Matthew Ryan Shelton
On Bringing Back a Painting by the King of Tory Island
I’ve got it this far, next to me
in a chair in a Dublin airport café,
the depiction of an overland approach
to mountains in a primitive hand
all the way from Tory Island, where
the king no longer greets you at the pier.
In a concave handmade frame
of wood, your gaze among dim
painted peaks is drawn by
the blue-gray two-lane highway
to Errigal under a cumulus sky
of muddy white and gray.
Over lacquered dark brown fields
are stationed cruciate poles filed
for power-lines and fences penned
across meadows, Patsy Dan’s
John Hancock cut into the thin
impasto with what might have been
a pen-knife, and four cottages, black-
roofed, a peat-fire plume of smoke.
Can you see his practiced hand still
in this artificial idyll?
His flesh and blood redivivus
in the wound of this bound canvas . . .
With Bríd and Cormac in the morning
I visited the gallery, a one-story
house just up the main road from the pier
where an old man with salt and pepper hair,
whose name I can’t remember, told
us all about a salvaged bell pulled
from the Hope, or Wasp, a shipwreck
scuttled off the coast, way back.
Along the walls hung lighthouse studies,
cottages and boats, the Tau cross
on the quay, its shadow back behind,
downcast on the concrete ground.
In another, Brendan’s monks had built a fire
on the back of the “Most Dangerous Whale,”
mistaken for an island, off the coast
of Iceland on their way out west
where they, so they say, first found
America at world’s end.
But this is not a Tory myth,
the old man says. The king had heard it
somewhere else, took it into his head
where it rooted and waited and grew . . .
Seven years ago he’d met me on the pier,
the king himself, the same as every
wave-tossed tourist come before
me staggering up from the ferry
on a windy day. An fear mór,
gold hoops in his ears, he wore
a coat of felted wool and a flat
cap on his head at a rakish tilt.
He’d made some quip I couldn’t hear
and with his hand he vaguely gestured
toward the main road, over there
and to the left another few yards,
to a wooden house, not much more
than a shed of plywood boards.
I found out later that would have been
the old gallery where he kept his paintings
before they moved it up the road
into a house marked with a signboard
reading Gailearaí Dixon
in yellow, red, and green.
It strikes me now his crooked grin
was something like an ocean hidden
underground, a curiosity
as disciplined as artistry.
The island of a way of life,
its ceding coastline in himself . . .
In a West Town bar in the afternoon
we found a picture of him as a young man,
standing on the far end of a line
of older fishermen, squinting in the sun
come down in the west, the past
in grainy black and white, and not
much more than twenty, laminated
and screwed to the wall, water-damaged . . .
Today he’s dying bit by bit, the sickness setting in,
settling his bones, his breath, his skin.
Can you see his practiced hand still
In this artificial idyll?
It’s nearly nothing, but still.
Still, it’s gone dusk over the hill.
Patsy Dan is dying, and all I can think
to do is buy a painting, wrap it in two
plastic bin-bags, and haul it halfway
around the world to give to you.
There really is a painting I brought back through Dublin from one of the side rooms in Gailearaí Dixon on Tory Island, on a day trip from Bun Beag in Donegal, where I was staying on a Fulbright grant to study Irish in the Gaeltacht. It is a landscape leading to Mount Errigal, as the poem says, and it hangs now between two blinded windows in the upper front room of my home in South Philly, above my study table piled with books and notebooks and a few maps I’ve kept of Ireland, some cacti and a ficus in a precariously tall and tapered pot. It is one of my most prized possessions.
Patsaí Dan Mag Ruaidhrí (also called Patsy Dan Rodgers) was born in Dublin in 1944. When he was 4 years old, he was adopted and brought to Tory Island, off the Northeast coast of Donegal. He became King of Tory – a long-standing tradition of the island inaugurated under and against British rule – in the 1990s by request of the family of the last king, Padraig Óg Rodgers. Patsy Dan was a tireless advocate for the island, for the Irish language, a renowned musician, and one of the founders of Tory’s primitivist school of painting.* He passed away after a long illness on 20 October of this year at the age of 74.
I met him on my first excursion in to Tory Island almost 10 years ago, on the same trip I climbed Mount Errigal. The King was loading a painting into the back of his car . . . He complimented me on the coconut earrings I still wore then from my time in India . . . You’ll notice this moment doesn’t appear in the poem . . . I haven’t figured out yet how to write it. Or even if I should.
Mine is a tourist’s broken heart, an outsider’s grief . . . What Patsaí Dan meant to Tory I could never express . . . It is not for me to write that elegy.
This elegy is about the inadequacies of elegy, an ekphrasis about the interruption of ekphrasis, a poem about the insufficiency of poetry. This elegy is for those who knew the King as I did: if only in passing. It is what I can offer.
I would like to thank Bríd and Cormac in particular, for taking me in, for teaching me the language of their home, of their landscapes, for reading my poem in its early stages. Most of all for taking me back to Tory.
Míle buíochas le Cormac agus Bríd. Thóg sibh isteach mé, theagasc sibh teanga bhur bhaile is bhur thírdhreacha domsa, léamh sibh mo dhán ina thús. Is thar aon rud eile thóg sibh ar aist isteach go Toraigh.
31 October 2018
*Dr. Art Hughes has recently published a bilingual biography of the King, Rí Thoraí – From City to Crag – Patsy Dan Rodgers, which I highly recommend, for its comprehensiveness and candor.