Irish Literature

The keepers of the Blarney Stone are actually offended when visitors refuse to kiss it (a procedure requiring the kisser to lie on their back and hang over a precipitous drop). But at the same time, the Irish are very protective of the supposed ability bestowed by the Stone: the Gift of Gab, being the ability to speak well and eloquently (or at least overwhelmingly) in one's defense.

While the Gab sounds like a dubious quality to most ears, the Irish revel in it. A recurring theme in the island's literature is the lighting of pipes, drawing in of chairs, and filling of pint glasses prior to a long conversation, debate, or story. In fact, Ireland was more or less a completely verbal culture until relatively recently, despite being home to some of the most literate writers of all time.

It's a bad habit of Irish authors that they can't seem to stop making fun of their countrymen. And it's not just gentle ribbing, either: writers like Flann O'Brien, James Joyce, and Jonathan Swift were downright acerbic. Either they're deriding the ignorance of the rural populations, or they're simply being grumpy old men, but whatever the case Irish novelists often seem more dour than is absolutely necessary.

Not that we would fully understand: the United States broke with England long before living memory, while Ireland (due both to proximity and inner turmoil) has never fully succeeded in throwing off the spectre of English domination. Of course, Ireland is an independent country at this point, but even now the Catholic vs. Protestant conflict (read: Irish vs. English) often erupts in violence.

This hatred of all things British goes back a long way, but not to the beginning. In ancient times Ireland (or Eire, as the native tongue has it) was an insular island of Celtic and pre-Celtic tribes. Among the earliest literature of the island is the Tain Bo Cuailnge, a pre-Christian prose epic centering on distinctly Irish culture, mythology, and history (specifically a bloody cattle raid). For all the reference to the outside world it makes, Ireland may as well be the only locale on the map.

It didn't take long for things to change. The English soon became obsessed with ruling their somewhat wilder neighbors, and sent troops across the Irish Sea to show them what was what. In the 17th century things reached a dangerous pitch when Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland (1649-50) on the pretense of wiping out English royalists. Irish/English relations have been shaky ever since.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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