Aaaaah Ireland. What’s not to love? It’s got sheep, whiskey, leprechauns… Besides, green is my favourite colour! And let’s reinforce that stereotype once and for all: Ireland is indeed very, very green.
Above all things to love about Ireland, there is one thing that sticks out among the rest: Ireland’s strong literary tradition. Thinks about it: Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and James Joyce are all Irish. And this is a fact that most tourist offices in Ireland love to stress. But how far does this literary spirit reach into contemporary Irish culture? Here’s an impression of travelling through Ireland as an ex-lit student and her bio-engineer boyfriend.
I was rather shocked that all the seemingly legitimate authentic pubs didn’t play any music. Lots of sports, lots of cheap beer, but (besides chatter) no sound whatsoever. On the other hand you had the loud tourist traps that had their constant blackboards out with the writing “traditional Irish music every night.” What’s so traditional about an acoustic U2 cover anyway? This confused me.
One beautiful exception was Dick Mack’s pub in Dingle. It was recommended to us by local guy named Johnny. Thank you Johnny!
Upon entering, we immediately noticed the wall of whiskey bottles. Had I died and gone to heaven? The opposite wall was designed after an old shoe maker’s shop, including shop counter and random shoes missing their left or right partner. When we arrived, there was already quite a show going on. One man was singing and playing the guitar, and had got everyone to join in. He also introduced a Frenchwoman, who had only been in Ireland for 2 years and already knew more Irish songs than he did. I was amazed at how everyone could instantaneously sing along, as if they grew up with these songs in their homes. But then again, they probably did. Things got tougher when the Frenchwoman (what was her name?) sang La Vie en Rose to give them a taste of her own musical heritage. Even when people didn’t understand the lyrics, they hummed, whistled, and accompanied her in every way they could. And everyone got a go! An elderly gentleman sung a very sad song about a man who lost his wife because of his drinking habit. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Even we were invited to partake, but our Belgian musical tradition failed us. (More correctly: our knowledge of that tradition, and my own ability to carry a tune.) As the evening progressed, the themes became more sensitive until at one point someone got insulted by a song about the Troubles. The singer asked if he was from Northern Ireland, but quickly realized: “Oh no, he’s English!” This got quite a bit of laughs … and an almost equal amount of tension. When the bar closed and things got heated, that was our cue to exit. We did get a last “Oh no, the foreigners are leaving!” to keep us warm on our way back to the hostel. Definitely a night to remember.
Our last days in Ireland were spent in Dublin. And there was one small, hidden thing I needed to see before we left: Oscar Wilde’s statue. We wandered through Dublin until out feet hurt and we were getting hungry, bordering on severe crankiness. Finally, I found the flamboyant image of my muse. After an elaborate photo-shoot I was finally content and we could move on. And oh, did we save the best for last!
Coincidentally, one of Dublin’s greatest tourist attractions just so happened to be a literary treasure located in Trinity College! The Book of Kells is known among scholars and lay people as one of the most beautifully illuminated manuscripts preserved to this day. Since I studied historical linguistics and literature, and got a job as a volunteer at the Heritage Library Hendrik Conscience in Antwerp, I can honestly tell you I was more than exited to see this book. It was showcased in a glass case in a small dark room: one text page laid open, and one illuminated page. I was absolutely mesmerized by the level of detail in the illustrations, and I might have shown this too obviously, because I was soon addressed by the steward present in the room. He told me the entire history of the Book of Kells, for example that the illuminators were 12 to 16 years old because they had to have perfect vision to achieve such detail in their work. After this brief history lesson we had a nice chat about all things literary and exchanged enthusiastic anecdotes. Our bonding experience paid off, because he told me I could ignore the “20 minute entry rule” and shift between rooms as often as I’d like and stay as long as I deemed fit! Of course I couldn’t ignore The Long Room: books EVERYWHERE! I’ve spent quite some time in the beautiful Nottebohmroom of the Antwerp Heritage Library, but The Long Room in Trinity College is still something to be jealous of. (Also, it is indeed quite long.)
Needless to say, I had to be literally dragged out by my boyfriend.
So what have I learnt about Ireland’s literary tradition? Mostly that it isn’t just Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, James Joyce, or any other great Irish writers that you can think of. It’s in the people themselves. The language, the music and the way people interact shows the long and significant oral tradition that lies at the base of Ireland’s literary culture. The pub in Dingle showed how mnemonic devices were used to pass on stories in a time when the written word wasn’t the standard medium. Nowadays rhymes, repetition and rhythm are mostly seen as a way of ‘giving a nice ring’ to a recitation, but their importance regarding memory is proven by the fact that I still remember the words to a poem I heard only once in my life. Literature, poetry and song is everywhere. It’s in daily life, commercial life, and in the hearts of the people. And nowhere in the world have I seen that natural literary tendency as clearly as in Ireland.
Now I have to ask a question that has bothered me since my trip to Ireland. Who here has actually read Ulysses? And I don’t mean browsing through it or reading a bit so you know enough to bluff your way through a snobby lit students’ discussion. I mean every page, from cover to cover. I haven’t. I’m not afraid to admit that during my student years Ulysses was too great a challenge. I mean… 1000 pages to narrate 24 hours, and all in stream of consciousness-style. Seriously? Apparently, even most Irish admit to not having read their Modernist masterpiece. Now I’d love to meet people who have actually conquered the great beast and can convince me to finally do so. Is it worth the effort? Or should I just stick to my pulp fiction and slightly less daunting Russian classics?
Here are a few Irish texts you might enjoy reading:
- Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Both are stories about a vampire set in an exotic foreign land. Nevertheless, critics have shown that the settings in these texts are in fact more strongly influenced by the authors’ original Irish scenery than by the actual country the stories portrays.
- Morgan Llywelyn’s Bard: A sci-fi/fantasy novel that tries to capture the historic figure of the bard in the times when Ireland was still called “Hibernia.” Its value lies in the sensual portrayal of a literary tradition that was praised above all else.
- Everything Oscar Wilde ever wrote.