August 3rd 2010

The Twisting of the Ropes

In  ‘The Twisting of the Rope’ from ‘Tales of Red Hanrahan’ W.B. Yeats tells of an incident during which Hanrahan was tricked by the woman of the house where he was a guest.  As the night wore on the poet became obstreperous so the clever woman hit on a plan whereby she got Hanrahan to twist a rope.  As the rope lengthened he moved backwards step by step until he found himself outside the door.  The woman immediately made a rush and slammed and bolted the door on him.

Bernie and Alice Kelly twisting ropes

Making ropes was an essential part of farm life long ago. It is a very familiar occupation to me and one of the many skills I learned in my youth that, like so many things learned long ago on a small farm, is useless now.  The summons to start twisting may have come as an unwelcome surprise each year for me, but it was carefully planned by my father who, for some perverse reason, regarded rope-making as a nocturnal occupation.  Service was compulsory.  Without any consultation with me he picked calm, clear, moonlit nights for the job.
  Seated on a low stool at the back door his agile fingers plied and fed the straw to my trawhooks or twister. He teased and coaxed the yellow skeins with expert hands as I twisted them into a tough, slender súgán, slowly inching my way backwards out of the kitchen. 

Great night for the job!
  Twisting was not a job that challenged the mind or mechanical abilities of the twister.  In fact it was one of the most boring jobs on earth.    The only qualification required was infinite patience. While my father might gain some satisfaction from compliments paid him by visitors on his abilities as a ropemaker, there were no such credits for the twister who, although essential to the operation, required no skill.  As the rope lengthened I moved backwards through the friendly pool of yellow light that fell from the front door, out the street and on into the darkness beyond.
  ‘Great night for the job', neighbours might say as they came and went to the house.  'Begod, there’s no one can make ropes with yer father. He can turn his hands to anything.’ 
  And indeed he could.  It took years of practise to turn out a product of uniform thickness.  A good ropemaker made a product that was strong, but slender too.  A thick rope made an unnecessarily bulky, heavy clew; too thin and it broke under pressure.  Three quarters of an inch in diameter was about right.
 Twisting was a painstakingly slow procedure as the rope gradually lengthened across the road.  Attempts at increasing the pace did no good.  All it achieved was to annoy my father who just got irritated and barked at me to slow down.  Feeding the straw to the twist could not be hurried, it was a careful and deliberate process. 
During the long, monotonous, journeys between our front door and the door of the house across the road I  twisted around, and around, and around.  A study of the starry sky overhead was the only way to relieve the tedium. There was nothing else to do.  The incandescent complexity of the Milky Way, Orion Nebula, the Plough; as the years went by, I knew them well. 

Sounds carried on the night air
Cold, calm nights magnified the plaintive conversation of the swans on Bunduff  lake, giving the sad-sweet notes a melancholy unworldly expression.  It carried to me, sing-song, swan-songed, on the frosty air; unearthly music that wafted and fell gently from the sky as the graceful guardians of the lake kept their lonely vigil.  So sang the children of King Lir sent on a nine hundred year exile by their witch stepmother, Oife, when she turned them into four swans.  Regretting what she had done, and unable to recant the spell, she gave them the power that, ‘there shall be no music in the world equal to yours, the plaintive music you shall sing’.  And indeed I have never heard music to match the bewitching beauty of swan song carried on the still air of a frosty night. 

Northern Lights

Sometimes, to the north, in the direction of the vast Arctic wastes, barrages of luminescence shot across the sky.  Travelling at the speed of light, long incandescent curtains of fire painted a majestic, rapidly shifting backdrop to the canopy of stars.  Shimmering draperies of pulsing brightness, they swept the contours of the abyss.
  Kerry people called them the 'Borey Dancers'.  We called the display the Northern Lights.  The older people sometimes watched and marvelled with us at this 'murmuring of the solar wind'.  They thought the effect was created by sunlight reflected from the ice and snow of the frozen plains of the Arctic. One of our neighbours, Michael, had been to America, and consequently knew everything.  ‘That’s the Rory Bory Alice’, he said with a knowledgeable air, but few believed him, thinking it another one of his many fanciful concoctions.  But Michael was right and indeed it was the Aurora Borealis, in Norse mythology identified with the ride of the Valkyries. 
I may have been a prisoner of my fathers on those starry rope-twisting nights, and my feet firmly fixed to the ground, but in my mind I escaped to the stars.  With flashing shield and darting spear I rode across the night sky with those Norse warriors and rushed with them into the melee of battle selecting those whose fate it was to die.















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