He wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music.James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
For as long as there has been an Ireland, independent or otherwise, the art of the spoken and written word has been at its center. Walking around Dublin, it is impossible not to remember that this is the city of James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and so many more. The city is even, and deservedly so, a UNESCO city of literature, a title it has held since 2010.
In the early days, Irish tradition was spread largely by oral storytelling. The shanachie, or storyteller, would travel throughout the rural villages, bringing tales of history and mythology. Supplemented by writings from religious orders – pretty much the only ones literate at the time – these revered members of society told stories of the Irish kings of old, and of fairies and leprechauns, passing knowledge to the next generation.
With the English conquest of Ireland in the late 12th century, the English tongue replaced Irish Gaelic as the primary taught language. Although Irish was used colloquially, with an increased literate society in the 18th century and beyond, the vast majority of writing was done in English. Anglo-Irish authors like Jonathan Swift would begin a tradition of works from this small island being exported to the world.
You use a glass mirror to see your face: you use works of art to see your soul.George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah
From the late 19th century and into the 20th, Ireland seemed to produce more award-winning authors per capita than anywhere, although not all remained in their homeland. Perhaps the most famous is James Joyce, and the Museum of Irish Literature here in Dublin has multiple exhibits dedicated to this most famed of local sons. Born here in 1882, his novel Ulysses would come to be considered one of the greatest books ever written in the English language, and the museum has its very first copy – with hand written notes from Joyce himself – in a display case on its third floor. Likewise, the city itself has plaques marking where portions of the story take place.
Poetry, too, has always been a part of Irish literature, and topping that chart is William Butler Yeats. Though nearly twenty years Joyce’s elder, the two had a close friendship, and the museum boasts a letter from Joyce to Yeats, lamenting problems with his publisher for Dubliners. Dublin pays homage to its greatest poet in St. Stephen’s Green, a lovely park in the center of the city, with a modern bronze memorial.
Just a few minutes’ walk from the Museum of Irish Literature is Trinity College. Known as one of the best universities in Europe, Trinity is responsible for the education of some of the greatest Irish writers of recent times. Samuel Beckett both studied and taught here, and the campus theatre is named for the Waiting for Godot genius. Likewise, Oscar Wilde also attended Trinity, and although most of his works were published (and performed) while he lived in London, his Irish upbringing would color his style.
Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist
More modern Irish literature has created a revival of Irish Gaelic, although greats in English continue to be pumped out. Frank McCourt’s 1996 Angela’s Ashes won a Pulitzer, while Seamus Heaney won a 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, one of four Irish writers to achieve this amazing feat, along with Yeats, Beckett, and George Bernard Shaw.
Of course, with poetry and performance dating all the way back to the shanachie, and carried on with the poets and playwrights of the modern era, it is no wonder Ireland has such a renowned tradition of song and dance. From bawdy drinking ballads to political epics like U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, music takes a central role in Irish culture. And with it comes dance. All around Dublin, pubs and theatres host music and traditional Irish dancing, mainly for tourists, but also to keep these arts alive for locals.
I attend Irish Nights at the Belvedere Hotel, which has musicians and dancers, along with a bit too much audience participation. I join in with some of the choruses, tap my foot along to the stomping of the dancers – who are truly spectacular – and marvel at the bodhran, an Irish drum I’d never seen before. It’s a pleasant evening, and while not quite as highbrow as a reading of Joyce, it keeps with the similar spirit.
It’s lovely to know that the world can’t interfere with the inside of your head.Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
Though I am never to go down in the annuls of history, it is not lost on me as I stroll the Dublin streets that I am a writer here, in a city that has produced so many of the greats in a country that has contributed so much to my profession. From Jonathan Swift to James Joyce, from William Butler Yeats to Edna O’Brien, from Oscar Wilde to Samuel Beckett, and from U2 to The Cranberries, Dublin and great literary works are inextricably linked. Perhaps some of the genius will rub off on me if I but close my eyes and listen.
Thank you so much to the Museum of Irish Literature for hosting my visit to the museum.
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