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Sabbath Day – An Gorta Mor

March 20, 2015

For the last three weeks I have let my Sabbath Day function as the center around which I have organized a week of reading different national literatures. I spent two week reading the work of modernist French writing, and a week with nineteenth century Russians. This week and next, and in honor both of St. Patrick’s Day and my Irish ancestry, I am reading Irish literature.

For those readers who have wondered whether I am on a vacation from work – honestly, a little bit of reading each day adds up, especially when the selections are short. Through each of these weeks I have had occasion to reflect on the omnipresence of mortality – my preaching theme throughout Lent.

The last seven days have focused on the poem and short story. After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, Seamus Heaney (Londonderry) brought out a lovely collection called The Spirit Level, (1996). Life and death intertwined in the poem “Two Lorries,” about his mother. William Butler Yeats (Dublin) won the Nobel Prize in 1923, the first Irishman to do so, and could not be missed this week. I even included commentary by Camille Paglia and Harold Bloom on “The Second Coming” and the death of the gentle child making way for the rough beast.


On Saint Patrick’s Day I read “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar (Fingal O’Flahertie Wills) Wilde (Dublin). Wilde wrote this poem out of his experience as a prisoner following the scandal of his relationship with another man. By chance I read this on the same day the Presbyterian Church (USA), the church I serve, finally embraced marriage equality in our constitutional documents. Again, the coincidence of constricting death in the poem and the life-giving liberation of this ecclesiastical decision.

My surprise this week was the discovery of the  Louis MacNeice (Belfast, 1907-1963). I was particularly taken by his subtle, shifting images of everyday life and their meaning, as well as temptation to escape into them. I have returned to “Sunday Morning” again and again:

Down the road someone is practising scales,
The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails,
Man’s heart expands to tinker with his car
For this is Sunday morning, Fate’s great bazaar;
Regard these means as ends, concentrate on this Now,

And you may grow to music or drive beyond Hindhead anyhow,
Take corners on two wheels until you go so fast
That you can clutch a fringe or two of the windy past,
That you can abstract this day and make it to the week of time
A small eternity, a sonnet self-contained in rhyme.

But listen, up the road, something gulps, the church spire
Open its eight bells out, skulls’ mouths which will not tire
To tell how there is no music or movement which secures
Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.


I found several short stories in various anthologies on my shelves which filled my need to short pieces of prose: James Joyce’s “Araby” from Dubliners; Frank O’Connor’s “First Confession” which I first read in college; Flann O’Brien’s horrific, “Two in One”; and “The End” by Dublin born playwright Samuel Beckett.


I began, but have not yet finished, Gulliver’s Travels by the poet and cleric Jonathan Swift. (Swift, also Dublin born, is the only non-modern author of the week). Swift’s pessimism of human nature is famous, and I found it echoed in my semi-final author of the week, George Bernard Shaw, another Dubliner. My wife and I have been reading Shaw’s plays for years, but I had never dipped into The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism & Fascism until now. Shaw wrote this tome at the request of his sister-in-law so that she could have something to discuss at her women’s study circle. She got more than she bargained for, as my copy is over 500 pages long. Shaw had been preaching socialism for over 40 years when he compiled his thoughts in this book, which boils down to inequality as our original sin:

And to outface this miserable condition we bleat once a year about peace on earth and good-will to men; that is, among persons to whom we have distributed incomes ranging from a starvation dole to several thousands a day, piously exhorting the recipients to love one another. Have you any patience with it? I have none.


Finally, my son and I have been reading Leprechauns in Late Winter, a Magic Treehouse Book by Mary Pope Osbourne. We enjoy these introductions to historical periods and personages. This one sets the children Jack and Annie on a mission to “inspire” a young Irish girl named Augusta, who turns out to be Isabella Augusta, or Lady Gregory, the poet, dramatist and folklorist who co-founded the Irish Literary Theater and Abbey Theater with Yeats.


Lady Gregory will be our bridge to next week, which will be filled with ancient Irish myths and legends, with a new translation of The Tain at its center. I thank Amy Davis King for this recommendation.

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My actual sabbath day involved a family breakfast at my son’s school, and a trip to the Newark airport for my wife. Back home, I took my son for a hike at Great Hunger Memorial Park in Ardsley. Here we remembered An Gorta Mor. This was the Great Hunger in Ireland which took place in Ireland between 1845-1851. 1.5 million starved outright, another 2 million were forced to migrate. The potato dependent peasantry had nothing to eat even as an abundance of food was being exported to England. The monument honors the Irish who died as well as the Irish immigrants who settled in the Hudson Valley, while serving as reminder that hunger in the midst of plenty remains with us and is a disgrace. While I have Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 on my shelf, and fabulous resources can be found at An Gorta Mor: The Great Hunger Archive.

This powerful memorial depicts emaciated emmigrants leaving a breakdown shelter. Almost all look into a distant future, while an adolescent male looks back. HIs eyes fall upon a tumbled down basket of blighted potatoes that literally become skulls as they fall.

Until next week: Bail ó Dhia ort (the Blessing of God on you)

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