The covid-19 pandemic has had many unexpected consequences. One of them for me has been that I found myself listening to more music from the 1990s. Working from home, I didn’t want to strain my occasionally temperamental wifi; I therefore switched from streaming music while I work to listening to old CDs, exhumed from my basement for the purpose.
One such album is Anam by Clannad. The disc has probably been in my possession for roughly 30 years, so it is impressive that it still works. If you haven’t given it a listen in a few decades, this was an era when (I’m guessing) Clannad knew that commercial success was in their grasp but weren’t fully confident that a neo-traditional or New Age sound would suffice for the mass market. As a result, there is a mix of forgettable ’80s-influenced synth pop and other elements along with their more familiar recipe of ethereal vocals backed by traditional instruments. But their classic New Age style does typify the two best tracks on the album, in my opinion, namely “Harry’s Game” and “The Poison Glen”. Both are songs you might recognize. For “The Poison Glen”, the song that prompts the present post, Moya Brennan is the vocalist, though all four band members are credited as writing this song.
What strikes me listening to it now is how perfectly “The Poison Glen” encapsulates both a certain spirit of New Age paganism as it developed in the ’90s and after, and how—in an alternate universe—it just as easily might have encapsulated a completely different approach to paganism. Along with Enya, Clannad helped define New Age music, and New Age æsthetics helped define the nascent American paganism of that period. Every bookshop in those days had a section of New Age titles, published by Llewellyn and the like, on astrology, earth-based religion, Wicca, so-called shamanism, and women’s spirituality: all were easily accessible on the same shelves, while “Orinoco Flow” or “Against the Wind” might well be playing on commercial radio as you browsed. New Age paganism, in other words, was both accessible and marketable. I myself bought my first ogam set, complete with warmed-over Robert Graves-y exegesis, from such a setting, along with any number of wide-eyed works about the Culdees, Jungian archetypes, or magick with a K. The lesson a young person like me took back then was that paganism was a lifestyle choice, precisely as valid and as fungible as the dollars we used to buy our various New Age goods. Put on a disc (yours for $12!), and you could immerse yourself in the mists of mystical experience. Anybody anywhere could tap into this spirit at will.
Yet the Poisoned Glen is a real place. I have been there. I have seen the “misty mountain” that Moya Brennan is singing about, both sunlit and cloaked in cloud, and felt something like the “haunted echo” of struggles from ancient days. During a roughly 20-year period when I had forgotten about the song’s existence, I visited County Donegal and even stayed in Gweedore—the Brennans’ own stomping ground. I paid particular attention to the Poisoned Glen because, poking around in a translation of the Dindshenchas, I had been reading of its mythical significance, ‘poisoned’ as it was said to have been by Balor’s noxious evil eye once Lugh Lámhfhada knocked it out of Balor’s head. It is a beautiful valley, but there’s no mistaking a certain ineffable something clinging to the landscape. I didn’t sense that the dead there were as unquiet as those at the battlefield of Antietam, for example, but its landscape and history were nevertheless somehow marked—awful and sublime. It is one of those “cathedrals of nature” that tend to impress themselves upon the traveller.
Clannad, who of course know the history and mythology of the area far better than I do, are actually walking us through a dawning realization like this in their successive verses. Moya first sings that she is “feeling something from long ago”, then specifies “spirits from long ago” in the next stanza before reaching a peak of “everything from long ago”: in other words, the totality of the history, the mythology, the feel of the place. Lest anyone miss the hint, the lyrics reference “an old legend of a mythical hero” as well as those “spirits” that have left their mark on the valley.
In the ’90s, all that my adolescent self took from this song was a sensibility of ‘Celtic mist’—generic stirrings of the archetypal soul. That feeling meant something to me then, but it was a shallow and self-willed something, almost opposite to the “divine terror” that one feels when truly and viscerally confronted with the sacred. Listening to it today, I realize that “The Poison Glen” is equally susceptible of being read as a call to attend to the specificities of place, of history, of narrative. After all, pilgrimage matters because the sacred site has a spirit all its own; and of course, one’s journey there matters as well—one’s experience of being there, of coming to terms with what one feels there. Listening now, it seems like a wonder that I, and no doubt others of my generation, missed that point. In the early ’90s, I was capable of listening to this song without inquiring where the Poisoned Glen was or what made it special. Of course, back then the internet wouldn’t have had many answers—even if I had thought to dial up and try my luck on WebCrawler or Ask Jeeves!