Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Books: Last Night's Fun

Ciaran Carson is the director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University Belfast, an author of several books of poetry and prose, and a winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry. He's also a flutist and tin whistler, and, from the sound of things, has spent much of his life driving around Ireland and America, playing with sessions, picking up hitchhikers, and sampling the poteen. In Last Night's Fun he improvises around these ideas in a literary analogy to ornamenting a tune.

The book is a collection of essays, each named for a tune. The style ranges from poetry to prose to collage, from historical to hilarious, with a healthy dose of autobiography. Essays which don't consist in their entirety of extracts from works by other authors are frequently salted with lengthy quotes. The poetry is mostly Carson's own, but there are a few poems from John Loughran, and one from Séamus Ennis(!).

It is often observed that Irish music is a living tradition best learned and experienced live, but attempts to explain why this is so to the spectator not familiar with the experience often fall short. Last Night's Fun tests the limits of printed material in relating the experience of playing in a lively session, along with the music and lifestyle of the ITM community.

Here's an excerpt:

We were all apprentice Druids then, I think, led by the resident genius of Mick Hoy the fiddle-player. Stuck out in the starving wilderness, deprived of supermarkets, we'd improvise cuisine from sorrel, chickweed, nettles, mucshrooms and wild garlic, inspired by the arcane herbal forage-knowledge of Gary Hastings. Soup was made in a vast antique cast-iron stockpot, and in the morning you would find the aluminum ladle standing vertically in a green glue residue.
Time got out of mind as last night's fun embraced the next hungover morning and we staggered out again into the dawn of afternoon to hunt for wild herbs. We were oxymorons, children of the Sixties caught in a Celtic time warp where tunes were handed on by fairies or acquired in dreams: dimly sceptical of magic, we found ourselves surrounded by it, and the old tunes we learned from Mick became our conversation. Even the new tunes, like 'The Floating Crowbar' (I have heard it attributed to the fiddle-player Brendan McGlinchey), corresponded to a neo-Druidic sympathetic magic, where — so the story goes — the forged-steel murder weapon ditched in the river floated to the surface with the blood and hair of the victim still clotted to it. The reel took on the antique connotation of a Grimm's tale, with its talking horse's head that revealed the nub of the story in a cryptic rhyme. Mick would tell us tall tales....

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