Guernsey Christmas customs

When Ireland was living on Guernsey in 1939–40, he may have encountered the island’s Christmas customs. One of these was a festival known as La Longue Veille, which took place on 23 December. On this day a special feast was prepared, consisting of Guernsey biscuits (pictured), cheese, galettes and mulled wine. There are other interesting habits and traditions. Christmas Eve was known as Serveille, and the people of Guernsey shared a folk belief common to a number of English counties that all cattle kneel at midnight in remembrance of the manger at Bethlehem. Another superstition was that on Christmas Eve the water in the wells is turned to wine. Ireland would surely have liked the idea of these distinctive customs, given his propensity for researching English folklore.

The Jersey perquage

Aside from the obvious attractions of its climate, landscape and historic dolmens, there are other reasons why John Ireland might have been drawn to Jersey. It is an island full of the sorts of customs and legends that fascinated him. One distinctive tradition is the Jersey perquagea sanctuary path leading from the island’s churches to the sea. As long as a person seeking sanctuary remained either in the church or on one of these roads, then they enjoyed the protection of the ecclesiastical authorities. Few traces of these ancient and unique paths remain, however, as land was gradually sold and incorporated into private property. However, the tiny chapel at St Brelade’s Bay still has its perquage, the shortest on the island, given that the chapel is virtually on the beach.


Pouqelayes or fairy stones

One of the Jersey dolmens known to Ireland was the Pouquelaye de Faldouet, an imposing passage grave standing above the Royal Bay of Grouville that inspired a poem from Victor Hugo. The word ‘pouquelaye’ has a number of different meanings, one originating from Normandy and meaning ‘pocket’. Another meaning is ‘coupled stones’, and a further Jersey suggests that the word derives from the combination of ‘Puck’ and ‘lech’, meaning ‘Puck’s stone’.  There is a further small menhir north of St Helier that, too, bears the name ‘pouqelaye’, lending this name to the road that leads to the isMiscellaneous Stone at La Pouquelayeland’s capital. Together, these pouqelayes are also known as ‘fairy stones’, believed to have been moved through the air by magic. Other of Jersey’s ancient stones  have fairy connections. La Pierre de la Fételle is also known as La Roche à la Fée – both names translated as ‘fairy stone’.

In the 17th century there were still many pouquelayes dotted across the island, described thus by the Lieutenant-Bailiff Jean Poingdestre in his 1682 Discourse of the Island of Jersey:

‘The most ancient are what wee call Poquelayes, which consist for the most part of foure huge stones, whereof three planted on end Triangle-wise and the fourth flatter then ye rest and soe large as being layd on ye top of them three to beare on them all…I take them to have been sett up for Altars upon hills and open places and many times neare the Sea…’.

La Pouquelaye de Faldouet

La Pouquelaye de Faldouet

Source: Sonia Hillsdon (1987). Jersey: Witches, Ghosts & Traditions: Norwich, Jarrold Publications.

La Vallette

During Ireland’s nine-month sojourn on Guernsey in 1939 and 40 he would have known La Vallette, a corniche cut into the rock to create a promenade south of the island’s capital, St Peter Port. Several prominent features had existed long before Ireland’s day. ‘Les Bains Publics’ were famous worldwide, with a horseshoe pool for men built in 1859 and separate private pool for ladies following in 1862. In 1876 female bathers demanded a second, public ladies pool, which was built 10 years later.The lower slopes of La Vallette were laid out as gardens with footpaths passing through them. After Ireland’s departure in 1940, and during the German occupation, a large underground tunnel was cut into La Vallette to provide bomb-proof shelter for fuel storage. But while the composer was living on the island, the area was known only for its tranquillity and sheltered saltwater bathing.

Ireland’s books: De situ orbis

‘Le Catioroc’, the first movement of Ireland’s Sarnia, carries lines from the De Situ Orbis of Pomponius Mela (d. c. AD45), the earliest Roman geographer:

‘All day long, heavy silence broods, and a certain hidden terror lurks there. But at nightfall gleams the light of fires; the chorus of Ægipans resounds on every side: the shrilling of flutes and the clash of cymbals re-echo the waste shores of the sea.’…

Also known by the title De Chorographia, in this work Mela divides the earth into five zones, describes them and includes a number of maps. A key point in his mapping of the world is his defining and naming of the Orkney Islands. His description is in the form of a voyage around Africa, Asia, and Europe. Mela integrates geographical description with historical, cultural, and mythological information. An English translation from the Latin was made as early as 1585, a version given to Ireland by Arthur Machen.

Eric Parkin’s performance of ‘Le Catioroc’ can be heard HERE.


Decorations: a review

A 1915 review of the three pieces that comprise Decorations for piano is worth presenting here in full for its many insights into this dreamworld:

‘These three pieces are well named, since they are the most successful pieces of pictorial writing we have encountered since the advent of Maurice Ravel, whose style they somewhat resemble as regards technique. Magic seas and fairy woods are evoked by the subtlest art in the first piece, “The Island Spell”. Is it by accident that one conjures up the magic music of Shakespeare’s “Tempest”? An all-pervading mood is here, as with the best types of decorative music. There is a curious compelling charm and feeling of remoteness about the “Moon-Glade”, also written over a poem of Arthur Symons commencing “Why are you so sorrowful in dreams?” This piece is pure impressionism. The fading tonality at the close, so like the stuff dreams are made of, is a wonderful piece of tone-artistry. The third movement entitled “The Scarlet Ceremonies” is the most striking of the set. It is founded on a quotation from Arthur Machen’s “The House of Souls”. Against a continuously palpitating pattern in the right hand a trumpet-like theme is given out by the left. The whole movement is evolved from the first twelve bars or so. The theme passes to the right hand later on, appearing over a fluttering figure of fourths in the bass. There is an original “pedal-point” effect at the end, and a new double glissando of white and black notes which will be responsible for many grazed fingers. Originality breathes in every bar of the Decorations, and the composer evidently possesses peculiar magic powers in the world of sound’ (Monthly Musical Record, 45, 2 August 1915, p. 227).