

Finally, Hill touched on another theme close to my heart: the media habit of forcing false forgiveness on victims of political or criminal violence.

Gordon Wilson did not forgive his daughter's killers. He simply said so for the sake of peace.

Asked about all that, Noel Hill said flatly: "I prefer the Old Testament." Me too.

Sunday Independent

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