By a poignant coincidence, Tuesday's funeral of my friend Steve Dunford fell on what, in the French revolutionary calendar, would have been New Year's Day. This could hardly have been more apt for a man who spent much of his later life commemorating the events of 1798, when the ideas that had swept France also briefly threatened to turn Ireland into a republic.
That calendar was based on the rural economy and nature, with days named in honour of plants, animals and working tools, rather than saints. The year began with harvest and the autumn equinox. In their wisdom, they allocated new year, 1 Vendémiare, to that cornerstone of French life and culture: the grape.
Sure enough, the grape and its derivatives featured extensively in the celebrations of "General" Dunford's life, although barley was popular too, especially with his fellow military re-enactors, who fetched their pikes out of the thatch one more time to give him a guard of honour. It was a musical occasion too, with the great Sharon Shannon among others playing at the graveside. As at all the best funerals, there was even dancing.
By the time I left Killala, a beautiful harvest moon rose in the east. It was orangey-pink, and huge, and was straight ahead on the road out of Mayo, as if lighting my way to Dublin. I stopped in Longford for food and by the time I resumed, the moon had lost some of its mystical quality. It was still beautiful, but being higher in the sky, was conventionally white now, and smaller. “Bloody Longford,” I sighed to the imaginary Steve beside me. “That’s where it went wrong in 1798 too.”
Back in Dublin, I am pleased to see that another confluence of history and music will be taking place this weekend. The Dublin Festival of History began on Monday and continues at various venues until October 10th. Friday also sees the opening of the annual Frank Harte Festival, in memory of the great singer and song-collector who died in 2005.
Harte was a musical historian, whose study of the subject was in part an attempt to redress its neglect by the official keepers of history, who may have been wary of balladeers as a source of information.
“Academic historians have ignored the ballads, but I consider them to be an unwritten history,” he once told this newspaper. “Whether they are strictly true or not is not important – they are the expression of our people. If they’re exaggerated, it’s because that’s what people felt. I have a saying: ‘Those in power write the history, those who suffer write the songs’. And given our history, we have an awful lot of songs.”
Indeed, getting back to 1798 and those years, there are enough ballads about the Napoleonic wars alone that Harte once filled a double CD set with them. For an Irish ballad collector, Napoleon was "like Mount Everest" he quipped after climbing the north face in his 2001 collection, My name is Napoleon Bonaparte. No doubt some of these will feature in this weekend's festival, a blend of online and live events, the latter taking place at the Teachers' Club on Parnell Square, Dublin. frankhartefestival.ie.
This being what Patrick Kavanagh called "an apple-ripe September morning", I'm also reminded that the last weekend of the month brings the poet's annual festival in Inniskeen. Or it did in the years before the plague, anyway. Alas, Covid has not quite loosened its grip on Monaghan yet, so the 2021 weekend will be telescoped into a single evening, and by invitation only, to allow what is arguably the most important part to take place.
Speaking of telescopes, director of the Kavanagh Centre Darren McCreesh tells me he has recently taken delivery of something called a “poetry jukebox”. Not to be confused with the Wurlitzer kind, this a Czech-made wonder which will be installed outdoors on a riverbank and features a “periscope” through which visitors will be able to call up work from 20 authors, reflecting the centre’s role in promoting poetry in general, not just the local man.
Like my friend Steve, Kavanagh too was the leader of a notional army: of Irish poets in his case, the standing reserve of which, he claimed, never fell below "10,000". Since 1971, the annual Patrick Kavanagh poetry award has been filtering the latest recruits for officer material, with Paul Durcan, Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin, Sinead Morrissey and Peter Sirr among the many promoted. The award is now 50 years-old and the latest winner will be announced on Friday.