An Gael i Phortaingéil

Before you can listen to the land speak, you must clean the instrument of listening. The following is an account of a research trip to Portugal in which I undertook my first mentorship and learned about the connection between the body and the land.


2/12/202112 min read

I came to Portugal to investigate the anatomy of the Irish language. ‘Odd decision you might think.

Actually I came to learn the skill of body listening from Lou Chardon, the French dance maestro who left her dance company in Beligium to open an artistic hermitage in remote Alentejo region of southern Portugal.

Since joining the unofficial effort of Irish language revivalists five years ago, I have been drawn to consider the implications for our biology in speaking Irish. The broader range of sounds in Irish requires a more active engagement of our physiology than in English. As each function and meridian in the body has its own frequency, the implications of speaking a language that has a broader range of sounds is that the body is more activated and even healthier. Tuning fork therapy is one such application of sound vibration on biology but there are many.

As a bilingual performance poet, i have observed a marked difference in my body movements according to which language I’m speaking. There is a languid quality to Irish, you might call hypnotic and my body responds snakelike to its hypnotic rhythm. My body them becomes a measuring instrument of this hypothesis. I proposed to a Creative Europe fund to further develop skill of body listening to explore where certain Irish words resonate or even abide in the body. I've been writing since a child. I became a journalist out of school because it was a practical application of that gift. Now as a creative, I write in both English and Irish; something which gives my works an added dimension of significance in that they then become a means to inspire and revive the indigenous language in Irish listeners.

What i didn’t include on the application was my long held secret ambition to be a great dancer. Sometimes in moments of abandon and grace, i think, i really missed my calling. Watching the dance production Mám, I felt I was grocking a lifetime of missed opportunity and self sabotage that prevented me from my rightful place on stage with Poiret and Keegan’s international troope. I love to dance. And if I’m not eating shite, i’m fairly light on my feet. My lyrical dance at the epic Five Rhythms Dance of Earthsong 2023 was a thing of great beauty.

But when I applied for from a cold wet porch in West Kerry last November for the mobility fund to come to Portugal and realise my long suppressed ambition i had not expected to be expecting. Yes, now, I’m pregnant and I feel flat footed and cumbersome. The weight at my front has pinched the sciatic nerve giving me a perpetual pain in the arse. There is a recurring crick in my neck and a knot in my shoulder from a summer spent sleeping in tents and strange beds. The craniosacral therapist who treated me the day before the flight, looked very concerned, as he reported a compression in my diaphragham and a contortion in my neck. Add to that the usual litany of the legacy of the land of the rising damp. I land in Lisbon at the tail end of a serious flu; blocked nose, sore throat, mucous. So I was in no real condition nor mood to be pursuing my true calling as a dancer.

Sunshine was my first medicine as I feel my body opening in the heat of the sun. The damp in my bones begins to dissipate.

Mentor, Master, Muse

I knew I wanted to be a dancer since I was four-year-old in Paris,’ she begins. After failing the auditions twice, she was accepted in the Conservatoire in Paris at the age of 15. She went on to became a prima ballerina in the world famous Ballet Companies, dancing at the highest level.

But she was anorexic, depressed, unstable. ‘My body broke’. Her back to be precise, and the six-month recuperation precipitated a turning point in her career. She shifted then from the orientation of success to one of understanding the body. Becoming a mother futher compounded the change. ‘Dancing has been my survival tool,’ She joined the company of Ohad Naharin in Israel and was a pioneer of Gaga, the now world famous method of free dancing. She learned body, mind centring, Taoism, Tai Chi and became a myofascia therapist.

She has travelled from one extreme to the next. Six years ago she left the dance company, that she ran with her husband Luc in Belgium, to open an artisitic hermitage in the remote Aljehento region of Portugal. Now her rates and expectations adjusted to the local economy, she teaches her mastery in a weekend workshop for just €80.

My study with Lou begins with a weekend workshop of myofascia breathing. Five women have come to the hermitage to participate. We trace the myofascialines, name the junctions, bring our awareness and breath to every bone, muscle and organ. Myofascia is a thin membrane of muscle that covers the entire body and communicates between parts, much like the mycelium in soil. The condition of our fascia then can determine the health of our bodies.

How clear is your sound? says Lou Chardon, at the end of our workshop. That statement strikes me to my core and I wobble. I see the symmetry of her shape. The clarity of her movement. I compare it to the interuptions in my own flow. Her body seems to moves of its own accord.

That night I sleep and I feel deep tiredness fall from me with each concious breath.

In the rhetoric of revival that I am won’t to use, I talk about listening to the land.

My investigations into the anatomy of the Irish language began with supposition. In the absence of a more accurate phrase, we would remark on the onomatepaeic nature of the Irish language.

As we explore more deeply the felt experiences of the word, where each sound is reverberating. Muir in the upper pallette, farraige engaging the abdomen before the mouth. Tirim closing the mouth in a very expression of parched lips. Fluich requiring a spittle in the back of the throat. Salach shaping the mouth into the uinversal yack of distaste. The eee of Aoibhainn buzzing around the pineal gland, the body’s control centre of esstactic experience. Gra is the heart opening Aww sound. Smidiríníní. Oh we could go on supposing. Such a study to be done. Such a correllation to discover. Where does the word abide?

What part of the universe of your body does it reside?

The name of this phenomenom or phonology is not captured by onomatepoeia, the naming of a thing by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it. Buzz, hiss. Perhaps not so obvious as these English examples. The Irish offers plenty of words that imitate the sound of action. Ochón is the sound of deep grief, but it can also caoin (keened) out. Shranternig imitates the nasal sound of a snoring man and saying shrathernig practically conjures a sneeze.

But the naming of words in Irish appears to go beyond this into naming of a thing by a vocal imitation of the quality associated with it.

In the experiential there are endless examples of the quality of the irish language, that is a language that

Although Irish only has 18 letters, the phonems or sounds garden from which it plucks is more diverse because of vowels are pronounced both long and short and consonants are pronounced both broadly and narrowly; the fadas and the h’s.

The greater physical effort required to speak Irish alone indicates its greater action on the phisiology. To investigate such things as a journalist and artist, rather than an academic, i rely on personal experience and intuition rather than research.

To observe where our words reside in the body. To use the metaphor of a musical instrument, we could liken the English language to the scale, the Irish language to the Sollffeggio scale, where overtones are present, and the body to the instrument. To discover the scale, or where, or in what position on the string, the note resides, we must first tune the instrument.

With its broader range of phonems – sounds which are the smallest unit of language.

Perhaps Irish could be likened to a fine tuning.

That day I dry out in the sun. The contraction of my body from the Irish winter is gradually releasing under the Portugues sun. I can’t help but notice every time I travel abroad how the health of Irish bodies seems so significantly less so than the natives I am visiting.

The causes of our national obsesity level are both historical and environmental. In this project, I would suppose that the causes are also lingual. As language provides a barrier to the hegemony and monoculture of fast food culture, would it also provide a biological barrier?

I remember one Canadian man joked years ago, Irish people are beautiful from the neck up. And I took umbrage at the time but it stayed with me and the experience of traveling through more than thirty of the world’s country’s taught me the truth of his statement.

In Portugal, its no different; people are mostly lean and toned.

Similiar to the land, the abuse of the land is permitted only by a people who are disconnected from the land. The abuse of the body is precluded by a disconnection from the body. It has been supposed that our disconnection from the land was if not precipitated at least accelerated by by the diconnection from Irish. That the detailed naming of the landscape was part of the intimate knowing of it and in the brutal phoneticisation and anglicisation of placenames, the land itself was rendered anonymous.

In our work around nature reconnection, we used identification of wild foods and medicinal herbs as a means to bring participants into relationship with nature. It’s a natural beginning to a relationship, to learn the name and function of a person or plant, as the case may be.

I see the parallel in Lou’s teaching to connect people with the body. She names each part and traces each pathway. This is how she guides us to embodiment.

In the same line of reasoning, wild flower identification becomes the antedote to the culture of spraying weeds. In our purpose in Wild Irish to re-establish a connection with the land, wild food foraging becomes the most practical tool. For in knowing the nourishment that derives naturally from the land, our relationship to it changes. Information then is a practical a tool of enlightenment and connection.

Lou Chardon has the same approach. She names every body part as we journey on the lines of myofascial muscle, the membrane that covers the entire body.

In our next meeting, she teaches me motional, the choreographic language she invented. We start by bouncing the body. Travelling internally from feet to head. Shaking every cell. Naming the places, big and small. Covering the ground meticulously.

The first step is to come into the body. We undulate, front to back, then side to side. Introducing the fascia lines, deep and shallow that trace the body from crown to sacrum. From the back of the head to the top of toe. Lou’s dancing is based on the observation of the body also. She travels the body’s own pathways in a flow, not skipping or hopping or jumping over a junction but rather arriving to it, travelling around its roundabout and continuing on to the destination. To natural conclusions. From the tailbone to the crown. Dorsal back line. From the back of the head to the toe. Front fascial line.

Anatomy books then are maps, to read; the arterial and ventrical systems are highways and organs are places to visit and fascia, this network of membraneous muscle that covers the entire body is the mycelium, the more subtle interweb of communication between these places.

So we rattle the bones, bouncing through the ‘diaphragms’ of all the joints, from squishy marrow to hard mineral and we swim in the fluids, with the current rather than against, with the imperative of flow rather than resistance.

And then we spiral.

In motional, the spirals are both masculine and feminine, starting with the thumb and little finger respectively, spiralling in and out touching the lungs, heart, sternum.

Then the diagonal spiral, left foot, right hand. Right hand left foot. Her body hangs from her centrepoint, it is in symetry. Its movement effortless. I feel the force of gravity, my heavy-footedness.

WE are not dancers, we are explorers of the body. We will not exert the body and stretch into its resistance but rather follow its supllication. This body philosophy is a map for the art of living; one that continually calls us into less resistance, and the stillness of the natural mind.

As I swat flies that swarm, she guides us to feel the inner tactility of the skin.

The motional journey around the body, ends in the fluttering of the butterfly bones of the clavicle, sternum and sphenoid; the poetry within.

How clear is your sound? She says to the dancers. How clear is your intention. How much symmetry is in your movement. I draw paralells in my head between the geometric rhthyms of nature, inherent in an indigenous language and the continuity of Lou’s movements. I am English – stoppy starty, heady. She is Irish, rhthymic flow.

Don’t look for the areas of resistance, seek the areas of supplication. This is a novel idea and one that runs counter yoga practices, which she calls a peversion of yoga. I think of the ‘strengthening’ video i was following when i pinched the sciatic nerve.

Lou’s philosophy is about learn the body’s rhythms and moving along those tides. Circadian rhythems, lunar ones. At full moon, she falls sick, releasing with the moon.

That night my chest tightens with the effort to exhale against the resistance. The habit of constant inhale, intake is a hard one to break. I cannot shift gear. Even here. My growing baby vies for space with my lungs.

There is a dull ache in my sacrum.

The culture of forcing the body is the norm. ‘En fait, i have no interest or connection to the dance world now.’ ‘It’s not interesting for me anymore to see good dancers, dancing well.’ We go to a contemporary dance performance that Sunday, she spends the show watching the reactions of a young girl with evident developmental disabilities who delights and mimics the dancers.

Emnodiment is about connection to the earth. Some of those old people were more embodied than the dancers because they work outside with nature.

‘Most people have problems in the gut. Why so, i ask, thinking our modern diet is the answer. But she surprises me again, unsupported, not connected to the ground.’

Is the language a means of connecting with the land. And there you have it. Embodiment is about connection to the land.

If in losing our language, we have disconnected from the land. Then in losing our language, we have equally disconnected from our bodies.

I sigh, at this, as the language, the land and the dance come together in a tidy metaphor again.

Lou says most people do not live in their bodies. Most attention now is given only to the head. She has dreamed of humanity’s shrinking feet as a consequence of this. And as a therapist attributes the volume of snotted shoulders to this overheady culture.

I am concious of the constant pain in my shoulder, of my propensity to overthink.

Embodiment is about permeability, receptivity to the environment around you. She wears only linen, cotton, wool. Fibres that breath. ‘The cell needs oxygen to multiply and to die. Without death there is no life.’ I think of Pennys have clothed the Irish nation in place of our forsaken wool, linen and tweed.

She guides me through the social and environmental issues of the industrial agriculture of berry growing. Are you motivated every to make art around these things. This is already too advanced for me. I am in embroyolgy. In the universe of the cell.

I compare the journalistic imperative that had carried into my art to hers. I see our different approaches, our different worlds. The exchange is clear and so is the transmission. We are language and landscape. Body and Mind. Teacher and Taught. With gifts refined and rough.

On the Geminin Full Moon I write a love poem for her my master and muse.

It’s fascia, she says, walking along the beach, its all fascia, she says, pointing to the rivulets the sea makes in the sand. The common fractal pattern that illustrates our commonality with the body of the earth; like a great hereditery marker.

The architecture of the body follows the dimensions of nature. If facia is mycellium and the bones are rocks and minerals, what are muscles? I ask, my writer’s mind, loving a metaphor, needing a metaphor. Vegetation, she answers without hesitation.

She is lean and carved like a rock and feels this affinity, not drawn to the sea but to cliff tops. We gaze out to sea. Why is longing synomous with sea gazing, I wonder outloud, maybe because it calls us back, to where we came from, as anphibians.

‘No, we are called up to the sky; we can never go back to the womb, we can only go on. She makes wings out of old bed sheets and beeswax; the butterfly is her totem. ‘We have the bone structure for wings, maybe if we hadn’t spend so much time and energy developing our brains, we would have wings by now.’

Embodiment is about permeability, being receptive to the earth and the currents that are you. She resists my assertion that Indian raga has more diversity than synthesised music. The level of receptivity determines the range of the experience,’ she says. The how, rather than the what.

Putting paid to my assertions of Irish as a more diverse and thus benefitical sound scape for the human body as compared to the denuded English. A dissertation abandoned.

But this is what I’m here to learn. That my focus on the paint. This natural pigment, the blue of lapis luzli and the yellow of onion skins. Burnt ochre and cobalt. This I love the metaphors. I long for them.

Because I know that my expression in English has been equally rich. Yes the quality has varied. But many’s the masterpiece that has been created in acyrilic.

In an era of post awakening; the focus of ten per cent has shifted from realisation to manifestation or the embodiment of what was understood. The initial high of revelation has worn off and our ‘now what’ brings us back down from the head, from the heart to the feet. We thought it, we felt it, now we must embody.