Silk’s Post #123 — In honour of St. Patrick’s day tomorrow, I thought I should poke around a bit for something to say about Irish writers. That was hours ago and I’m still lost in the deep, often surprising, maze of literature that has flowed for centuries from this small (it would fit into the State of Maine), ancient, island nation.
Or nations, with an “s”. And there lies but one of the complexities of Ireland. Everyone knows about the Troubles, of course. But I suspect the only people on earth who really understand the fraught history of Ireland are the Irish.
But, lest I draw the ire of the Irish by my lack of a nuanced understanding of the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (which is part of the United Kingdom), I should really scurry back to the safety of discussing literature.
And even that is like stepping into an unknowable world. Just think for a moment about what the Irish literary tradition is famous for. Okay, got it?
No you don’t. Because, like a magical trickster (and you know who I mean, he wears a jaunty green hat and keeps his gold at the end of the rainbow), Irish literature can’t be captured so easily.
One thing you might be able to say, with some truth, is that Irish literature doesn’t flinch. It sometimes delights in mourning. It’s often infused with irony, humour, nostalgia, philosophy or melancholy – characteristics it shares with the time-honoured art of discourse at an Irish pub.
(Henry Spalding’s Encyclopaedia of Irish Folklore and Humour illustrates the connection with this pick-up line, said to be overheard at O’Banion’s Beer Emporium: “Pardon me, darlin’, but I’m writin’ a telephone book. C’n I have yer number?”)
Yet it can be light and playful, like a limerick. Or iconic and experimental like Ulysses. Or powerful and absurd like Waiting for Godot. Or dark and haunting like Angela’s Ashes. Or magical and enchanting like The Chronicles of Narnia.
What do you say about a national body of work that equally embraces every form of writing and storytelling: jokes, songs, tales, poetry, drama, short stories, humour, horror, philosophy, political satire, fantasy, novels, memoirs – and has left its indelible mark on each?
How many of you are aware that each of these leading lights (among many, many others) share an Irish heritage: Jonathan Swift, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Maeve Binchy, Brendan Behan, Edna O’Brien, Eoin Colfer, Anne Enright, Sean O’Casey, C.S. Lewis, Emma Donoghue, Iris Murdoch, and Bram Stoker?
Silly me for thinking I might be able to nail Irish literature with some glib summary in a blog post. Hah! I may have a drop of Irish blood in me (doesn’t everyone?), but I’m not foolish enough to attempt such blarney. Instead, I’ll let some of the loquacious Irish authors speak for themselves as a St. Patrick’s Day tribute to the creativity and wit that the Emerald Isle has given the world …
“Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives. The English reading public explains the reason why.” — James Joyce
“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” — W.B. Yeats
“To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.” — Daniel Patrick Moynihan
“Your battles inspired me – not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead.” — James Joyce
“I think being a woman is like being Irish … Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time.” — Iris Murdoch
“That’s right, there’s free beer in Irish paradise. Everyone’s jealous.” — Kevin Hearne
“Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” — George Bernard Shaw
“The earth makes a sound as of sighs and the last drops fall from the emptied cloudless sky. A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said.” — Samuel Beckett
“We Irish prefer embroideries to plain cloth. To us Irish, memory is a canvas – stretched, primed and ready for painting on. We love the “story” part of the word “history,” and we love it trimmed out with colour and drama, ribbons and bows.” — Frank Delaney
“Thankfully the rest of the world assumed that the Irish were crazy, a theory that the Irish themselves did nothing to debunk.” — Eoin Colfer
“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.” — Edna O’Brien
“The History of Ireland in two words: Ah well.” — Niall Williams
And from Bill Barich (A Pint of Plain), who is not an Irishman, but clearly knows his pints: “H.L. Mencken’s Dictionary of the American Language supplies a long list of slang terms for being drunk, but the Irish are no slouches, either. They’re spannered, rat-arsed, cabbaged, and hammered; ruined, legless, scorched, and blotted; or simply trolleyed or sloshed. In Kerry, you’re said to be flamin’; in Waterford, you’re in the horrors; and in Cavan, you’ve gone baloobas, a tough one to wrap your tongue around if you are baloobas. In Donegal, you’re steamin’, while the afflicted in Limerick are out of their tree.”
If you’re toasting St. Patrick tomorrow, I hope your celebrations do not result in any of the foregoing conditions.