Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Cultural Heritage Should Be Part of Cultural Evolution

It seems to me that too often people have the idea that heritage should be conserved, while I suspect that it is better to use cultural heritage in an evolving culture. Let me give an example from my own personal cultural heritage.

Impression of the Poet
Anthony Raftery
by Donal MacPalin
Anthony Raftery (1779–1835) is my several times great grandfather. He lived in western Ireland, and spoke Irish as his native language. He was blinded as a child, apparently by a case of smallpox. A Catholic, he was barred by law from school but apparently attended an illegal hedge school. As an adult he composed poetry and lived going from place to place performing on fiddle and performing his songs and poems in the homes of the affluent. Blind, of course he did now write down the songs and poems, but rather committed them to memory. Of course, in his lifetime the works of an Irish Catholic itinerant poet, performed in the Irish language, would not have been published; the English who dominated Ireland wanted to abolish the Irish language and to deny the intellectual abilities of the Irish Catholics.

Raftery's works would have disappeared except for the fact that people liked them and kept them alive. The people of the west of Ireland learned his songs and sang them for a hundred years. They memorized the poems, and some copied them out and kept the copies.

A century later, there was an Irish revival. As part of Irish nationalism, some intellectual leaders began to promote traditional Irish sports, traditional Irish music, and the Irish language. The rediscovery of Blind Raftery was part of this effort.

Douglas Hyde, later President of Ireland, traveled the west of Ireland, collecting poems and songs from the oral tradition. In the process he collected many of Raftery's and published them with biographical notes in the book, Songs Ascribed to Raftery. Lady Gregory, perhaps best known today as the co-founder with Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats of Dublin's Abbey Theater, also collected Raftery's work. She published some with a brief biography in her book, Poets and Dreamers.

Today, Raftery's best known poem is "Is Mise Raifteirí" - "I'm Raftery", probably because it is short and is taught has been taught for generations in Irish schools, where students have had Irish as a required language. Here are the first verse in Irish and in English translation:

Old Irish banknote showing Irish being taught in
school with Raftery the Poet in Irish on the blackboard.
Is Mise Raifteirí an file,
Lán dúchais is grádh,
Le súile gan solas,
Le ciúnas gan crá.

I'm Raftery the poet,
Full of hope and love,
With eyes without sight,
My mind without torment.

There was a novel titled Blind Raftery and his Wife, Hilaria by Donn Byrne published in 1924. It was a work of fiction, only very loosely related to the real Anthony Raftery, but apparently it reached best seller status in its time. There was even an opera Blind Raftery by Joan Trimble published in 1957 (and played on BBC).

Raftery continues in modern Irish culture. Here is a version of his poem Mary Hynes performed by Liam Clancy (one of the Clancy Brothers singing group):

A new edition of Raftery's poetry (in Irish with English translations) was published by Pádraig Ó Siadhail in 1958.

Going back a bit, James Stephens published Reincarnations in 1918. The book contained poems by Stephens that were "reincarnations" rather than simple translations of earlier poems in Irish. The book begins with a number of reincarnations of poems by Anthony Raftery. Composer Samuel Barber later put some of these poems to music in his suite for chorus, Reincarnations. You can find many versions of one or another of the songs from this suite on the Internet, but here is "Anthony O'Daly". I like it in part because I may well be related to the the Anthony O'Daly whose death it commemorates. (He was convicted of trying to assassinate a British Official and hanged.)

Thus the works of my ancestor a couple of hundred years ago are still around, and perhaps more importantly still informing the work of today's poets and musicians. They are being performed in translations and adaptations. Think of a modern university group performing poetry by James Stephens (inspired by Raftery's poems) set to music by gifted composer Samuel Barber! I think it wonderful, and I suspect that if Raftery could hear it, he too would love his work not only to be remembered but to be so alive today.

I at least love the fact that my ancestor's cultural heritage has so informed the work of poets, composers, and musicians in my lifetime. I hope it continues to do so in the future.

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