When I was young, my father’s oft repeated favorite riddle was: What is the richest country in the world? The first time he quizzed me, I wracked my brain and offered a few feeble guesses. When he could contain his mirth no longer, with a grin, a twinkle, and a nudge to my ribs he chuckled: “Ireland, of course! Because its capital is always doublin’!!”
As one of Europe’s oldest cities, Dublin witnessed centuries of Irish hard times, most notably and tragically during the Great Famines of the 19th century. By the end of the 20th century, however, the country’s prosperity was so strong it was being referred to as ‘The Irish Tiger.’ Had Ireland’s contribution to literature been weighed instead of its coffers, the sobriquet would likely have been coined much earlier.
In that Ireland is just a tiny island positioned on a globe dominated by massive continents with equally massive populations, its contribution to the world’s literature – in all forms – is disproportionately huge. Perhaps the climate has something to do with it. Personally, I am more inclined to sit and write when the sky is murky with rain than when sunshine lures me outdoors. Whatever the reason, the Irish tradition of storytelling long predates the written word.
With the exception of ogham lines (see Sláinte April/May 2011) that were mainly used for inscriptions, the Irish did not become a ‘literate’ people until the advent of Christianity in the 5th century. Prior to that time, all folklore and family histories were handed down from generation to generation via an oral tradition requiring extraordinary memorization skills, with some sagas consisting of up to 8,000 lines. Even the Brehon Laws, which minutely defined every right and obligation of the complex social strata, were committed to memory.
All that changed once Church scholars adapted the Irish language to the Latin alphabet and recorded the major stories from the Old Irish period in four ‘cycles.’ The Mythological Cycle tells of the ancient gods and goddesses and the magical Tuatha De Danann. The Ulster Cycle, heroic tales that take place in Ulster and Connacht, centers on the epic Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). Similarly, the Fenian Cycle is a collection of stories about heroes the most famous being Fionn mac Cumhail. The Historical Cycle is a quasi-mythological poetic genealogy of the High Kings until the reign of Brian Boru who united the island in the 10th century.
Through the Medieval Period, storytelling was largely the province of bards who found patronage with the local aristocracy. As England’s control over the island increased, bringing with it social and political upheaval, there was little interest in the older culture. By the 19th century, the English-speaking middle class was the dominant cultural force.
It was then that the first great modern Irish writers emerged, many of whom left indelible marks on the world’s literature. Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of a Tub), a biting satirist, was Ireland’s first famous writer of modern times. Oliver Goldsmith (The Vicar of Wakefield, She Stoops To Conquer) became a member of London’s literary establishment. Bram Stoker (Dracula) singlehandedly invented the ‘horror genre.’ The works of Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest) enthrall audiences today as much if not more than they did when originally written. The same can be said of George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion, Major Barbara, Caesar and Cleopatra), Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Brendan Behan (An Giall: The Hostage), W.B. Yeats (The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems), John Millington Synge (The Playboy of the Western World), and Sean O’Casey (Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars).
The list of illustrious Irish writers is much longer than the few luminaries mentioned here, but none has perhaps had as great an impact on the very form of world literature as Dublin’s own James Joyce in his masterwork Ulysses.
Set on June 16, 1904, Ulysses records the events of an average day in the lives of three Dubliners: Leopold Bloom, a frustrated advertisement canvasser; his wife Molly, a lusty amateur opera singer; and Stephen Daedalus, a moody poet and part-time teacher at a boys school. The story structure parallels Homer’s Odyssey with Bloom’s one-day trek around Dublin allegorically likened to the Greek hero Ulysses’ nineteen-year struggle to find his way home. It is the saga of a man exiled by loneliness whose search for social, political and ethical fulfillment is thwarted by the situations of his environment.
Joyce, himself a voluntary exile, left Ireland at the age of twenty-four and spent the rest of his life in Europe. Except for two brief visits years later, he never again spent time in the city he so loved. But every cobblestone of Dublin’s twisting, winding streets was etched in his memory. Joyce once remarked that if the city were ever destroyed, it could be reconstructed from the pages of his works: Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, Dubliners, Finnegans Wake, and Ulysses.