As an Irish writer, I hope you will forgive my vanity in asking the above question. It’s one of our claims to fame as a people. Mangan, Yeats, Synge, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney…the list goes on and these are only the great ones. Of course, I don’t place myself anywhere near this pantheon but these are the writers who inspired me to ask questions about my identity and what it is to be Irish. So here I am, trying to figure out what it is about Ireland that she should produce so many great writers? I’m sitting here at my computer trying to answer that question as honestly, if not objectively, as possible.
Creative writing is a solitary act. It is also the most autonomous and individualistic of all the liberal arts. It requires a certain separateness and apartness. Now I’m not saying we are a nation of solitaries but we do see ourselves as apart and separate. From what? you ask. Well, Britain. We have been cultivating this sense of otherness and separateness for many hundreds of years in the face of British oppression. But it goes beyond politics. Ireland is a part of the Celtic Fringe of Europe. The last stronghold of the fathers of the twilight, as they are sometimes called. Through her we can access the past of a great European civilisation. Of course, this makes us proud but it also helps to nurture that feeling of separateness which drives people to write.
Another common trait in those who write creatively is the capacity for mimicry. According to Nietzsche, all art comes from mimicry. Now, again, I’m not saying we are a nation of mimics. It is a universal human impulse, after all. What I’m saying is that we seem to be quite good at it. Joyce’s Ulysses is a book full of mimicry. He seems to celebrate it along with the wit and eloquence of his characters. Of course, Joyce, in writing the book, is the great mimicker behind it all.
Music is one of the sources of all good creative writing. If the sound and the rhythm are not right, then you may as well throw it away. According to Pater, all art aspires to the condition of music. Irish people are music lovers. So what? you ask. Aren’t all nations? Yes, but I think as far as expressing the national character goes nothing does it better than Irish music. Anyone who has been to a session of Irish Trad music in a pub will know the reverence people have for it. It is a reverence for its power to express something so deep that it can’t be expressed in words.
And, finally, all creative writing comes from a deep rooted need to express oneself. Since we lost the Irish language, be it voluntary or not, Irish people have struggled with an alien tongue and this is, perhaps, reflected in the national literature. You might argue that many great writers were Anglo-Irish, but these writers were as concerned with expressing the national character as Irish Catholic writers were. They were part of the same struggle. That the Irish people achieved a kind of mastery over the language is evident in many works e.g. in the plays of Synge, where the characters speak a kind of noble Hiberno-English. The Irish have not only mastered but adapted a foreign tongue and this is reflected in the astonishing amount of successful Irish writers over the last 150 years or so.
Of course there are other national traits which are conducive to producing good writers. A capacity for suffering is one. An aversion to pomp and grandeur is another.
Then again, maybe it’s all down to there being something in the water!
Whatever the case, the national literature is a source of pride and self-esteem to Irish people all around the globe. Long may it continue.