Hastings Irish Society?
St Patrick’s Day is imminent and there is likely to be good craic (fun or merriment) at the Albion in Old Town (see details below). Irish people and those of Irish descent comprise a significant minority amongst Hastings’s multi-cultural population. In this article HOT’s Sean O’Shea shares some wry reflections on the auld saint and asks if there would be interest in the formation of a local Irish Society.
In Glendalough lived an auld saint, renowned for his learning and piety. His manners were curious and quaint, and he looked upon women with disparity.
Glendalough Saint, Irish folk song
St Patrick’s Day is celebrated across the Irish diaspora particularly in the USA with more enthusiasm than back home. The dark side of Catholicism having been comprehensively exposed in recent decades may account for a degree of ambivalence amongst the Irish towards the auld saint. So if you happen to visit the Emerald Isle around this time, don’t expect to find people dancing in the streets.
In Hastings however we can anticipate some ceol (music), rince (dance) and downing of Guinness on the 17th March. Following their very successful St Patricks Day gig last year, The Gary Blakeley Band is back at the Albion, George St and the manager Bob Tipler informs me that he hopes to have a pot of Irish stew on the hob. He also plans to hold an open session of traditional Irish music and song, hosted by experienced players, on the first Tuesday of each month. Sessions will start at 9 pm and players with a strong repertoire of Irish music are welcome to join in.
St Patrick was not Irish of course. He was born in a village in Roman Britain but had the misfortune of being captured by Irish raiders when he was an adolescent and taken as a slave to Ireland. There, he looked after animals for a while before escaping and making his way back to his family home. Having trained as a cleric he would return to Ireland to bring the civilizing gifts of Christianity to the allegedly more primitive Celtic heathens.
In Murchiú’s Life of Saint Patrick, the native Druids, who reportedly had shamanic and prophetic powers, anticipated the approach of Patrick with foreboding. They seemed to sense that his arrival would lead to their eventual demise: “Across the sea will come Adze-head, crazed in the head, his cloak with hole for the head, his stick bent in the head. He will chant impieties from a table in the front of his house; all his people will answer: so be it, so be it“.
This spiritual colonisation was a gradual process during which elements of the old culture would be slowly woven into the fabric of new, but– from the Christian perspective – stripped of its more demonic elements.
In some accounts the life affirmative, earth-centred dynamism of the indigenous population was portrayed as being superseded by the more ascetic, other worldly Christian culture. The many gods of the Celts would be replaced by the one true male Christian god. The full blooded, fecund and sometimes fearsome Celtic earth mothers would be displaced by the singular somewhat anaemic Virgin Mary, commonly depicted as standing at least a few feet above the ground, gazing skywards with a long-suffering look on her face.
However, the original pantheistic and ebullient paganism would never be entirely eradicated from the Irish collective unconscious. Tales of heroes, giants and magical creatures, the wisdom of the ancient Druid priests and priestesses, the healing power of mountains, trees, rivers and sacred wells and the permeable boundaries between the world of the living and the dead – still abound in local folklore.
Universal symbols such as the Great Mother, the Wise Old Man, the Shadow and the Tower, would be evoked and used to dramatic effect by the poet and dramatist W. B. Yeats.
The more rebellious and cosmopolitan minded James Joyce would challenge all gods including the hegemonic authority of the Catholic Church, the British Empire and Nationalist fanaticism. He would also voice his ambivalence towards mother Ireland referring to her as “the sow that devours its farrow” (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Though educated by the Jesuits he would reject the call to the priesthood – apparently the ‘pale service of the altar’ didn’t hold much appeal for him. However, not lacking self-assurance he would describe his goal as an artist in almost priest like terms: I’m going to: “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (PAYM).
Before departing from his native land he would proclaim his artistic manifesto as follows: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning” (PAYM).
And so he emigrated not from any material necessity– he could have earned a comfortable living at home – but to pursue his chosen vocation untrammelled by the constraints of provincial norms and prevailing orthodoxies. He would eventually settle in the more congenial ethos of bohemian Paris and produce Ulysses, which was so iconoclastic in style and scope as to become perhaps the most famous novel of the modernist era–and, in the view of cynics, the most unread and unintelligible!
As for the auld saint, he could hardly have envisaged the trouble he caused, so may he rest in peace.
We still have the music
Hastings has a strong musical culture and Irish music is a valued part of this tradition. The Hastings Fleadh is now a regular and well attended annual event and the town has its own branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eirean which promotes traditional Irish music. There is also an Irish literary connection with the writer Robert Tressell, celebrated as one of Hastings’s favourite writers, and widely known for his novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.
So given this appreciation of aspects of Irish culture, and the fact that there’s a sizeable Irish population living here, how come there isn’t an Irish Society as there is in other towns with a comparable Irish demographic?
This is a question that was frequently put to me as I went about conducting interviews for my recently published book, Hastings Old Town Music Scene. I didn’t have a pat answer to the enquiry but the question stayed with me. So I thought I’d ask readers with an Irish background, and those with an interest in Irish culture, if they would be interested in participating in such a society or network.
Commonly run on a voluntary, not-for-profit basis, such associations provide members with an opportunity to meet up, socialise and enjoy common cultural interests. They also act as a focal point for information sharing, networking and collaboration. Activities developed reflect the wishes of members and may include book clubs, writing workshops, study circles and other miscellaneous recreational and educational pursuits.
If you would be interested in exploring aspects of Irish culture with like-minded people please contact me (email address below) with some information about yourself, your interests and what you might be willing to contribute. If there are particular subjects that appeal to you, such as Irish literature, history, drama, film, art; or if you have particular skills to offer e.g. hosting activities, organising events, experience in the use of social media etc. – do mention these.
If you have specialist knowledge about the history and composition of the local Irish community, or information about relevant sources, I’d be keen to hear from you.
Some of my own interests include the history of the Irish community in Hastings, Celtic mythology and contemporary Irish writing.
I will be in touch with those who contact me in due course to let people know what response I receive to this enquiry.
Hastings Old Town Music Scene
This recently published book (www.hastingsonlinetimes.co.uk/sos/hot-music-scene) is an informative and entertaining guide to the Old Town music scene and includes interviews with many of our best known musicians. It is on sale exclusively at the Information Centre, Aquila House, 2 Breeds Place, Hastings.
There is also an Irish night at the Stag Inn in All Saints St, Old Town on Friday 17th March where the well known local band the Red Geraniums will, for this evening at least, be going green! Well worth checking them out – their lead vocalist, Dubliner Liz Porter, is pure magic with the Irish ballads.
Contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org
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