The Meaning (and Sound) of Europe
On my first-ever trip abroad, aged eleven or twelve – to France, as it happens (or “Europe”, I’m tempted to say) – hoping to encounter the future that was so slow to arrive in 1970s midlands Ireland, I was somewhat surprised to find myself back in the Middle Ages. In the swirl of languages I heard around me I could pick out not only French and Spanish and English, as might have been expected, but Latin as well.
It took me a while to realise that Lourdes during pilgrimage season is not typical of the continent as a whole.
Though I didn’t understand it at the time, it was my fellow pilgrims from Ireland who’d been the most enthusiastic in their embrace of the remnants of the old Tridentine Mass and the songs that went with same. Here was my first hint that Europe wasn’t after all a totally foreign place, but one in which even our small town had more in common than our island (and often insular) history books tended to acknowledge.
In the mid-’70s I was a teenaged boy (more interested in dominoes and biscuits, one might say, than in Dominus vobiscum). Yet the cool, high, austere beauty of those (far too many) churches in which we pilgrims paused to genuflect and acknowledge our sins left a real impression on me, one I still feel now in my knees and lower back as I ponder the “meaning of Europe.”
By way of background, through the 1970s and ’80s my father was a small-town travel agent (a true act of faith in a midlands town where half of the population seemed to be in the notorious local prison, with the other half employed in keeping them there). From his Main Street office (over which the Boran family of seven lived, loved, and shivered in the cavernous chill) my father dispensed to our fellow townsfolk glamorous technicolour visions of the “continental” ideal: brochures brimful of endless blue seas and skies, palm trees and outdoor pools, bronzed girls and boys in their next-to-nothings, and small hillside villages where a flower-bonneted donkey or a lithe flamenco dancer in too-tight pants leaned casually against a cast-iron pump – visions that mesmerised those of us raised on the monochrome, worsted-wool-clothed, just-south-of-the-North-Atlantic island that was Ireland prior to its entry, in 1973, to the EEC.
I remember distinctly the day a young Italian man walked into “the shop” (as my father always referred to his office) carefully enunciating the words, “I want to go to Roma to see my mama and papa.” It had never occurred to me before that moment that there might be people in our own small town whose families were not also resident there, born and bred there, that we might already be, as I think of it now, more interestingly complicated than a stroll along Main Street would first suggest. (Our national obsession with the historical native vs. planter relationship had almost entirely eclipsed this smaller but equally fascinating story of outside influence.)
I recall too, on one occasion in Portlaoise railway station (where I would nip in now and then to cross the trembling metal footbridge when a train was passing below) in the waiting room I found a newspaper in what I first took to be old Irish but which turned out to be Greek. Who was riding those echoing metal lines across the Irish midlands in the late ’70’s? “Homer’s ghost” as famously imagined by Patrick Kavanagh maybe, doing some research on the somewhat thorny matter of “local rows.”
As ever the times they were a-changing’, but, as Yeats might well have put it, in Ireland “change comes dropping slow.”
For some, the New Europe to which cheaper air travel, membership of the EEC and the Eurovision Song Contest afforded us access was really all about food. With luck, membership would, at last, signal the end to the potato-only diet that had kept generations of us Irish from our rightful place as well-nourished leaders of the Free World. I could see older siblings and their friends already eating a variety of non-native comestibles, and living to tell the tale. But not being much of a gourmet myself, I began to sense that it was the sounds and – maybe more than anything – the languages that I wanted to hear, the music of strangers’ voices that would tell me we were now, with no turning back, in a different, bigger, and surely more exciting world.
Not that I was or am a linguist, not by any stretch of the epiglottis. I remember, for instance, about the same time, on a family trip to Salthill, Co. Galway, taking a family “jaunt” in our battered Ford Consul out to “the wilds” of Connemara, and being entirely tongue-tied when it came to paying at the counter of the local shop, my younger brother rescuing my mother and myself with the words uachtar reoite (ice cream), words that might as well have been, in that moment (far from the controlled, patrolled laboratory environment of a Christian Brothers’ classroom) Latin or – why not? – Greek.
Yet weren’t all of us young schoolkids engaged in a linguistic experiment at that time, whether we knew it or not?
Throughout the 1970s it will be recalled that our (all imported) weekly boys’ comic books (almost exclusively made up of war stories) still routinely referred to Germans as the “Bosch”, the “Hun”, and “Gerry”; to the French as “Frogs”; and to the Italians as “Eyeties”, etc. etc. – the writers and publishers apparently obsessed with the victories, disappointments, and humiliations of World War II, which had ended, remarkably, more than a quarter century before. Even in relatively sleepy Portlaoise, a culture war about the meaning of Europe was still being fought, and, at home in front of Sesame Street or in school in our cast-iron & hard-wood two-man desks, we were the latest conscripts in its trenches.
Yet even in Portlaoise, in my father’s countertop brochures and holiday destination posters we could glimpse an alternative version of Europe being told, and sold: the welcoming smiles of German bar staff, of French bistro waiters and of handsome Italian gigolos (who, respectively, served tankards of beer in their frilled dresses and lederhosen, popped the corks on moonlight-drenched terraces, or posed on the bonnets of sports cars in their torn-open printed shirts). Whatever new clichés we were dazzled with in our rush to see beyond our island world, this new promised land was far more promising than the endless recriminations of the Victor, the Warlord, and Battle’s xenophobic fantasies of revenge might have suggested.
Of course we knew too that Europe had its own problems: even in Lourdes we were aware of the active separatist movement just over the border in the Basque region. And we’d heard enough about the Baader-Meinhof Gang on news reports to know that Germany too had its dissenting voices. But, despite the brain-washing many of us had received, Europe just didn’t feel like something to be afraid of. In fact it felt to us like a place of possibility, much as the US must once have seemed to our parents’ generation, a land beyond the closed narrative of our troubled relationship with our nearest neighbour and, by extension, with a part of ourselves.
In the main – and despite two World Wars, too many “regional” wars, and more broken treaties than anyone could list – Europe had managed to accommodate its differences and to exercise the authority of the ballot box over that of the Armalite, to borrow the vocabulary of northern Irish politics of the time and after. In its Assembly, occasionally televised, Europeans spoke in their own languages, and the often long-drawn-out, nigh insufferable translations, explanations, and explications seemed part of the proof of mutual tolerance. In our Brexit age, it’s interesting to recall how the UK commemorated its own entry into the EEC, also in 1973, with the issuing of a 50p coin that features a much-celebrated symbolic circle of nine hands. Typing as I am now with my right hand, I am holding one of these intriguing coins in my left, truly an object from a lost world. If anything its intended symbol of mutual tolerance and cooperation now looks more like a falling-out at a card game, its debt to the strange double-take artworks of MC Escher more pointed with each passing day.
Concerning Ireland’s membership of the EEC, there is, of course, another tasty irony. When the first real “European” experiment took place (salve to our friends, the ancient Romans), aside from a single reputed reconnaissance mission to the coast of north County Dublin, Ireland was considered a bridge too far, the Hibernia or “winterland” of some toga-and-sandals nightmare. Now we were seeking representation, a place at the central table: two thousand years ago we weren’t even interesting enough to invade.
As someone from a small town, itself bypassed twice in scarcely more than a decade, I know something of how it feels to be overlooked. But one must let go of old hurts as well as old consolation: entry into any club requires new members to shed a certain amount of their certainty and self-importance. I tease the ancient Romans now, and why not, but they are deserving of my respect too, not least for recognising the limit of their ambitions. And there are more ways to travel and see the world than in suits of armour or combat fatigues.
Nowadays I consider it one of the great riches of my life that I’ve visited a modest but significant number of the great European cities, places where it’s possible to feel the rivers of language and culture moving underfoot and all around, where the waves of influence, fashion, and imitation morph and remake (speed it up in your mind’s eye like some Hollywood CGI) the façades of buildings, the expressions of gargoyles and cherubim, the colours and planting schemes of streetscapes and parks, the very music that emanates from the great theatres and concert halls as day meets night in the crepuscular doorway of evening. Like many of us, I love just to stand, after dark on a warm summer’s evening, say, in that flow of suddenly renewed purpose, trying to imagine where it might be going next without me.
More than anything, now, this is what Europe means to me. Countering my occasional desire for certainties, it reminds me that there is much to be learned from not understanding, from being a little out of one’s depth, from learning to pay attention to atmosphere and texture and nuance as well as meaning. (For a poet there is a constant negotiation between sound and meaning, a poem that is dominated by either being, one might say, only half of the truth). Perhaps I see now that one of the great attractions of travel for me has always been – like encountering music whose lyrics I don’t understand – an opportunity to listen better.
If visited by an alien tourist, all of the world – and certainly all of Europe – might seem as one and the same. Yet Europe is a more complicated entity than I ever guessed, either on my first “visit” as a schoolboy or at any time since. Increasingly I am aware of its colonial past (no doubt eclipsed for us Irish by the colonial past of our nearest neighbour). Facing up to that shameful history will be a big challenge for Europe in the years ahead and will, I fell certain, dramatically change it in the years and decades to come. Difficult as these conversations will be, they will also, I think, help to free Europe from becoming a kind of Disneyland for the tourists of the world who see only its Gothic, Baroque, and Classical splendour but are reluctant to engage with its complex present, or to wonder about the world-view, the inequalities and, ultimately, the actions that afforded such riches to be amassed in the first place.
What will save Europe, I think – and is in short supply today in so many places across the world – is the humility to admit historical transgressions, and the resolve to move on from the past, to acknowledge it as a place of origin rather than as a defining condition.
As in many things I am, I suppose, something of a barbarian. I often think of the great Greek poet Constantin Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” (surely a contender for the greatest European poem of modern times?). I love its depiction of the Romans, on the eve of the Sack of Rome, all running hither and thither in panic, but then stopping to don their most beautiful robes and stunning jewels because, as Cavafy puts it, “these things dazzle barbarians.” When all else fails, the last hope is to dazzle the barbarians (possibly even with the same items that have been stolen from them in earlier encounters). Maybe at some level we are all tourists wandering through the gift shop of European civilisation, picking out what pleases us, overlooking or pointedly ignoring what does not. Then again, I console myself, while it might not be what we’d wish for in a surgeon or rocket scientist, in a poet the tendency to be dazzled on occasion might well be an essential qualification.
Despite everything I say here, of course, about travel and connection, I never entirely shake off the feeling that Europe is a place I go to, a place “over nine waves” to borrow the title of Marie Heaney’s collection of Irish legends. Maybe islanders will always hear this whispered distinction in their dealings with the wider world. The strength of the European experiment is that our individual experiences are different, often wildly so; but in coming together, however imperfectly, we learn from and, on occasion, may be inspired by each other. At this pivotal time in world history, it might well be this fundamental challenge that determines the long-term survival of Europe: not just to own, but to own up to, its history. By not withdrawing from or turning our backs on each other, we remove the temptation to retreat into a hall of mirrors or echo chamber where the only opinions and points of view to be heard are copies of our own.
Of the Cavafy poem cited earlier, the surprising truth is withheld to the last couplet. When the threatened invasion once again comes to nothing and the dreaded horde fails to materialise on the horizon, the disappointed citizens turn to each other: “Now what is to become of us without barbarians?” they ask. “These people were some sort of a solution.” What is really destroying Rome, it turns out, is what it has become behind the walls built to protect itself from the outside world.
In the years when I still had the tone-deaf confidence to busk on any street on which I happened to find myself (versions of songs and fragments of songs, mostly to entertain myself), I visited Paris on a few occasions. Along the way I came to realise that the activity of setting down a cap on the footpath and proceeding to assault innocent passers-by with my six-string tirade was, in fact, simply an excuse to be there, on that street, at that time, to stand and watch – and listen to – the world go by. Once I recognised that fact, my trips abroad sans guitare were both more pleasant (for all concerned) and significantly easier to manage in terms of logistics and cost. If in nothing else, the poet has the advantage over the concert pianist or cellist when it comes to taking the show on the road.
It was after my last busking “tour”, I think, in the mid ’80s, that someone told me the origin of the French word fiacre, referring to the four-wheeled hackney cab familiar in films set in Paris in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. It turns out that the first Paris “taxi rank” was on Rue Saint-Martin (in the fourth arrondissement), just outside a hotel named St Fiacre, the Irish-born patron saint of gardeners and, in time, taxi-drivers. The point is that the traffic of influence, cause and effect is two-way, even if it’s not always easy to see or trace. Europe might have a much larger discernible influence on Ireland than Ireland on Europe, but the relationship is nevertheless symbiotic. How else to describe it, other than as a kind of magical feeling, to exit the great green doors of the Centre Culturel Irlandais, the old Irish College in the fifth arrondissement – as so many artists and writers and musicians have done over the last two decades – and find one’s onward journey through one of the great cities of the world begins on Rue des Irlandais.
In recent years when I travel it is often as a participant in one or other literary festival. And on a great many occasions I have heard powerful and moving readings and recitations in languages I do not speak or understand. Until this year of pandemic, for the past twenty I have travelled every year to my wife’s native Sicily (the birthplace of our two sons and therefore a particularly meaningful destination). There I have the overwhelming sense of being on the other side of the European experiment, on another island that is at once both in and outside of the mainstream of European exchange. The Mediterranean climate, the profound Arabic influence on the culture, and, in recent years, the significant presence of so many migrants risking life and limb to cross from North Africa, all suggest that, despite the routine nature of much of our lives, Europe is, as ever, on the brink of great change. However far apart these two worlds seem, these two distant island and coastlines are far closer than we usually imagine. To meet only with those who share our specific experiences is to be cut off from the truth and energy of the ever-evolving world, to raise the drawbridge or to lower the portcullis, almost comically, against change itself. As we wander around them looking for the toilets or a nice picture postcard, Europe’s great historical castles – with their often stunningly complex defence systems – have a great deal to teach us about the folly of building walls to hold back change.
By way of conclusion, I return to the mid-1970s, to Portlaoise in the Irish midlands, at once the very edge of Europe but also, as we I now begin to think of it, a central player in its fate. On this particular day, an enterprising teacher matches my classmate Louis Byrne and myself for a papier-mâché map-making session, the desired outcome of which is to be a scale map of Ireland, a geographical “selfie” in this time of change, expansion, and redefinition. As it happens Louis and I take to the task with uncommon gusto, and, by popular consent, ours is the best and most ambitious effort, with not only all of the expected significant features in approximately the right locations but, as I recall, with a colour coding that describes the elevation of mountains and hills, all arranged concentrically around the great central plain (on which our plantation settlement stands proud like a wild west cowboy fort or German Burg or Schloss). We may be the most inland county in Ireland, but instead of a story of isolation our map describes our central importance. There are, after all, no edges to the world, only other places that stand at other centres.
It surprises me to remember this 3D map now because, on another occasion, around the same time, my younger brother and I will fashion another large-scale map of Ireland, this time out of a pile of builders’ sand deposited in our back yard (in preparation for a kitchen extension). The labours on this occasion will prompt a poem, The Island, which ends with an image of, late at night, “a fleet of snails” travelling to and from our virtual Ireland –
like so many Norse or Spanish or Phoenician sails,
their glistening trails criss-crossing the hostile dark.
That poem considers how, even on an island, we are connected in so many ways to the world around us – a subject I was clearly drawn to, even then. Perhaps I had glimpsed something in my earlier cartographic adventures with my classmate Louis. As with sound and meaning, form and meaning do not always reveal themselves in the same moment.
In the case of that earlier papier-mâché effort, quick to spot a marketing opportunity, my travel agent father offered to display it in one of the large twin windows that faced onto Main Street, at which prospect my classmate and I were of course delighted – the equivalent, I suppose, of having our schoolboy efforts broadcast on a giant screen in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. I could barely get to sleep for the excitement of thinking of “‘our Ireland,” lit up there under the window’s coloured spotlights for all to see. Some time later, my map-making experiment in sand set me wondering, not so much about the topography as about the unseen traffic that came and went under cover of nightfall, traffic that stitched our floating world into a narrative bigger than ours alone. As we grow up, the radius of our imagination grows to take in more and more of the world, or should. (The idea that the opposite might happen, as has happened with our nearest neighbour, is hard to fathom and, frankly, sad. Who we are is only in part who we were. Otherwise even our greatest achievements are no more than weights around our necks)
My maternal grandfather fought and was wounded in (indeed was changed dramatically by his experiences in) the Great War. He wasn’t fighting for Ireland, as such, but for a broader ideal of freedom, deserved equally by those living outside of as well as within his native country.
As inhabitants of an island, it is entirely possible that we Irish are overly focused on geographical boundaries and are less than adept at detecting the distinct electrical charge of other kinds of transitions and crossings. But Ireland too is a changing society, and if we have by times a simplistic image of who we are and what we might yet be, we can learn a great deal about how to grow into the role ahead of us, both from the wider European family’s experiences and examples, and from its mistakes. Likewise, our place at the table with our now twenty-six fellow member states gives our concerns a platform on which to be heard, scrutinised, and refined. Difference is what unites us. The price of membership turns out to be keeping the door open for others who may come behind us. The nine hands of the UK’s Euro 50p coin may well be one single hand after all, in a blur of motion, keeping the revolving door turning, playing the music of change.
Oddly I find myself back in Lourdes again now, remembering the long, intoning, call-and-response of the priest and congregation, the laughter of the first-time-abroad Irish pilgrims, like characters from The Canterbury Tales, telling bawdy jokes and winking at the waiters and waitresses, wearing flowers in their hair and sitting up talking until all hours in terrace bars, spellbound by the unknown, by the endless streams of fellow pilgrims, of passing tourists, and of off-duty locals cooling their heels after a long day’s work in the service of the Virgin and the local economy.
History, religion, politics, employment, trade … all the necessary ingredients are right there out of which to construct the future, or to understand the past. And someone laughing, and someone singing too loud and too long, and getting the words all wrong, completely, comically wrong, but pushing ahead with the song anyway because, after all, that’s how you learn a new language as a human, and that’s where new songs come from.