I went to Ireland two summers ago with a Big Question on my mind: why has Ireland produced so many fine authors? Beckett and Behan, Shaw and Synge, Swift and Stoker, Yeats and Joyce, C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Swift—to name a familiar few.
And I wouldn’t want to neglect those sterling female writers, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Iris Murdock, Emma Donoghue, and my personal favorite, Nuala O’Faolain.
Was it the environment? J.R.R. Tolkien used the lunar-like landscape of Burren and the Hole of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Yeats’ last poem “Under Ben Bulben,” was about a brooding plateau mountain of the same name.
Was it governmental incentive? Irish authors are not taxed for creative work produced and sold in Ireland.
Was it the cultural climate of Ireland––the Writers’ Museum, the Abbey Theater, the National Library, the existences of ferries and bridges and statues named after writers? The existence of Dublin’s Literary Pub Crawl? The marriage of writerly tradition and alcoholic products reflected in the names Writers’ Pale Ale, Writers’ Tears Whiskey, and Writers’ Block Lager? Was it that the Irish Literature Exchange paid for translations that resulted, for example, in Colm Toibin’s work selling 100,000 copies in China?
Was it the climate, the Northwest Washington-like, gloomy patina of rain upon green that turns one’s thoughts inward?
Kevin Barry, a popular contemporary novelist and short story writer (his most recent novel is Beatlebone, based on John Lennon’s real life purchase of an island off the coast of County Sligo where Barry lives) proclaims the latter:
“Irish literature was invented to get us through long dark nights, to keep out of the God-awful weather, to entertain us. Look out the window––it explains our rich literary history.”
Kevin Barry’s climatological explanation subdued me. I stopped wondering about why Ireland has produced so many great authors and opened myself to the experience of being in Dublin and Dingle, two of the cities my wife and I visited.
Dublin is a UNESCO-designated “City of Literature,” of which there are now eleven, including disparate places like Reykjavik, Iceland; Krakow, Poland, and Dunedin, New Zealand. Dublin’s “City of Words” lists 33 items, including festivals, readings, and book publishing events. We went to many of them.
One favorite: Sweny’s, the pharmacy where Leopold Bloom in Ulysses bought lemon soap. They host readings, sell books and lemon soap, but no drugs. Sweny’s was suggested by Brendan Clarke, the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus driver we became friends with.
“One day when I went,” Clarke said, “I heard someone behind me reading. I thought I know that American voice.” He laughed. “I’ll give you a hint. His initials are H.F.”
“Harrison Ford?” I said.
A small chalkboard in Sweny’s front window announced the day, time, and title of the book––all authored by Joyce, of course––from which we would read: “Tuesday, 1 p.m. Dubliners.”
The bustle of Dublin’s overcrowded summer streets receded as we entered a tiny dark room with wood-paneled walls and stacks of old books.
A white-haired gentleman greeted us as we came in, “Here for the reading?” He handed us paperback copies of Joyce’s Dubliners. “Would you like tea?”
Ten strangers, an equal collection of men and women, sat on long wooden benches, each reading a page from “The Dead,” one of the short stories in Dubliners.
Most of us had ordinary voices and reading ability, but there were two whose utterances made me anticipate their turns. Killian, dark-haired, good-looking, dressed in slacks, an open-collared shirt and jacket, was a Ph.D. student in English literature from Cork. Deep-voiced, he read with studied seriousness, leaning into the words, showing reverence for Joyce’s prose.
Sean, wearing a t-shirt with “Anonymous” and a quilled pen on the front, sprang into vocal action. He was athletic and energized as if he were an actor in a one-man play. His dialects and volume changed from character to character. I was sure he was attached to a Dublin Theater. But no, I found out later, he was a public relations guy for a whiskey association who was waiting for his first book to be published, a history of whiskey in Ireland.
This was intimate space occupied by residents of a high-tech world who took pleasure in the simple act of reading to one another. Speaking, reading, reciting, storytelling, singing––Irish culture’s got it right.
I wrote a positive Trip Advisor review and identified Brendan as “a writer.” The next day as we boarded the bus, Brendan was our driver again.
“Listen,” he said, “All the drivers are saying to me, ‘We didn’t know you were a writer.’ Turning to us, he said, I’m not a writer. Maybe you can take that out of the review. I’m just interested in writing.”
That’s the thing about Ireland—there are so many people interested in writing and literature. As travel writer Pol O’Conghaile says in a YouTube video, “The literature isn’t always on the page; it’s almost as if it’s in the air.”
Next Post: Dingle