How many Irish poets, playwrights, and writers can you name? Now, how many of those are still living and how many of them have published work in the past few years? We hope there’s still a few left on your list.
One international tourism expert recently criticized Ireland for focusing too hard on our long-dead icons, instead of celebrating what was good about our country and culture in the here and now.
In an interview with Cormac Ó hEadhra on the “Today with Seán O’Rourke Show” on RTÉ Radió One, Professor Michael Hall from University of Canterbury, New Zealand, spoke, in particular, of his arrival at Dublin airport where he was greeted with news of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett but given little idea of the capital’s contemporary culture.
“National icons for sure but it just really struck me, where is the contemporary culture being pushed?” Hall asked.
The host, Ó hEadhra, argued that if Ireland were to advertise its modern music and culture, people would ask where the old icons and historic figures were, to which Hall answered, “I wouldn't be saying that at all.”
“It’s really interesting when I go into Stockholm airport … it’s fascinating because what they have there is a whole series of famous people associated with Stockholm who are dead but then a whole bunch of live and living who represent contemporary Stockholm,” the New Zealander continued.
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“Its fascinating coming straight from that airport as I did and then coming through to Dublin and just seeing that kind of contrast.
“I think what it was, it really surprised me because I know the extent to which Ireland tries to push innovation, creativity as part of what it shows to the world. It struck me that there seems to be a real gap between what is intended and what struck me as I came in.”
Hall is right about that, at least, even if his other comments about our capital city are somewhat misguided or have clearly missed out on the many ways that we promote our new talent. Ireland does pride itself on its innovation and creativity, hailing our writers through the likes of Dublin’s “One City, One Book Festival” and the annual celebrations on Bloomsday.
While we may have lost Web Summit to Portugal (pending the chance of some kind of return following their recent announcement), the Irish government is keen to push the idea of Ireland as the tech hub of Europe where Facebook, Twitter, and Google have all set up camp.
Yet, are we still doing a disservice to ourselves and to our creative class by failing to hold them up in the same way as those who have gone before them? And are they always living in this shadow no matter how much support they receive?
When I first moved to New York, I worked with a publishing company where I was embarrassed by how much more knowledgeable of classic Irish writers some of my co-workers appeared to be than I was. While I’d like to think I’ve given it my best shot to read as much of the greats' works as possible, having not studied literature as they had, I was vastly behind and could offer no real contribution to their more in-depth analyses.
These same people who could tell me all about the intricacies of their favorite Brian Friel play, however, were shocked when I mentioned how I’d been looking forward to the movie “Brooklyn” for quite some time after having read the novel by Colm Toibín – I knew there were certain parallels to my own experience. Although I could very obviously draw fewer parallels with 2016’s other hit movie “Room”, the same thing occurred.
Both were books by Irish writers with stories so great that they were picked up by filmmakers. Both were pleasant surprises for my American friends, who had never heard of the Irish writers or their work.
The co-workers who once voted Joyce as their favorite non-American writer in an office poll had never heard of Colm Toibín or Emma Donoghue. They also had no knowledge of Colin Barrett, Kevin Barry, or Louise O’Neill, whose writing I also recommended.
While one can not be expected to know every writer under the sun, are we missing a beat when those clearly interested in Irish writers and Irish writing are looking only to the past and know nothing of the same kind of talent available and easily accessible to them in the modern day?
While my experience of Dublin as a modern-city would widely contrast with that of Hall’s – and I’d say it shows itself off well as a 21st-century creative city with a happy balance between the old and the new – there is some worth in thinking about the academic’s complaints. One less seminar on Joyce in favor of living writers is not going to make any kind of dent in Joyce's reputation.
H/T: RTÉ Radio