Monday, November 21, 2016

Chasing the Irish Pirate Queen around the Aran Islands

Hats off to James McQuiston, editor and publisher of The Celtic Guide, a superbly professional magazine that reflects his passionate interest in Scotland and Ireland. The December issue (click here) features contributions from throughout the Celtic world. They include an excerpt from my latest book, Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation, which has just appeared in paperback (HarperCollins Canada). That excerpt begins as follows . . . .

Off the south coast of Ireland, in choppy seas, we sailed around Skellig Michael, a rocky island that rises, volcano-like, seven hundred feet into the air. We marvelled to think that, for centuries, Christian monks lived in beehive meditation huts near the top, and would reach them in the wind by clambering out of their coracles and climbing six hundred stone steps, narrow, steep, and often wet. We were circumnavigating Ireland with Adventure Canada, Sheena and I, going ashore once or twice a day in Zodiacs. Off the west coast, on Inishmore in the Aran Islands, where children learn Gaelic as their first language, we debarked and followed a rugged footpath uphill to Dun Aengus, a ritual site from the Bronze Age. Here one of us determined that, yes, we could terrify ourselves by lying on our stomachs, crawling to the edge, and looking straight down to where, a hundred metres below, white waves smashed into the black rock face.
But the most evocative moment of the circumnavigation of Ireland came on Inishbofin, which is located north up the west coast, off Connemara. As we rode from our ship to the dock at Inishbofin, eight or nine people to a Zodiac, we passed Dun Grainne, the remains of a fortress used in the 1500s by the legendary Pirate Queen “Grainne” or Grace O’Malley. Born into a powerful west-coast family, O’Malley rejected the traditional roles available to females. She became a skilled sailor, gained control of a merchant fleet, and conducted trade as far away as Africa. Her enemies denounced her as “the most notorious sea captain in Ireland,” and complained that she “overstepped the part of womanhood.”
The Celtic tradition that produced O’Malley—that of the dauntless woman, latterly known as feminism—has never been short of exemplars. Besides the Irish Pirate Queen and the Scottish Flora MacDonald, saviour of Bonnie Prince Charlie, there was Maria Edgeworth, who has been called the Irish Jane Austen. She kicked down doors through the early 1800s. And later that century, after seeing Irish tenants evicted from their lands, the activist-actress Maud Gonne inspired William Butler Yeats and thousands of Irish nationalists.
In Scotland, the first champion of Scottish independence to be elected to the British House of Commons was a woman, Winifred Ewing, leader of the Scottish National Party. Five years later, in 1972, and in that same hallowed house, a twenty-year-old Irish MP, Bernadette Devlin, delivered “a slap heard round the world” when the Home Secretary claimed that on Bloody Sunday, British troops had shot more than two dozen unarmed protestors in self-defence. Having witnessed the massacre – 13 died that day, and one later -- Devlin crossed the floor and slapped his face.
In this unbroken Celtic tradition of “overstepping women,” which extends backwards to Saint Brigid of Kildare (451–525) and forward to its flowering in the contemporary world, Grace O’Malley came early. In June of 1593, as she sailed up the River Thames to meet Queen Elizabeth I, she would have known little about what her privateering English counterparts were doing. Walter Raleigh was organizing an expedition to discover the Lost City of Gold in South America. Martin Frobisher, having conducted three expeditions to North America, was plundering ships off the coasts of France and Spain. Francis Drake, circumnavigator of the world, was ranging around North Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, seizing booty wherever he found it.
Grace O’Malley, commander of a fleet of galleys and several hundred sailors, had sailed from the west coast of Ireland to seek the removal of the ruthless Richard Bingham, the English-appointed governor of Connaught. Bingham was the one who had denounced her as “a woman who overstepped the part of womanhood,” and labelled her “the most notorious sea captain in Ireland.” She sought the release from Bingham’s jail of a half-brother and of her son, Tibbot. Also, she hoped to secure the right to maintain herself “by land and sea,” by which she meant forcibly collecting “tax” from any ships that plied the waters she patrolled. The merchants of Galway were allowed to do this: why was she prevented?
To read the rest click here . . . and then pick up a copy of the book, available in better bookstores everywhere. (Pix above by Sheena Fraser McGoogan.)


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Art connoisseur snaps up Sheena's painting as she hangs her show

An artist's work is never done. Here we have Sheena Fraser McGoogan this afternoon at Art Square Gallery in the heart of the Six. She was just finishing the hanging of her solo show, Mountains and Icebergswhich runs from today through Nov. 28 opposite the Art Gallery of Ontario. We rented a van this morning, loaded 'er up, and accomplished the drive from the Beaches along Dundas without incident. Art Square doubles as a cafe, and I've got to tell you, a number of people expressed excitement. One bearded, middle-aged chap arrived and had a quiet bowl of soup while we hung.
He then took a wander and ended up pointing:  "I'll buy this one." It was a colorful painting of Upernavik, Greenland. Turned out the buyer is a bit of a connoisseur and owns a number of works by David Blackwood. Anyway, Sheena's grand opening is Thursday, Nov. 17, from 6 to 9 p.m. Art Square is at 334 Dundas Street.  Maybe see you there?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The night Leonard Cohen taught me that Magic Is Alive

This photo finds Leonard Cohen out front of his Montreal house in 1977. At that time, I was living just a few blocks away, and I would walk past every once in a while, hoping to catch sight of him. I never did. A few years later, however, I got to spend an evening with him. I tell the story in my book 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. Here is an edited excerpt: 


“Magic is alive,” Leonard Cohen wrote in an old favorite incantation. “Many poor men lied. Many sick men lied. Magic never weakened. Magic never hid. Magic always ruled.” Those short sentences, which appear in a passage from his novel Beautiful Losers, have resonated through his life. I give you an illustrative incident that occurred in Alberta in 1984. I was working as books editor and columnist at the Calgary Herald. As such, in that far distant world, I interviewed a lot of touring authors. Usually, I would meet them at the office. Some I would take to lunch, and with a few, I would try for dinner.
So when Cohen was passing through town, promoting a poetry book called Book of Mercy, I arranged through his publisher to meet him for dinner in the downtown hotel where he was staying. I arrived a few minutes early and realized that the restaurant was all wrong: white linen table cloths, hovering waiters, and a couple of businessmen eating alone. Deadly. Instead of entering, I waited at the entrance. Cohen arrived seconds later. We shook hands and, as we stepped inside, we exchanged a glance. Like Cohen, I had come of age in Montreal, and had a taste for smoked-meat sandwiches. “We would have to jump into my car,” I said. “But I do know a bistro that might work?” Cohen said, “Let’s do it.”
Before we left, he wanted to collect something from his room. This proved to be a portable tape recorder and, in these pre-digital days, a cassette tape of songs he would be putting on his next record album. With these in hand, we jumped into my old beater and drove across the Bow River to an eatery called Flix (now long gone). Decorated with old movie posters, it boasted “Montreal smoked meat sandwiches.” We ate three of these between us and drank too much red wine as we talked about his book and I scribbled notes. Wolfing down fries, Cohen shook his head: “That other place would’ve killed us.”
He talked a bit about Book of Mercy, but was more interested in sharing his new songs. I happily put on the earphones and, as we ate and drank, listened to half a dozen tunes destined for Various Positions. I remember Dance Me to the End of Love and Hallelujah, and being especially taken with The Law: “There’s a law, there’s an arm, there’s a hand.” The evening was already unforgettable. 
At when point, after he had talked about travelling around Europe by bus, and moving day and night, I asked him, “Don’t you find that, well, a bit gruesome?” He grinned and said, “The more gruesome it gets, the better I like it.”
 As we prepared to leave the restaurant, Cohen visited the washroom. On his way back, a waitress stopped him. I saw her hand him a slip of paper. He glanced at this note and reacted with excitement. After a while he broke off and returned, looking crestfallen. I asked if everything was all right and he said, “Yes, yes. I’ll show you something outside.”
Out front of Flix, Cohen handed me the note he had received. It began, “Dearest Leonard.”
Here you have to know, as any serious Cohen fan does, that in 1966, the troubadour spent a few weeks in Edmonton, 280 km north of where we now stood. One wintry night during a blizzard, he arrived back at his hotel and found two young women with backpacks sheltering in the doorway. They had hitchhiked across Canada and run out of money. Cohen insisted that they stay in his hotel room. He gave them the double bed and they quickly fell asleep. He sat in the armchair and, as he looked out at the storm, found himself humming a tune.  He picked up his guitar and wrote Sisters of Mercy. Apparently, this was the only time he ever produced a song without sweating over every word. “When they awakened in the morning,” he told biographer Ira Nadel, “I sang them the song exactly as it is, perfect, completely formed.”
Eighteen years after that incident, out front of Flix, Cohen showed me the note written and signed by one of the original Sisters, Lorraine. Neither of us had registered anyone else in the restaurant. The note said that the other Sister, Barbara, was living in San Francisco. Shaking his head, Cohen said, “Why didn’t she come over to the table?”
“Maybe she saw that we were working?”
“She didn’t want to intrude!” He slapped his forehead. “What delicacy!”
But what astonished me, as I told him, was that she ended up in Flix on a week night at precisely the same moment as we did. And we had arrived so utterly by chance. I shook my head: “Magic is alive.”
I was quoting, of course, from Beautiful Losers, which has rightly been described as “by turns historical and surreal, religious and obscene, comic and ecstatic.” One writer called it “the most radical (and beautiful) experimental novel ever published in Canada.” I had marveled over it in 1966, when it appeared, and all these years later, I couldn’t help myself. I asked Cohen, more than once, when he might give us another novel. He remained noncommittal. But when I pulled up in front of his hotel to drop him off, and we were shaking hands, I gave it one last try: “So you’re going to write another novel?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m going to do it.”
“Fantastic!” But, yes, I wanted more: “When are you going to start?’
He took a beat and, straight-faced, answered: “I'm going to start tonight."
For a second, he had me. But then I got the joke and burst out laughing. And Cohen laughed too, threw his head back and laughed, and we shook hands a second time, both of us laughing, and then, suddenly, he was gone.