In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf, Irish poet Seamus Heaney recalls his surprise when he learned the odd-looking Anglo-Saxon word þole (pronounced “thole”) wasn’t really alien:
I gradually realized that it was not strange at all, for it was the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country where I grew up. “They’ll just have to learn to thole,” my aunt would say about some family who had suffered an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was “thole” in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a scholarly editon, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey þolian had made north into Scotland and then across into Ulster with the planters and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish and then farther across again when the Scots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eighteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line “Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole,” my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered.
Learning and reading definitely widen and further one’s contact with the world. Literature, by making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, challenges us to see the world with new eyes. Recognizing an active past in our present world gives us a new dimension of life desperately needed in a live-for-the-moment consumerist society. And seeing one’s culture blossom in distant parts of the globe makes those faraway places seem a bit closer.
For more on the defining influence the Celts exerted on the South, check out Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways In The Old South.
“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here’ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.” – William Faulkner
“If you look at social media, you see this leveling of American culture. Everyone has the same photo of the same beach, the same blue water, same wedding party, same slang, same songs, same movies. We have one lingua franca. We curate ourselves for mass consumption. But real speech, in the moment, in groups of two or three, tears at the veil. What we say that is not recorded. Drunken confession. Botched jokes. The rejected advance. Campfire at a deer camp. The novel as village gossip. The writer must rescue the whispered and the regrettable. I’m from a place totally shaped by talk, by verbal facility. All that silence, space, and privation gave people that gift, like the Irish, like Southerners.” – Matthew Neill Null
The latest edition of Aurora Wolf features my short story “Witch Flambé.” Set in and around modern-day High Point, North Carolina (my home town), it’s about two old friends now in vastly different circles who team up to clear a young lady who’s accused of setting fires at her employer’s “guerilla dinners.” Someone’s casting spells on the “underground dining” events, and our protagonists must seek out the help of a Scots-Irish granny witch.
Appalachian Granny Magic is one of those old Southern ways that have recently enjoyed renewed interest:
The tradition is a very old one, dating all the way back to the first settlers of the magical Appalachian Mountains who came over from Scotland and Ireland in the 1700’s. They brought along their even older Irish and Scottish Magical Traditions with them. Those two ‘old world’ Traditions were then blended with a dash of the local tradition of the Tsalagi (Now, called the Cherokee Indians.)
Because of the rural and secluded nature of the Appalachian community, the old customs, wisdom, and practices were not as often lost, forgotten, or ‘modernized’ as the ‘old world’ traditions that came over to other, more urban areas of the ‘new world.’ Therefore, one will often find that ancient Irish or Scottish songs, rhymes, dances, recipes, crafts, and ‘The Craft,’ are more accurately preserved in Appalachia than even in Ireland or Scotland.
This story was a blast to write. It has just about everything I love: good food and drink, old friends, the surprisingly enduring power of the past, nature’s astonishing ability to rejuvenate — all topped off with a delightfully scary confrontation at the end. I hope you enjoy it.
“I was almost 40 when my first book was published, and I’d been getting rejection slips and rejection slips. But ultimately, it was not about getting published. It’s about doing this thing that I feel like is part of who I am. My life would be incomplete if I weren’t doing this.” – Ron Rash, author of Serena.
My review of Karen McCarthy’s The Other Irish, one of the books I read while researching my latest work, made the Abbeville Institute’s Top Ten for July. Thanks to all who clicked through to the Institute’s web site!