Liam Cagney

Compulsive Lyre

Liam Cagney

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Hale and in high spirits, buoyed by my having last month won the international LIVRE award for my novel  A Stranger in Glenties, which, it was said, would prove a much-needed boon for Irish tourism, I set off on a fine July morning at 10am from the house in Dunlewy that belonged to my partner, the broadcaster and saxophonist Mícheál Ó Baoghill, on a long run around the southern edge of Lough Nacung, a run during which, as I’d been telling Mícheál the night before on the phone, I had decided I would immediately begin work on composing the follow-up to A Stranger in Glenties. My follow-up was to be a short story that The Irish Times, the only remaining respectable Irish daily, had commissioned me to write on the theme 'Fallow Legends', which would deal with post-crisis—or, as some were now calling it, postlapsarian—Ireland.  

The Literary editor Fintan O’Toole had set the theme several weeks ago. By 'Fallow Legends', Mr O’Toole had told me one rainy Monday morning on the phone, the Times intended me to delve for its readership into the murky yet rich waters of our nation’s natural reservoir of myth—that pool of fantastical stories of old—with the aim of sifting up from its depths, from those chasmic deeps, some image, some measure by which our people might reframe themselves and their lives.  

 ‘These old legends are undeniable, Bill,’ said Mr O’Toole on the phone, ‘and so we might too become undeniable. These stories are comforting, and so we too might be comforted. Redeemed,’ he added, stressing the second syllable. ‘Art has always deemed and redeemed us.’ 

I knew this, and A Stranger in Glenties had indeed partly dealt with such themes. 

‘From waters dark and murky,’ Mr O’Toole went on, getting a little carried away, ‘may come images clear and distinct. Reflections, Bill—but not just reflections. Noble, pure images recreating our very sense of nobility and purity. Surface gleams—and here’s the paradox—that lend us depth. Nothing too quirky, though, Bill,’ he concluded, hanging up.  

At our flat in Donnybrook I’d paced the wooden floorboards for a week, muttering to myself the words ‘redemption’ and ‘meaning’. ‘These things are clichés,’ I told Mícheál. ‘And the last thing our meaning-hungry public needs is yet more false meaning.’ 

‘Hmm,’ Mícheál grunted, pulling me onto the sofa. ‘The dissenting, questioning writer—no cliché there.’ 

As I set out on my Dunlewy run it looked to be a beautiful day. The morning sun flared like a sink-hole in the petrol-sheen pools of my sunglasses. I trotted along slowly under the pines of those beautiful ubiquitous Donegal woods, one foot after the other scrunching in metronome the gravel path. The fresh scent of the trees ebbed and flowed in my nostrils. Before me Mount Errigal dominated my field of vision, lord of the landscape, the bogland a golden wash around it.  

Jogging at an easy pace I recalled how, following my discussion with Mr O’Toole, I’d spent two weeks locked up in my library in Donnybrook reading dusty volumes, wracking my brain, working my pen, trying to think up some original take on the ageless legends of old—Fionn mac Cumhaill, Cathleen ní Houlihan and all that, legends I’d always found boring if not completely ridiculous. And though I’d yet to come up with something concrete—a plot—I had at least decided what my spin on the theme was going to be. My 'Fallow Legends' short story, I had decided, would be nothing less than a metaphysics of Ireland; a metaphysics of Ireland in story form, since the Irish love being fed stories.  

Deciding the story’s content, though, was proving a problem, and during the mornings, evenings and nights since arriving in Dunlewy, as I’d walked alone in the cool air billowing along the path flanking Lough Nacung or climbed up to the summit of Mount Errigal, I had contemplated the problem’s best solution, drawing inspiration from the drumlins and the whin bushes around me, the rushes and stone walls and dour-faced trees of my surrounding environment, which, as I always reflected when I was there, if any setting deserved to be considered the most quintessentially Irish place in all of Ireland, deserved to be considered the most quintessentially Irish place in all of Ireland. What better place than this to midwife a new myth? I thought, as I jogged along the gravel path in the morning air. Where Dublin smudges and blurs Ireland, Donegal rectifies and verifies it. 

And so, following recent extensive research and intensive inspiration-seeking, my analysis had brought to light certain essential irrefutable metaphysical tenets concerning Ireland, which I turned over in my mind now, jogging past a series of broken stone pillars on the shore of Lough Nacung, dazzled by the sunlight playing on the blue water. 

 Ireland, I thought, jogging along, is both big and small. Ireland is big in a small kind of way, yet simultaneously small in a big kind of way. Ireland’s “smallness” itself is big. And Ireland's “bigness” is itself small. Though this remarkable fact is staring everyone in the face, I thought now, jogging briskly, it's always remained sufficiently obscure to have taken me, a young writer (twenty-three) writing in the twenty-first century, to formulate it, to draw it out like so much symbolic turf from our nation’s primordial turfbox. Being both big and small in this way, at one and the same time, Ireland all the while is becoming both bigger and smaller at the same time. The bigger Ireland gets, the smaller it is. The smaller Ireland gets, the bigger it is. This is a home-spun truth, and can be shown to be true in various ways which it doesn’t behove me to go into here. Now if to some people this attribute might appear to be counterintuitive, as I thought to myself now, jogging in the sunshine alongside Lough Nacung, the flaw lies more in people’s outmoded logic—our established, lazy intellectual habits—than in the phenomenon itself (a phenomenon I had provisionally dubbed “the big-small phenomenon”, before settling on the more technical “the law of inverse correspondence”). Once we realise this, the law becomes as clear to the eye as that magnificent hulk of Mount Errigal blackening the blue sky ahead. 

Given the law of inverse correspondence—Ireland’s being both big and small at the same time -certain things become elucidated: Irish legend, for example, which is predicated on two poles: on the one hand the little people, and on the other hand the giant Fionn mac Cumhail. The little people are always the truth of the giant Fionn, and the giant Fionn always the truth of the little people. They depend on each other. And while the little people can be said to be enormously little, Fionn’s own massiveness can be called a pinpoint massiveness (since it is massive and nothing else—therefore, of an extremely restricted dimension).  

The sun was momentarily blotted by a cloud. 

My enquiries would yet lead further, I reflected. Fionn’s band of warriors was the Fianna Fáil: the “Warriors of Destiny”. And I now noticed how the word fáil means destiny. So by this it was always clear, for those who would see, that the fall was always our destiny.  

Outside the path the woodland was becoming thicker, and the view of the mountain becoming obscured. I passed over a brook where, by the side of the path, a boy knelt on the ground, stooped over eating gravel. 

Two days ago, like something out of a bad episode of Neighbours, the personage and character of Orfineus had stridden dramatically into my mind: a legendary figure who was a cross between Orpheus and Fionn, a figure for our new country, a figure for my short story. Orpheus, the bard, with his lyre, had been torn apart, limb from limb, dismembered by vicious ecstatic Maenads. Now, via destiny, he would in my short story become incorporated with Fionn—a strange union—and nothing if not a fallow one. 

In a flash, as I stood on the gravel path in the face of a copse, I felt the upwelling of a surge of inspiration. I broke off from my jog and found a nearby tree trunk in the shade where I sat down. I switched on the Dictaphone on my phone and spoke as a phrase burst into my head:  

Donegal rectifies Ireland.  

A second later another: 

Ireland’s straight-lined truth. 

And then a torrent:  

Foreign-tongued truth.  

Foreign-fort truth.  

Grit. A mouth. Grin. A lyre.  

Inset, tiled. Emerald Aisle.  

Upset. Settled. 

Proven. Wizened.  

Prison-mouth grin.  

Prison-teeth leer. 

Sand-filled eyes.  

Bard’s bound shuttered, prison-barred eyes.  

Orfineus eyes.  

Ire. Lyre. Orfineus lyre.  

Lidless eyes, glaring steal.  

In-bound eyes.  

Glaring. Gleaming. Glowering sound. A wound. A wire, frayed.  

Mouthing wounds.  

Compound lyres.  

* * * 

I broke off.  

It was execrable trash. 

Rising from the tree stump, I walked through the woods, down towards the lake shore. The sun had passed to the western sector of the sky, whose blue was switching to another colour.

Insofar as it presided over the rest of the landscape, which rightly could be considered its dominion, Mount Errigal, which I could intermittently see through the canopy of trees, reminded me of nothing so much as the Teufelsberg, that enormous hill, originally made from rubble, situated just outside Berlin, to the west of the German capital, a hill which on a sunny day, if your heart felt the warm hand of desire clasp round it, and wring it, impressing your blood with a will for adventure, you could approach via the Grunewald forest and, if you felt confident enough, scale upwards to its summit by first clambering over the barbed wire fence set up to keep strangers out, and second clambering through the hole in the other fence beyond that, a hole somebody had made with pliers. When I looked at Errigal it was literally impossible not to see the Teufelsberg. I’m not sure whether it was exhaustion from the run, or my having been in a trance for an unknown period of time, or the dawning on me of the law of inverse correspondence, but I couldn’t help feeling now a strong resonance communicating me, like a soundwave across water, over a vast curve on the earth’s surface, towards that hill outside Berlin, which, like a king in full regalia, displayed its inner nature on its outer surface. 

Suddenly the words came again, ejaculating from an obscure cleft in my soul. I clicked the button and spoke aloud into the Dictaphone: 

Orfineus can’t stop crying. Ofineus can’t stop keening. Ofineus walks, tears in his teeth. Aghast, Orfineus cries. 

Furious, fanfares breathes. Breaching trees. Bleaching leaves. A harp his lyre. Ofineus moans. List. Singing! 

I wandered in something of a daze, listening, Orfineus my guide, my mind a conflagration of thoughts ...  


* * *  

The sky had turned the red of raw meat. The sun was setting. 

As I came to the lake I caught my warped reflection. With surprise—it was the last thing I would have expected—I saw that my outward appearance had metamorphosed. Rather than the familiar broad shouldered, red-bearded, shaggy haired frame, wearing the running trainers in which I’d set out, I instead saw staring back at me a small, thin figure dressed all in purple, purple jacket, purple scarf, purple flares and purple high heels, wearing bright white lipstick.  

Then, out from behind a tree I saw a camera poking, and a pair of shiny black winkle-pickers below it. There was a flash. I heard a man’s heavy footsteps running off into the woods. After him I went. I had no idea how I’d gotten foisted onto me the high heels I was now wearing, whose points made it hard for me to run and catch up with the photographer, and which, though from a sartorial or aesthetic point of view held some interest, were on the level of pure practicality quite impractical indeed. I bolted nonetheless as best I could, afraid to take them off, more pig than antelope.  

We went further and further into the woods. Eventually, after around fifteen minutes, a clearing opened up. On the far side, fifty yards or so away, was a house, recently built and abandoned, with boarded-up windows. I stopped at the edge of the clearing, panting. I watched the man, who had stayed ahead of me, reach the door on the other side, open it and slip inside. He was dressed in a pinstripe suit. 

In the clearing, which I now walked through, several wide-barked trees remained free-standing, distributed sporadically within the area. All the trees had had words painted on their barks in white paint. In some obscure way my mind considered the white-painted words to be themselves trees, and the trees to be natural organic white-painted words.  

At the house’s front door I stopped. I opened it and stepped inside. Going in felt like going outside after being inside somewhere else.  

A party was going on. The front room was lit up by the rude light of a naked light bulb. Four or five women, some dressed in red, others nude, danced with abandon around the large front room to strange atonal techno. All the walls were covered with musical manuscript paper, which had been lined up along its musical staves and glued like wallpaper, badly in places, to the walls. The musical staves were running vertically in most places but on one wall were running horizontally. On a divan directly facing the door sat the boy I’d observed earlier at the side of the path eating gravel. But whereas then he had appeared wretched and meagre, now he appeared regal and stout. His straight blond hair fell onto his shoulders. He stared at me with concrete eyes through aviator shades. His complexion was impassive. 

I kicked off my high-heels. No-one but the boy looked at me. The whole scene reminded me of certain freewheeling party houses which, in my younger days, overflowing with drink and enthusiasm, I’d often frequented around Dublin at sessions which, if conservative, might go on from midnight till midday, or, if hardcore, for several weeks at a time—this was when I still in UCD, before I moved to London—until only a core group of revellers remained, like metals distilled from a mountain stream, each pure in his or her own way. Such parties had represented a willed process of creative destruction and random bond-formation. These house-parties, my resounding memory of what I did during the so-called boom years, were the only true communal experiences I’d ever had in Ireland, a sort of febrile, up-to-date replacement for mass, and in them was contained, as in the past few years I’d come with more and more certainty to think, the deeply buried seed of what, as a nation shuffling on into an unseeable, open future, we might have or want to have of a worthwhile sense of community.  

The music went off. The ladies stopped dancing and one by one left the room. Addressing me, the boy spoke: 

‘My friend—if I hadn’t seen you draw breath as you came in the door just now I would’ve thought you were a ghost. I certainly wouldn’t have thought it was really actually you.’  

He extended towards me in a slow gesture his right hand. 

‘Orfineus—will you have a drink, then?’  

Above the boy, spanning the length of the wall, I saw that there was a legend written in capital letters in black permanent marker over the white paint: 


Liam Cagney

Liam Cagney comes from Donegal and lives in London. As well as being a fiction writer, he is a musicologist at City University London, where he is researching a history of French Spectral Music. As a journalist he writes regularly for Sinfini and Opera.