Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Myth of the Inner City by Paula Meehan

“The dreams of our elders have mythic endurance”.

(from ‘Yes”, a poem by Brendan Kennelly)


Imagine a time lapse film of the earth from space. Gaia. Name for the great mother which Crete gave us. By a remote God-eye in the sky as you might be sometimes in front of a TV, watching a nature program where the life and death of a rose unfolds in a few seconds. Hold in mind the entire human history on the planet. You would hardly notice we were here until cities burgeon on the face of the earth, from space looking much like flowers of light. Earth seen from the side furthest from the sun a mesh of pulsating energy expressed in light. You would think we were afraid of the dark.

My room looks down three stories over a back garden. For security reasons a steel door blocks access to this space and nobody tends the garden. All around me the other back gardens are developed – car parking spaces, office extensions – but this small path of the earth has been untouched for so long that nature has had its way and only what is tough has survived. It is a busy place: rats, cats, (some feral, some slumming from the nearby senior citizens complex) birds, bees, insects, moths, butterflies. Always something going on. But men in grey suits with measuring tapes have been tinkering around the building for a while now, and I suspect the little patch is doomed, its diverse life forms about to fall before the plans on somebody’s desk. The elder trees were looking like they would have supremacy for my lifetime, though a couple of sycamore saplings that arrived as winged seeds three autumns ago would have probably won the war if left to their own devices. I’ll miss the gossip of the living creatures and the subtler gossip of the flora. But the city as organism, as energy net, as part of nature herself is in flux and my path has as much chance of resistance as the wild human communities of the city have to resisting their fate.

I spent my childhood in the fifties and sixties in what’s now called the north inner city of Dublin. The last days of the traditional working class, thought we didn’t know then we faced a future without work. It was a diverse area with a diverse culture, largely oral, and within living memory of the old people was the huge influx from the countryside during the famine of the mid-nineteenth century, stories from when it was one of the biggest red light districts in Europe at the turn of the century, (it serviced the port and the British army of occupation), to tales of the Rising and labor struggles of the working man and woman. Lots of exotic blood lines, and far removed from the homogenized Catholic fascist, green nationalist, woman oppressing agenda’s of the official state and its minions. I certainly didn’t know I was underprivileged till they told me at school.

Much that I have of my understanding of the oral tradition I got as a child there, and my life as a poet owes as much to the street rhymes and songs and folk memory of that place as it does to the book learning I was later to get as one of the first generation to access secondary school under the free education act. I perceived early the impossibility of literal truth. You would watch a story pass from mouth to mouth and what had started as a commonplace domestic drama that morning would by nightfall be epic in its lineaments. “Send reinforcements. We’re going to advance.” A message sent by runners from the front during WWI becomes by the time the General hears it: “Send three and four pence. We’re going to a dance.” The oral transmission has plenty of room for confusion as well. We steer between the human capacity to shape material for meaning and essential wisdom, and the human capacity to garble and mishear.

Medea, Athena, Pasiphae, Aphrodite, Agave, Clytemnestra, these hard to pronounce names, winging in like sycamore seeds from the schoolbooks to my imagination, to root there. Helen of Troy, sure I know her. She lived in the flat above us. The blood on the landing when her husband came to bring her home: my first remembered sight of blood. And I saw my own mother’s murderous rages. She really did have snakes for hair. You could not look on her but you would turn to stone. And I suspect much of my life journey has been forging and polishing a shield mirror for her to see her own Medusa face there. And for me to see mine.

And yet all those lives and that rich patch of humanity was disrupted, and in some cases completely annihilated, by planning decisions taken by people who saw only buildings or housing stock, and who failed to see community, and who failed to listen to the activists who were trying to speak on behalf of the community. (As I write there haven six deaths in the last week from drug overdoses or from drug related suicides – all young people under twenty five. The community is in crisis, and a considerable portion of the blame is attributable to the disastrous planning decisions of the last twenty years.)

At university I studied myth and classical Greek drama with W.B. Standford, a great friend of Greece, and by the time I met him, in his last cranky and magnificent decade as a teacher. A small class, as enrolments in classical studies were rapidly dropping. Not Relevant. Ha! His introduction to The Bacchae of Euripides was to describe a host of screaming young women outside the Carlton Cinema on O’Connell Street the night The Beatles played there. You couldn’t walk the streets of Dublin for fear of being torn limb from limb he insinuated. As a seeker after ecstatic experience of myself I took Euripides personally, and he had a lot more to say to me about the city I lived in than the daily newspapers. I was a year away from having a vote as a citizen of a state that had so denied the sexual and ecstatic that its future seemed inexorable. Something had to give. The women were gathering in the groves and tuning into their powers in rapt communion with the wild energies of nature; any man to cross them would be torn apart, just as the play Pentheus the King, the rational holder of civic power, and handy as a symbol of all I called patriarchy, would be ripped apart by his mother Agave for interfering with the free intercommunication between species.

Or so I liked to think. That was my reading, and my limited understanding. I had to live through the next twenty years as a citizen of that city and make many journeys away from it to know that Euripides, tapping into the great store of myth and seeing more archaic traces of Dionysian ritual in his exile from his beloved Athens in the wilder reaches to the east, was providing guidance for the individual as well as the polis. The lesson was to achieve balance within, or else be torn apart by the raging energies of the psyche. As the American poet and ecologist, Gary Snyder puts it, “the wild freedom of the dance, ecstasy / silent solitary illumination, ecstasy”.

At first myths were riveting stories to engage the child I was: now at forty they were gifts from the elders. Truths shaped and crafted by countless generations of human experience wherein I can find shelter and sustenance and tools to survival. They often need a bit of detoxification. If they are a direct plumb-line back to the Neolithic they are also manipulability by the living to their own ends.  In Ireland many of the local fertility goddesses of place were usurped by male Christian saints as part of the expansion of the Roman Catholic Empire. And in the nineteenth century much Greek myth was cut from its afro-Asiatic roots, or those roots were suppressed, and in the hands of certain German scholars were distorted to provide justification for Racism, especially Anti-Semitism. I have been guilty myself of twisting myth to suit ideology.

I first set foot on Crete in 1975. I had finished university. I was restless. I had no prospects of work at home and I was suffering from a broken heart. I came here because the myth of the Minotaur had gripped my imagination and I was developing an appetite for the Minoan. Their artifacts as well as their stories seemed marvelously, crafty and elegant, and our own Book of Invasions (one of the our precious 6th century vellum manuscripts – the transcription into literature of a long oral transmission of what peoples had come to Ireland in waves of invasion from earliest times) pointed to a number of Bronze Age migrations from the Easter Mediterranean. I suspected somewhere inside of me that I would find a version of home here. I hitched down from the cold north out of a bleak winter. I had two pounds in my pocket when I landed and the only word I knew in demotic Greek was dulya – work. Which I duly found and spent six months rambling this island as a migrant field worker, harvesting oranges and olives mostly. Time was scrounged from this survival strategy to visit the sites, usually on the one day a week that there was free admission. The pay of a migrant field worker was just about subsistence level. I grew strong and healthy, mostly sleeping out, dreaming powerful dreams, and beginning to call what I was scribbling in notebooks poetry.

I learned many things here. Basic herbal lore from Maria, woman of eighty who put me to shame in her agility climbing to the olive terraces. How to heal my spirit and heart through hard physical work. A love of the olive. First taste fresh pressed thick jade oil. How to embroider in the local fashion – counted threat work – meticulous and anachronistic maybe, for I was seeing the last days of the traditional dowry. The young woman from Murnes I’d befriended cursed her days at the needle. She wanted an education and the wider world, a different role as a woman to that of her mother. A familiar story.

Everywhere communities like my own at home, or the plant patch out the back of the house I live in now, under threat, their ways likely to be wiped forever in a zoning decision taken elsewhere.

And the Minotaur: what does that myth say to me now, twenty years on from that journey? In a poem I wrote here at that time I have:


In Crete I glimpsed Minoans

Fleeing the wrath of thunder.

Despite their dancing for love of the bull

They could not placate the waves

Nor keep the sea from making memory

Of throbbing tumbrels and bodies

Oiled to leap in air and skirt

The fretted fury of the beast.


I really glimpsed it here. The existence of the myth enabled me to go into the labyrinth and confront the beast. A process I am still engaged in. The myth itself is the clew of thread I have to guide me. When I look the beast in the face, maybe I won’t ram it through with a phallic sword. Maybe I’ll look it in the eye and find beauty and kindness there, a misunderstood, imprisoned energy. I don’t know. I am still working on my version. But if, as I suspect to be the case, the beast can be read as the animal part of the self, or the part of the state, or community, that is wild and tough, and not for the taming, then I would want to lie down with it and listen to its story.

Dublin July 1995

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