Geography more than genes

When we went to Howth, there was a woman selling used books in an old single- room building.  We went in and came out heavier.  Among the books we acquired was a spiral bound road map.  It has been invaluable.  Another, the weightiest at 514 pages (we planned to leave it to you Tad and Vicky . . .and we may yet), was unopened until today.  It is titled, The Oxford Book of Ireland, and was edited by Patricia Craig.  The first of 22 chapters is named, The Character of Ireland, and contains the following quotes and many more, as well.

You have been receiving a flavor of Ireland through picture.  This post is picture free.  For those of you who love words, there is much to savor:

From E. Estyn Evans, “The Irishness of the Irish”

For this I am convinced:  what is called ‘Irishness’ can be understood only in relation to the homeland.  There is a saying you can take a boy out of Ireland, but you cannot take Ireland out of the boy.  In the long run, I believe geography counts for more than genes.


From Robert Lloyd Praeger, The Way That I Went, 1937

The proximity of the island to the warm Atlantic results in high rainfall, cool summers, mild winters, and much wind; these factors influence all life within the island, from man down to mosses.  This peculiar position is also at the root of that most delightful of Irish climatic phenomena, its ever-changing cloud-effects, so different from the monotonous and more settled skies – whether cloudy or cloudless – that characterize continental areas.  The western hills and the clouds, which are their legitimate accompaniment, are inseparable; the eye is carried upward from the hill-tops for thousands of feet into the infinite blue.  The cloudland is indeed so wonderful a creation that Ireland would be a dull place without it:  here it is almost always with us, as vital to our enjoyment as the landscape itself.


From William Allingham, “Autobiography,” in The Diary of Wm. Allingham, 1907

It has always been supposed that some countries have, so to speak, a peculiar magnetic attraction for the souls of their children, and I found plenty of reason, in the conduct of my neighbors as well as my own consciousness, to count Ireland as one of these well-beloved motherlands.  This home-love is strongest in the  dwellers in her wild and barren places, rock strewn mountain glens and windy sea-shores, notwithstanding the chronic poverty in which so many of them live.  In these remote and wild parts Erin is the most characteristically herself, and the most unlike to Saxon England.  Her strange antiquities, visible in grey mouldering fragments; her ancient language, still spoken by some, and everywhere present in place-names, as well as phrases and turns of speech; her native genius for music; her character – reckless, variable, pertinacious, enthusiastic; her manners – recoiling delicate respect with easy familiarity; her mental movements – quick, humorous, imaginative, impassioned; her habits of thought as to property, social intercourse, happiness; her religious awe and reverence; all these, surviving to the present day, under whatever difficulties, have come down from times long before any England existed, and cling to their refuge on the extreme verge of the Old World, among lonely green hills, purple mountains, and rocky bays, bemurmured day and night by the Western Ocean.

            I never came back to Ballyshannon country after an absence, without thinking that it looked to be the oldest place I ever saw.


From Samuel Beckett, Watt, 1953

The crocuses and the larch turning green every year a week before the others and the pastures red with uneaten sheep’s placentas and the long summer days and the new-mown hay and the wood-pigeon in the morning and cuckoo in the afternoon and the corncrake in the evening and the wasps in the jam and the smell of the gorse and the look of the gorse and the apples falling and the children walking in the dead leaves and the larch turning brown a week before the others and the chestnuts falling and the howling winds and the sea breaking over the pier and the first fires and the hooves on the road and the consumptive postman whistling “The Roses Are Blooming in Picardy” and the standard oil-lamp and of course the snow and to be sure the sleet and bless your heart the slush and every fourth year the February debacle and the endless April showers and the crocuses and then the whole bloody business starting all over again.


From Conrad Arensberg, The Irish Countryman, 1937

Ireland, particularly Celtic southern Ireland, has always had a fascination for most of us.  The cities, particularly Dublin, the last stronghold of the art of conversation, are as charming as the countryside.  But it is the country districts which occupy us here.

            Most of us probably know at least four countrysides in Ireland.  Like Caesar we divide our Gaul.  But the divisions we make are not geographical.  Our four Irelands are lands f the spirit.

            Perhaps our first Ireland is the mystic land of the past.  This is the land of the ‘Celtic twilight’, the country of Synge and Yeats and Stephens.  It is the seat of an age-old tradition, of the remains of a once brilliant Celtic civilization.  Literature has taught us to look for this land in the barren moors and rugged mountains of the west, among the tiny white cabins of Connemara and along the misty headlands of Kerry and West Cork.  It is the Ireland of Aran and the Blaskets.  There a remnant of the sagas and hero-tales can still be heard, a wandering poet sang but yesterday in the lit of Blind Raferty.  There old men and old women sitting by turf fires still spin tales of banshees and the good people; and just the other day in Daniel Corkery’s hidden Munster the hedge school-master and the wandering scholar had Ovid and Horace at his tongue’s tip.  And there too the riders to the sea go down to their deaths amid the keening women, whose language rings to us of simple, old-world poetry long ago passed from our own tongues.

            A second Ireland is a gay full-blooded picture, though some among the nationalists dislike it.  It is the Ireland of the merry and happy-go-lucky present.  Handled badly, it becomes the land of the ‘stage Irishman’, that buffoonish figure which the nation’s pride so justly resents.  But handled well, by a Lady Gregory, a George Birmingham, and on the stage by the Abbey Players, it is a world of its own.  In it, innocent boasting, the excitement of a race-meeting, the hurly-burly of a fair, the flashing wit of a court-room, and the staccato thunder of a political campaign, reveal a talkative, mercurial, witty people, amusing and intelligent, romantic and gallant.

            The third Ireland most of us know is a more serious scene.  One might even call it a grimmer land.  It is a sober, hard-working land of minute towns and small farms upon a soil not always grateful.  It is a land of hard realities.  This Ireland is subject to hot flashes of anger and dispute which throw into relief deep-lying hatreds and loyalties.  We all know something of the Land War and Sinn Fein and the bitter internecine strife of the Trouble.  If we know anything of Ireland’s history we see these rough upheavals of a tranquil scene as great punctuation marks upon a red page of struggle lasting seven hundred years.  This is the Ireland of bitter economic fate and political unrest.  Much of this can be laid at England’s door, but not all.  The Ireland of the Irish is no more free of internal strife than any other land.

            Most of us recognize a fourth Ireland as well, especially those who are Catholics.  It is the Ireland of the Faith, the Island of Saints and Scholars.  It is the land of the devout, whose word and deed breathe a religious fervor which most of us have forgotten.  This is the land of holy wells and pilgrimages and roadside shrines.  Well-filled churches rise above every hamlet now and the black-frocked priest is a familiar friendly figure.  To many of us, perhaps a paradox lies here.  Fierce love of political liberty goes hand in hand with a deep devotion to the most authoritarian of Christian creeds.


From Dermott Bolger, form the Introduction to The Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction, 1993

Frequently Joyce and others are shadows that newer Irish writers are trying to avoid being pushed under.  It is not just that we are presumed to share a city or country with Joyce, but those themes which obsessed him and his generation – Catholicism and Nationalism and the role of the artist – are somehow supposed to be central to our own work, so that at times our work can be judged on how we handle subjects which are, in fact, absent form them.  In my early childhood even if “Ulysses” was not actually banned it still had the reputation of being difficult to acquire.   A walk through the streets of Dublin today would tell you how Ireland has changed.  Any public house which is not currently named after Joyce or one of his characters is likely to be so rechristened should you turn your back.  Inside them badly executed pen sketches of Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh line the walls like photofit portraits of criminals in a police station.  Contemporary politicians invoke Joyce and other writers in all kinds of unlikely contexts with a fervor only equaled by that with which clerics once denounced them.  If all this lip-service can frequently add up to a sense of claustrophobia for a young Irish writer, it is also a reflection of a society where the printed word is still of prime importance, where writers are still read by a far wider cross-section of the public than elsewhere and – by the nature of the size of the country – where the success of writers can at times be watched, shared or argued about with great intensity.

Published by philandpatricia

we live in Northport, MI

One thought on “Geography more than genes

  1. Thanks for the brilliant selections, Phil. The panorama of writers is such that moods of Ireland shout out from the land to the uncomfortable position of the contemporary writer under the image of the great ones.

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