On the plane into Dublin, watching the puffy white clouds that cover the country drift lazily below me, I formulated a question that I wanted to answer as I traveled throughout Ireland. What drove Irish creativity? It is a small country, and it has a population only about the size of metro Atlanta. Still, it managed to produce four Nobel Prize laureates in literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney; and sports a host of other artists, writers and musicians who have reshaped their respective fields. So what was it? The people? The history? The culture? The weather?
I think I got the first hint of it when I first landed in Dublin. Stepping off of the plane, I immediately felt immersed in the creative energy that seems to envelope the country. On every street corner, in every pub, there were musicians. They brought a wide assortment of instruments: guitars, violins, drums, bagpipes, flutes, and some with just their voices. Each was good in a raw sort of way, and added to the collective din of artistic fervor. Then there were the bookstores, more bookstores than I had ever seen, stacked on top of one another and jostling for space on the sidewalks. Books spilled out of them and customers, tourists and natives alike, milled about inside.
This was my first clue. The energy of this small country is driven by demand. The people who either live in or visit Ireland devour the product of Irish artisans, and where there is demand, product will inevitably follow.
I then got a follow up to my question on our tour around Trinity College. The College boasts not only one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, it also claims distinguished writers Oscar Wilde, Jonathon Swift and Samuel Beckett; a fact that our tour guide proudly explained. But, she continued with a hint of remorse, they could not claim James Joyce, as sadly he was a member of University College of Dublin.
This was my next clue, and it was continuously expounded on in the coming days. The Irish enshrine their artists, and put them on a pedestal that in America is usually reserved for presidents and businessmen. Just like sports rivalries in the states, the two colleges in Dublin have a very real rivalry regarding who can churn out the best writers. There is a respect and celebration of literary history in a way that I have not seen at home. A good example of this is Bloomsday. Leopold Bloom was the main character in James Joyce’s best known novel Ulysses, and Bloomsday refers to the day that the novel takes place, June 16. Bloomsday itself is a bawdy literature festival that takes place in the streets of Dublin, where it seems the entire town goes out to celebrate and hear readings or crawl the pubs mentioned in the book.
It was refreshing, coming from a place where most do not know Samuel Clemens, to see a nation consistently rise to celebrate the remarkable genius of its citizens.
Countryside must play a role as well. Making the trek up the Coastal Causeway in Northern Ireland and watching the waves bash themselves against the sheer rocky coastline reminded me of a storybook. I could almost see the sails of Viking ships topping the horizon, or a giant stepping out of a cave in the cliffs. It is easy to imagine why Tolkien chose to set his books in a Celtic environment.
It is said that creativity bursts forth when the soul is in its greatest pain, and this certainly applies to Ireland. The nation has had a troubled past, and always seemed to be what Joyce called, “this island behind an island, this afterthought of Europe.” Many famous works produced by Irish writers and musicians contained strains of that feeling, expressed with longing, disappointment, or biting satire. And this was part of the answer as well. Many wrote with their souls laid bare and crying out on behalf of their people.
Ultimately, the creative drive of the Irish is not as giddy as I first thought when I stepped out of the plane. It is more of a melancholy feeling that settles behind the hubbub of the city. I could see it in the early morning fog, and hear it in the calls of gulls as they make their way back and forth across the River Liffley. It is sad, mournful even, but hopeful too. It swells in the lilting voice of the old Irishman sitting across from me regaling stories of his youth. It gains ground in the corner where a guy with a guitar is playing Irish and American tunes. And it finally settles on the crowd, who is loudly singing and clapping the backs of the people around them.
But that doesn’t quite cover it either. Perhaps I could best sum up this feeling I had through an excerpt of an old Irish folk ballad called “The Parting Glass”.
Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I’ve ever done
Alas it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To mem’ry now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all
So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befalls
And gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all
So that’s my main takeaway from Ireland, and in some respects I answered my question, but in others I feel like I only grazed the surface. I don’t know if it is even possible to know the answer, but in pursuit of it I learned a lot about Ireland and about myself, and isn’t that the real point of it all?
I love your insights! This post is so beautiful – it really captures the brief taste we got of Irish culture, in addition to the aspects that can’t quite be described. I definitely felt that complex mixture of the longing that comes with a rough history and the cheeriness that we often associate with the Irish.
Great observations about the importance of culture for the Irish, and the significance extends to Irish foreign policy and relations with other countries. Very poetic post as well!
I think you summed up our visit beautifully. It is impossible to understand an entire country – culture, traditions, people – in just one week. But our experiences really did attempt to look at Ireland through so many lenses. What we saw, both in the city and up the coast, gave us insight into how people were inspired to create the astonishing literature, music and art that has come from this beautiful country. It was almost as though there was an essence of magic surrounding us from the Coastal Causeway to walking past the street musicians in Dublin.
I love that you said it was the “melancholy feeling that settles behind the hubbub of the city”. You can see the pain and strife they went through, but you can also see how they have overcome it.
Love this post Will!