Friday, February 22, 2013





My gorgeous sister, Lucy, featured the above anecdote on Facebook—and it set me to thinking. Lucy’s observations have a tendency to do that. She is the youngest member of the family, and almost certainly the wisest—and she has an excellent visual sense.

Where conversation is concerned, the reputation of the Irish is already legendary—whether the Blarney stone has been kissed or not. If you haven’t heard of the Blarney stone, I will say no more except to report that legend has it that if you do kiss it (you need a head for heights to do this) you will have the gift of the gab forever. Frankly, I don’t think most Irish need such encouragement.

So, let me turn to the written word. Here, I am nothing if not biased because my life is focused on just that—words—and written words at that. Whether such words are printed on paper, or read on an e-reader, tablet, or Smart Phone makes scant difference to the process of writing (although I detect a tendency for e-books to be shorter). But writing is writing.

Where writing is concerned, as it happens, Ireland, an extremely small country in terms of population—a  little over 6 million in a world of 7 billion—has produced an impressive number of world class writers, and continues to do so; one of them being that truly admirable teller of tales, the late Maeve Binchy quoted above.

Another being my own son, Christian O’Reilly, who apart from being an award winning playwright, has one movie to his credit—more than I have so far—and now writes for the BBC (which is the literary equivalent of qualifying as a Navy SEAL; it’s that tough).

They are both part of a magnificent tradition.

I could go on. There is that phenomenal poet, Seamus Heaney, and that beautiful writer, Peter Cunningham.

And then we come to to movie director Neil Jordan, who is also an author of surpassing talent. Can you place Neil Jordan? Think INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE with Tom Cruise—and much else besides.

All in all, even if one does not hark back to such literary luminaries as Swift, Yeats and Wilde, the roll call of Irish talent (both past and current)constitutes a long, long, list—longer than most people realize because Irish writers are also often claimed by the British as well! Indeed they claim the Duke of Wellington, himself a very fine writer, as a British military hero. But the man was Irish, I will have you know. Yes he did say: “Being born in a stable doesn’t make one a horse,” but nobody is perfect.

What can I say! It’s a complex relationship, and the British are not exactly short of bards (let me throw in Shakespeare, who is generally reckoned to be culturally acceptable)) but they still like to claim the successful Irish as their own, when they can. I suspect this stems from their empire complex—a feeling that they have a right to sail the world and grab whatever they can. Appreciate that a lot of Vikings settled in Britain and contributed to the gene pool. Indeed, the Normans, who won the Battle of Hastings and thus conquered England in 1066, were originally Vikings. Not many people know that.

But let me offer a few thoughts on how Ireland’s continuing literary tradition has come about. Much as the Vikings long had a tradition of raiding, pillage, rape and destruction (which somehow has produced the extraordinarily peaceful and economically successful Scandinavian countries) the Irish have long been besotted with words. Think “grand passion.” This is not a minor dalliance.

And here we are talking about a love affair that has endured for roughly a millennium and a half—a singular display of affection and fidelity. For most of that time it has been predominately oral, but the written word has been present—principally because of the influence of monks—for longer than most people realize. Nonetheless, the dominant tradition was oral.

Here is an insight from Wikipedia:

Poetry in Irish represents the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. The earliest examples date from the 6th century, and are generally short lyrics on themes from religion or the world of nature. They were frequently written by their scribe authors in the margins of the illuminated manuscripts that they were copying. The best known example is Pangur Bán.

It was practical for poems to be short because the Irish recognized that it was necessary to use any means necessary to make the poems lasting in their oral culture. To accomplish such a feat as well as they have, they used complicated rhyme schemes that would render a poem nonsensical if any of the key words were changed from the original version.

In an oral culture, Irish poetry had many uses. A poem could be used to immortalize both the poet and the subject of the poem; oftentimes kings would commission poets to create a piece about them. Such poems would be passed on to descendants so they would remember the great deeds of past generations.

But why are the Irish oral and literary traditions so distinctive and so enduring?

  • They are endemic to the culture. Words and what you can do with them, are enormously important to the Irish—and wit is considered fundamental to the human condition.
  • Oppression under English rule for many hundreds of years meant that, for many, words and dreams were all the Irish had left—so they made the most of them. In Ireland, dreams have substance.
  • Success breeds success. It is singularly inspiring to have so many extraordinarily talented role models for generation after generation.
  • The juxtaposition of the Irish and English languages—with Irish adding something very special to the way English is both spoken and written.
  • The high status of education in Ireland which has long resulted in an extremely literate population.
  • The active support of the Irish government from the foundation of the state in the belief that the nourishment of the culture was –and remains—singularly important.

The results, I am delighted to say, have been—and continue to be—spectacular, despite Ireland’s current economic woes. Enlightened societies have long known that investing in a nation’s culture generates  both tangible and intangible added value—and that the free market alone is not sufficient. This raises the interesting question of what tangible benefits could be generated if the U.S. ever decided to invest in the arts in a serious way. Current support for the arts, in a nation of about 315 million, is little more than tokenism.

I suspect we would be agreeably surprised, economic growth would be stimulated, and the quality of our lives would be enhanced.

It would be interesting to pick one state and really experiment—because if one could show definitively what the effect of supporting the arts could be, the consequences could change our thinking profoundly.

If you doubt me, just take a trip to Europe and there just imagine the economic effects of the Renaissance. Wander, browse, look and think. Stare in awe. Wander around Verona. Soak up the beauty of Florence. Watch the palio—it’s a horse race--in Sienna. Gaze in admiration at St. Peters. Consider what these people created.

The impact of that extraordinary time must have exceeded that of the Marshall Plan many times.

I rest my case.


Orso Clip Art







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