TODAY IN LITERATURE – Irish Literary Genius

On March 17, my attention does not turn to cheap green beer. Rather, in the days leading up to St. Patrick’s Day and carrying on right through Bloomsday on June 16, I turn to Irish Literary Genius.

The cultural milieu of Ireland has been shaped by the dynamic interplay between the ancient Celtic traditions of the people and the traditions imposed on the people from outside, notably from Britain. This has produced a culture of rich, distinctive character in which the use of language—be it Irish or English—has always been the central element. Not surprisingly, Irish culture is best known through its literature, drama, and songs; above all, the Irish are renowned as masters of the art of conversation.

Four writers from that ‘rich and rare land’ have been recognized for their genius by being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature from 1923 to 1995:
William Butler Yeats
George Bernard Shaw
Samuel Beckett
Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

If you are not acquainted with the work of Seamus Heaney, this is your lucky day. Heaney is a real treasure – both as a poet whose soul is on fire and as a prince of a man. Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, seventy two years after William B. Yeats, and is considered his literary successor. In announcing his prize, the Swedish Academy praised Heaney for “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and living past.”

Since 1981 he has spent part of each year teaching at Harvard University, where he is a Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Writing about Heaney in 1968, one critic said, “His own involvement does not exclude us: there are few private references, and the descriptive clarity of his writing makes it easy to follow…Heaney’s world is a warm, even optimistic one: his tone is that of traditional sanity and humanity.”

It is tough to choose just a single poem, but here is one that I like. It begins as a childhood memory of an innocent and pleasurable experience rooted in nature but ends with the sad realization that many things we cherish do not endure.

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

This July, at Toronto Pursuits, a fortunate few will spend five mornings in the company of Seamus Heaney, discussing his exploration, through verse, the ways people today make sense of the past – politically, spiritually, aesthetically.   Rosemary Gould will return to Toronto for her fourth year to lead this seminar. Rosemary is a most kind and gentle guide who believes Heaney is the greatest living poet. If you love words like “squelch” and “gleam,” why don’t you join them?  Click here for details. Seamus Heaney: History and Its Inheritors.

I looked for an Irish blessing specific to St. Patrick’s Day but couldn’t find one. Perhaps you will chuckle over this one, new to me.

May those who love us, love us
And those who don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts
And if he can’t turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles
So we will know them by their limping!

Sláinte,

Ann

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15 Comments

  1. Molly Sutkaitis says:

    Ann,

    Happy Saint Patrick’s Day !

    A special thanks for being the cause of a much needed belly laugh!

    I’m going to avoid limping even though the arthritis is a bugger!

    Molly

  2. happy st pat’s day from all here in wash, dc., sligo and cavan

  3. Heather Raff says:

    Love the blog(s), thanks, Anne, Classical Pursuits touches past, present and future in a great way!

  4. Keith McDuffie says:

    Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, Ann.

    I’m limping (only very slightly) as I celebrate a month’s worth with my new left knee, but I’m as positive toward the Irish as ever, especially since the totally Irish Helen spent the month in Pittsburgh helping me through this knee business.

  5. David Davies says:

    Thanks Ann for the great poem and the Irish good cheer.
    And a very happy Paddy’s Day to you!

  6. That poem reminded me of the luscious blackberries I feasted on along the first part of the Camino. I appreciated them especially because fruit and vegetables were surprisingly scarce. I was surprised and saddened when the berries became dry and hard – as we passed their best before date.

  7. Larry French says:

    And Happy St Pat’s to you, Ann, from beautiful downtown Morges, where we are about to celebrate our neighbour’s 70th birthday. Many thanks for another wonderful offering from your favorite poet, and congratulations on your Gaelic (Erse??). My new motto “We will know them by their limping!”
    Big kiss,
    Larry

  8. Thanks for the poem, post, and Irish cheer. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you.

  9. Diana Dunn says:

    Thanks Ann and Happy St Patrick’s Day. I’m headed to Dublin for Bloomsday this year!
    –Diana

  10. Oh lucky you Diana. Try to get out to Sandycove/Glasthule during the day on the 16th. Wonderful dramatic readings at several sites. We have a great Bloomsday here in Toronto, starting at 8 am with Bloom on the Beach and ending with a wonderful ceilidh. And the sun always shines.

  11. Lynda McGiniy says:

    BLACKBERRIES,a lovely, heart-warming, poem. I’m forwarding to my Irish, lover-of all-God’s-growing-greenery, brother-in-law, Ken Moy, and to his wife, my sister Carole who has told stories of her love as a kid picking berries in Washington.

  12. Dear Ann,
    I loved the Heaney poem about picking blackberries. You’ve introduced me to a writer and poet that I’ve never read but I’ll put him on my list now.
    I used to feel when I was working that there was so much in life to read and so little time. Now that I’m retired and do have more time to read, I realize clearly that there will never be a time when I feel as if I’ve read everything I want to. There will always be more to read than I could ever accomplish, but that knowledge fills me with gratitude that the world is so full of an enormous supply of worthwhile literature that is constantly being replenished.
    Happy Paddy’s Day to you too. I do enjoy your blogs.
    Susan

  13. Judy Gould says:

    Ann, Thanks for the beautiful poem, a great St. Patrick’s Day gift. We appreciated hearing from you about Hank’s illness. He is doing well, getting treatment and is very upbeat. I’m sorry we won’t be in Toronto this summer–just too difficult.
    Rosemary introduced me to Seamus Heaney years ago with a slender little book titled The Haw Lantern. There are many poems that I love in it, but one stands out: Clearances, certainly one of the most moving and beautiful poems I’ve ever read. I hope the summer seminars go well for you. Judy

  14. Kerry Dean says:

    Posted this to Facebook, and my friend Rosemary Kelly replied: ” Yes but the genius of Flann O’Brien remains almost unrecognized and more’s the pity. Long Live Myles Na cGopaleen (the da’)”

  15. A new name for me, Kerry. I confess to not yet knowing his work. Nuala O’Faolain is a favourite. But there are so many great Irish writers; how does one choose.

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