Writing about writing and its role in Western civilization, one author has said this about the coming of Homer: 'Many brave men lived before Agamemnon's time, but they are all unmourned and unknown, covered by the long night, because they lacked a poet.'
The Irish have not suffered such a lack. In the month of St. Patrick, let's take a brief look at the outsized literary role of this undersized island in world culture. Even a partial roll call will yield names like Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, Seamus Heaney, James Joyce, Liam O'Flaherty, W.B. Yeats, Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Casey, Sean O'Faolain and J.M. Synge.
Celtophiles would likely point to a large number of authors who might be on that list were it not for the Irish diaspora resulting from their country's familiar and unhappy history. Count some of the American writers with Irish surnames: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas McGuane, Larry McMurtry, Phyllis McGinley, Carson McCullers, Mary McCarthy, Jay McInerney.
It all began with St. Patrick, the man credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland and replacing them with monks. Patrick was carried off as a young slave from Roman Britain to Ireland, where he spent six years tending pigs. He escaped but returned 21 years later, moved by a dream of 'those who dwelt beside the wood of Focluth, which is by the Western sea. With one voice, they cried, "We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk once more among us.'' Patrick came and walked for 29 years.
What he left was a culture that revered both the unseen and the language used to describe the seen and unseen. Plucking a tiny fragment out of its exquisitely rich context in the case of a writer like Yeats or Joyce is like humming a few bars of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion to illustrate that work's complex profundity. Only ignorance can mitigate such profanity, so here goes:
'The People! Damn the people! They live in the abyss, the poet lives on the mountain-top. " To them the might of design is a three-roomed house or a capacious bed. To them beauty is for sale in a butcher's shop. To the people the end of life is the life created for them; to the poet the end of life is the life he creates for himself " . The poet ever strives to save the people; the people ever strive to destroy the poet.' -- Sean O'Casey, The Shadow of the Gunman.
The alienation of the creative force from the masses was noted by an even earlier Irishman, Jonathan Swift, who used an expression embraced by a New Orleanian of our time: 'When a true genius appears in this world you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.'
Sean O'Faolain, a storyteller who also has marked well the difference between life lived on and off the edge -- 'It's a terrible and lovely thing to look at the face of Death when you are young, but it unfits a man for the long humiliation of life' -- writes of the difficulties of the Celtic storyteller.
'For as long as we were all in a splendidly romantic idealistic fervor about Ireland, we could all write romantically or idealistically about Ireland. " . But for any kind of realist to write about people with romantic souls is a most tricky and difficult business.'
But many have tried, perhaps most especially in old age, that middle ground between romanticism and realism.
'From all that makes a wise old man/That can be praised of all:/O what am I that I should not seem/For the song's sake a fool?/I pray -- for fashion's word is out/And prayer comes round again --/That I may seem, though I die old/A foolish, passionate man.' -- W.B. Yeats, 'A Prayer For Old Age.'
Pulitzer-prized poet Seamus Heaney finishes his verse 'Follower' like this: 'I wanted to grow up and plough/To close one eye stiffen my arm./All I ever did was follow/In his broad shadow round the farm./I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,/Yapping always. But today it is my father who keeps stumbling/Behind me, and will not go away.'
And Liam O'Flaherty paints this portrait in his story 'The Old Lady':
'"It's only now when my hour approaches,' the old woman said as she put the pipe into the pocket of her skirt, "that I understand the loveliness of God's world. Sometimes I can hardly bear the pain of longing for it. Then I can pray no more and I hate the thought of death. I long for my own loveliness. I long for my youth, when I shouted and danced and picked cowslips in the fields of May beneath the singing larks. Aye! Aye! There are times when the loveliness of God's world gives me pain.''
Of course, all this talk of the Lord has been representative of a cultural fact that has driven more than one Irish writer into a self-imposed exile, e.g. Wilde, Edna O'Brien. The poetess Eavan Boland begins her 'The Emigrant Irish' thusly: 'Like oil lamps we put them out the back/of our houses, of our minds. We had lights/better than, newer than/and then a time came, this time and now/we need them "'
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