Light-bulb moments – An Irishman’s Diary about Leonard Cohen, Ludwig Hopf, and Newgrange

 “Not only is there a crack in everything, but in some Irish things, there’s a crack in the crack – or in this case, in the theory about the crack.” Photograph: Alan Betson

“Not only is there a crack in everything, but in some Irish things, there’s a crack in the crack – or in this case, in the theory about the crack.” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The ghost of Leonard Cohen was among the attendance at an event in Dublin’s Mount Jerome cemetery earlier this week.

It was the now-annual commemoration of Ludwig Hopf, a German-born genius of the last century, who collaborated with Einstein in both physics and music (they played duets together), but ended his days as a Jewish refugee in Ireland, working for a time in Trinity College, before he died suddenly on the winter solstice of 1939.

The Hopf family had been scattered by war, never to be reunited this side of the grave.

After a period in a concentration camp, Ludwig’s son Arnold escaped to Kenya where he married, raised a family, and died without seeing his father again.

The family’s sad story was then reconstructed by the priest, Fr Willie Walshe, who conducted Arnold’s funeral.

Since when, Willie’s family and friends back in Ireland first refound the forgotten and neglected grave, which also includes the remains of Ludwig’s 18-year-old daughter Liselore, then restored it.

So as is now usual, this week, a dozen or so people gathered there to remember the family.

Fr Walshe read from the Book of Psalms and also a passage by the late writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. That was followed by a recitation of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer synonymous with mourning (even though it doesn’t mention death).

It would normally have been said by the great Tomi Reichental, who spent part of his childhood in Belsen but survived that hell to become a citizen – and a model one at that – of Ireland, where he still lives. Alas, Tomi couldn’t attend this year. So Kaddish was recited instead by Dr David Abrahamson of TCD, who did it first in Hebrew, then translated.

And ignorant as I am of Jewish prayer rituals, the opening sentence struck a chord. A Leonard Cohen chord, to be exact, because it was essentially the same line – “Magnified and sanctified be thy holy name” – that opened Cohen’s farewell song from earlier this year, You Want It Darker?

As I only now realised, the singer had thereby written his own Kaddish. After six decades of music and poetry, it was to be his last word.

Composed as a one-sided conversation with a seemingly implacable God, You Want It Darker? had sounded gloomy to my untrained ears. But as I’ve since learned, it was inspired by the story of Abraham and Isaac (making the name of the reciter in Mount Jerome apt). And that tale also sounded bleak for a while, before ending well.

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What is probably now Cohen’s most famous lyric, of course, mentions light rather that dark. “There is a crack in everything,” he sang; “That’s how the light gets in”. And I thought of this line too yesterday when reading the story about Newgrange, and the startling suggestion that the solstice-aligned “light box” may be an invention of the 1960s, not of 5,000-year-old astronomy.

I feel personally embarrassed by this. On at least three occasions, I have shown the monument off to visiting Americans, knowing how easily impressed they are by ancient things, and I have lingered lovingly on the detail of how the light beam didn’t quite reach the back wall any more because of variations in the Earth’s orbit over millennia.

Instead, according to this latest revisionism, the light box has been in operation only since December 1967, making it younger than the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP.

Cohen didn’t know the half of it, clearly. Not only is there a crack in everything, but in some Irish things, there’s a crack in the crack – or in this case, in the theory about the crack.

Light box aside, the Newgrange restoration was controversial from the start. Even though it used only material found on-site, the quartz wall has always looked disconcertingly new.

And since nobody has the original plans, there was an indeed an element of constructing, not just reconstructing, involved. This would have been worrying at the best of times.

But the 1960s and 1970s was a dark age for construction for all kinds, as we’ve been reminded indirectly by other recent events.

That was an era when people could throw up the most hideous block of concrete, devoid of all beauty or charm, and then, with a straight face, call it after, say, the Greek god of light.

Yes, I suppose it was the moon landings they were thinking of. Even so, it seems no less deranged now. I refer, of course, to Apollo House.