Hearing secret harmonies in Dunfanaghy – Arnold Bax in Donegal, from “Farewell My Youth”

md19884333539

(edit 30th August 2018 – (edit 30th August 2018 – for further extracts from Arnold Bax’s “Farewell My Youth”, see here on the forgotten and despised man of the Irish revolution, Darrell Figgis and here on a literary bus conductor. And I feature a seasonal Bax piece here.)

 

The English composer Arnold Bax wrote a witty, entertaining memoir, Farewell My Youth, in 1943. Bax, prior to World War I, spent time in Dublin and the book has some marvellous pen pictures of various Celtic Revival and Nationalist figures. Bax wrote fiction under the name Dermot O’Byrne, and Ireland served as a romantic dreamland for him – although I found the thrust of this paper by Seamus de Barra – ” I do not believe that the realities of Irish life were, ultimately, realities for him” – a little on the harsh side as Farewell My Youth has some asides which reveal a certain clarity of perception. Indeed, some of the most acute writing deals with Æ , AKA George Russell, and his tendency towards mystical utterance.

There are some fascinating passages, some of which I hope to come back to here, but here is one from towards the end of the book:

I was in Glencolumcille in the autumn of 1912 when I received a postcard from “Æ ” suggesting I join him for a week at Breaghy, near Dunfanaghy where he went every September to paint. A day or two later I set off on my bicycle for that faraway place on the other side of County Donegal. I toiled over the vast wilderness of high bogland between Glen and Glengesh, led my machine down that truly awful hill, loose stones clattering and tumbling after me, and pedalled into squalid Ardara and thence to Port Noo on the sea-coast. Then I came unexpectedly upon a wedding, that of one of the comeliest, gayest, and most affectionate Irish girls I had ever known. I have often thought of you since, Mary Cannon, with your laughing eyes and mouth, and have wondered how you fared with your coastguard, and whether he proved worthy of you.

Next day I started again, riding now into the Rosses’ country (with at first rather stiff thighs) over those strangely red roads that look as though dyed with ancient carnage and that work an almost hypnotic effect upon the eye and brain. From Burtonport of the granite I took train to Dunfanaghy Road, and thence after picking up my suitcase went on to Breaghy by outside car. There at the door of a snug thatched cottage on a hill and surrounded by whin-bushes I descried “Æ ‘s” burly and bearded form, his kindly short sighted eyes peering out in search of me. Within the house we were mothered by a simple apple-cheeked old lady, and fed sumptuously on freshly caught salmon, superb eggs, and a huge and monstrously rich home-made cake.

It was an odd entranced week that I spent there, quite dreamlike in the guttering candlelight of memory. Close by our hillock was the fine house and estate of Sir Hugh Law, a Nationalist M.P. who, an old friend of “Æ “, had loaned him a summer house in the wooded grounds above the sea in which he might paint on wet days.

I have not met with many experiences which cannot be accounted for by a rational explanation, but one of these occurred in that place in the dripping Breaghy woods.

My friend was painting at his easel in the middle of the floor, in his absorption allowing his pipe to go out every two minutes and having to cross to to the mantelpiece for a light, so that between the easel and fireplace there was a rack strewn with hundreds of dead matches.

I was reading in the window seat near the door, and we had not spoken for perhaps a quarter of an hours when I suddenly became aware that I was listening to strange sounds, the like of which I had never heard before. They can only be described as a kind of mingling of rippling water and tiny belles, tinkled, and yet I could have written them out in ordinary musical notation.

“Do you hear music?” said “Æ ” quietly. ” I do, ” I replied, and even as I spoke utter silence fell. I do not know what it was we both heard that morning and must be content to leave it at that.

One thought

  1. Pingback: Séamus Sweeney

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s