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Mythological drum

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Sandy Dunlop, director, and Máirín Ní Nualláin during one of the Bard School lectures
ENGAGING THE CROWD Sandy Dunlop, director, and Máirín Ní Nualláin during one of the Bard School lectures.

Bards beat mythological drum

Áine Ryan

THose mythic worlds of Tir na nÓg and Hy Brazil are always proximate to the rural Mayo landscape. They teeter on the edge of its many alluring horizons. The cry of the tragic Children of Lir still echoes on Inishglóra, while the regal Celtic call of Danú and command of  Dagda are reincarnated in the rolling sun on ancient holy mountain, Crúachán Aigle – the pyramidal Croagh Patrick.
As this writer rolled and pitched across Clew Bay on a billowing evening last week, Clare Island’s familiar potato-pocked landscape rose from a swollen high tide; Grace O’Malley’s stone grey castle stood stern; the distant medieval Cistercian abbey provided shelter for the rosary of gravestones. Across the hillocks and valleys the secrets of an ancient terrain remained largely intact.
Where better to invoke the mythological spirits of ancient Ireland than on an offshore island? At the 13th annual Bard Summer School.
Two hours later, the participants are gathered in the old bar of McCabe’s Granuaile House – where over the decades much of the island’s rich, colourful and hilarious lore was created or re-enacted in those mysterious twilight hours. The féasta has been consumed. The wine is flowing. The great oral tradition of outrageous conversation is about to be indulged.   
First though, Bard school co-founder, Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop and American, Robert Hamold, evoke the spirit of the late author and mystic, John Moriarty – who was a regular bard since the school’s inception in 1995. Reading from the introduction to his work, Invoking Ireland, they play out a conversation – based on the Battle of Moytura which was between the Formorians and the Tuatha de Danann – in which a contemporary battle for the soul of Ireland is fought.
This spiritual battle, explained Moriarty in his introduction, is a safari where one side seeks to turn the country into ‘a human convenience’ and the other finds ‘fulfilment in being of one  mind with the wind and the rain’.
“Instead of a legal constitution to be interpreted for huge sums of money by lawyers, let us have a constitution of stories, a genome of stories, to be interpreted from nothing by poets.
“A genome of stories?
“Yes, in the literal sense of stories that will be culturally genetic to us, that will generate us culturally in instinct, eye and mind.”
Earlier, Ms O’Malley-Dunlop, and a caped  Robert Hamold, had symbolically launched the school in a simple ritual honouring the four treasures brought to Ireland by the Tuatha de Danann: Dagda’s cauldron of plenty, the sword of justice, the spear of strength and the stone of destiny.
A fifth icon, reaching to the core of the school’s radical quest, is a 10,000-year-old piece of bog oak, sculpted by the late, Westport-based American-Indian, Wayne Harlow.
“This piece of bog oak in a way captures our work. We delve deeply into Irish history, pull out all the old stories and polish and carve them,” muses Sandy Dunlop.
In essence, the Bard Summer School is about ‘giving people the experience of experiencing the myth’; it provides a prism into a world where the linearity of Aristotelian logic is banished in favour of the circular curves and formless shadows of mythology and poetry.
For long-time participant, Mary McKenna – the architect who designed the Céide Fields –there is an incredible, untapped ‘legacy and resource’ in Irish mythology.
“The Bard Summer School always provides an interesting insight into various Irish myths and helps participants live the experience. We have world-class mythology in our own tradition that is not known by many Irish people,” says Mary McKenna.
She observes that this rich resource can be an inspiration and a tool for writers, artists and historians. “Each year this school recovers and re-interprets this legacy,” she adds.
For Bard school director, Sandy Dunlop, Ireland has always been on the edge, the border, of the western intellectual tradition. At the opening session – held in St Patrick’s National  School last Thursday – he observes that, like Finland, our cultural roots are steeped in the mythological, poetic way of thinking. 
However, he suggests that, in light of the symbolic potency of, for example, the Munster rugby scrum, it can be concluded that the predominant and pervading symbol of ‘the hero’ in Ireland is Cúchulainn. Of course, this is nothing more than a superficial analysis of the hero, who was a mere youth when slain.
Rather, Dunlop explains, Ireland’s rich oral tradition started with a shaman, and not a priest; a seer and not a warrior. 
In modern-day Ireland are we identifying the most appropriate people as our shamans, our seers? What archetype might Brian Cowen, David McWilliams, Sinéad O’Connor or Mary McAleese mirror? How do these mythological entities resonate in contemporary society?
“Take Fintan MacBochra. Ireland’s first man. The son of Bochra – which means the sea – he was a great mythical seer and sage who lived for hundreds, even thousands of years. Fintan can be compared to actor, Robin Williams in the film The Dead Poets’ Society,” says Dunlop.
According to lore, Fintan MacBochra came to Ireland 40 days before the flood, with two men and 51 women. After the two men were drowned, Fintan was the only man left.
As a shape-shifter, he transformed variously into a one-eyed salmon, an eagle and also a falcon. This shamanic ability afforded him much of his wisdom, along with his longevity, during which he witnessed the two battles of Moytura, in Sligo and Mayo, along with the epic of Cúchulainn and the Táin.
Of course, the concept of shape-shifting is anathema to the post-rational society in which we are shackled, prompts Sandy Dunlop, causing a storm of vigorous and thought-provoking responses from the 25 neophyte bards.
“How do we approach shape-shifting with our post-rational minds?” he asks. “Fintan MacBrocha never lost his folkloric mind. To escape our dualistic mentality, we must imagine that we are both salmon and hawk.”
Perhaps, the answer is there in our children who during play, shape-shift all the time – in one  moment they become a barking dog, in the next a miaowing cat, suggests one bard.
“Do we not rise up like an eagle to various challenges?” another asks.
“If we give ourselves the permission we can inhabit many forms,” says another.
It is now mid-morning. The gathering which started out in one of the classrooms of the island’s seat of learning – St Patrick’s National School – has shifted to the schoolyard, which overlooks a sun-drenched bay. Armed with coffees and teas, the group mingles. Laden tractors trundle up and down from Portahóille. A family of tourists eat ice creams at the west gate of the church. Monastic island Caher becomes a shimmering sliver of blancmange. The abbey – reputed burial place of Granuaile – stands aloof.  
The ancient men of Ireland – Partholon, Nemed, Breas, Cian and Nuadhu of the Silver Arm –line up in a row of flimsy cirrus clouds behind Inishturk and on the edge of the horizon.

• The 13th Bard Summer School, Clare Island, was held from Wednesday, July 2 -Sunday, July 6 last. It explored the ‘Myths of Treasure – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ based on the Irish myths of the magical Battle of Moytura. Each year, the Bard Summer School takes one of the great Irish myths and goes on a unique journey of discovery. Some of these stories have lasted thousands of years, and have been handed down through Ireland’s oral tradition. The stories are part of the landscape.
For further information visit bardsummerschool@iol.ie or www.bard.ie.

The evil eye of Balor
Balor was the powerful leader of the Formorians – the dark shape-shifters – who were the treacherous oppressors of the Tuatha De Danann. He was killed by his grandson Lugh at the Battle of Moytura. One day when Balor was young he spied his father’s druids concocting a spell of death. The fumes of the spell entered one of Balor’s eyes, which consequently gave the power of death to that eye. When among his own peoples, Balor always kept his evil eye closed.
However, his eyelid then became so heavy that eventually it took ten men to open it. It proved to be a powerful tool in battle as it had the power to kill all it beheld. According to folklore, the rocks around Cong were once men who were petrified by the glance of Balor.

Bards Robert and Sally Hamold
Retired teacher Robert Hamold opens the school each year with renditions on his bagpipes of favourite tunes such as ‘Kelly the Boy from Killane’ and ‘Castle Dangerous’.
“Myself and my wife, Sally, are retired teachers from a little town outside Boston. We’ve been coming each year since 1996, except for one year when there was a family wedding. We discovered the school through Sally’s interest in Yeats’s poetry.
The nice thing about the island is that it’s a very healing and comforting place. The Irish personality is much different than the American one, there is a much freer exchange of ideas. Everybody’s opinion is respected and it doesn’t get personal,” said Robert Hamold.