A Hat Too Big For The Town
Yeats, Tales from an Irish Odyssey & The Story of Keshcorran
THE NEW ODYSSEY: A Conversation with Martin Shaw & Jonathan Pageau, ahead of The Symbolic World Conference
(Audio recordings of this Substack and the story are at the bottom of the post)
Thoor Ballylee, Oct 2023
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
― William Butler Yeats
Dear parish, It’s a squally and gloriously autumnal November morning as I finally locate myself at home after a wonderful exacting stint of mythtelling across Ireland. Once I’ve taken the last of my coffee and fed the cats, I’ll shuffle into that storm-rain and grab logs from the shed. I’m delighted to be back, and pleased with the labours of the last month: it felt like a good soak.
I have a story for us today actually recorded in the high cave of Keshcorran in Sligo, the very place where the story takes place. First, some reflections from time on the road.
As a middle-aged guy, touring still has a bit of the Vagabondia about it; it gets me back in touch with a kind of life I’ve been exploring since the summer of 1988 when I was sweet sixteen. Before central heating and mortgages and sensible decisions there was the road and all that may occur on it. Never once in Ireland was it hard to explain who I was and what I did, there was an immediate and instinctive understanding of it: Seanchai. These are the hearth-fire or wandering storytellers of Ireland, of who there are few now. Curators of myth, cultural history, poetry, wit, even magic.
One of the wild old guys
I spoke in Yeats’s tower Thoor Ballylee, a distinguished bunch of art centres, a tavern, a large cafe, a stable, an enchanted cave, the hill of Tara, the home of John Moriarty and a confluence of encounters my mind has temporarily forgotten in its happily exhausted state. I got to collaborate again with my friend Liam O’Maonlai from the Hothouse Flowers in Sligo, and - like the Canadian tour - the evenings were completely improvised in terms of content, with a moveable feast of stories, ideas and even jokes that turned up night after night. Next time I suspect I will come back with one big Irish story that I tell over several hours.
Martin & Liam, Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo
Sleeping in the room that Moriarty was born in was quite something, and there’s a tale too strange for me to repeat here. What I can tell you is when I wandered out into the gloom of John’s outhouse to find peat I encountered the pelt of a fox and it went from there.
I’ve also returned to Devon with an extraordinary gift: the Persian saddlebags of W.B. Yeats. It feels mind-boggling to even write that. The musician Glen Hansard - not only a consummate host and friend - saw fit to give them to me. If I had been promised such a thing as the sum profit of this recent adventure, I likely would have accepted. Yeats was an influence on a young C.S. Lewis as we remember.
I’ve told many saddlebag stories over the years. The old idea in Russian fairytales is that you can fill your saddlebags with as much beauty as is possible, providing you are also prepared to give some away. Keep up the archaic arrangement and it need never stop. And you never venture out for an encounter with soul without well-stocked bags. The soul in these stories is often seen as a woman that lives at the very edge of the world, and the only thing she takes remotely seriously is beautiful things made slowly by hand. There’s some kind of clue about how to live right there.
In Letterkenny, a man slipped out of a betting shop and saw me, walked a few paces then stopped and walked back. He raised one pale finger at me. “That hat,” he drawled, “is too big for this town.” Then he slipped away. And he was right. That night I walked onstage with three hats, that got bigger as I proceeded. All of us have to wear a hat too big for the town at some point. Christ requires it. As Joseph Campbell used to say, tricky-like, the role of the community is to torture the mystic to death. Or as Seamus Heaney would say, to avoid that kind of thing we need to move from Herd to Heard.
The continual movement of touring has its charisma, a scuffy romance that I can easily fall into, but it’s a settling I’ve been longing for in the last week. I miss my small Orthodox community and have been counting the days till I am back at Divine Liturgy. So it’s with a full and expectant heart that I travel up to Exeter to be reunited with my friends in this holiest of experiences. Something happens when I bend my head to walk through the door into the singing, the scent, the icons, the great primordial chant. I come back to a better part of myself.
It won’t surprise you to learn that I used to be a bit of pirate before my baptism in the Dart, and like many of us can be susceptible to the glee of a happy crowd and some of the celebrating that comes from an evening well delivered. But this time - like the Canadian tour - was different. I loved it all, but was yearning for something else again.