UNESCO City of Literature
By Patricia Keegan
Ireland, a tiny island of approximately four million inhabitants, stands nobly -- long fingered peninsulas reaching into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a confident posture evoking a built-in desire to expand its horizon, knowing it has been created with room to grow and to spread a unique culture across the world. Its dreams, aspirations, even its agonies, have always loomed out of proportion to its smallness in size; even its contribution to world literature is acclaimed as disproportionally large. This little island survives and thrives. Survival is a keystone in its history, and it will weather through its current economic challenges.
To be born on the island of Ireland was to grow up with a love for books, one of the greatest and proudest legacies a human being can expect -- a stroke of good fortune! To those who ask why such good fortune, I would say it's the lively combination of the laughter, the inspiring conversations and the ever elusive beauty of the land, which even poetry can’t capture!
So I was not surprised when, in 2010, Dublin was chosen by UNESCO as a Literary Capital of the world. Few cities in the world can boast such an all pervading surge of literary and creative impetus. Some of the success stems from the encouragement of the government which doesn’t require artists and writers to pay taxes. But don’t think this is what crimped the advance of the Celtic Tiger!
Ireland’s literary heritage extends over many, many centuries with seeds planted in the ancient world. The era of the saga and the custom of storytelling once possessed a large part of that ancient world, without which we would know little of the habits of the Celts. Although the Celts and their runic ogham scrip,t (five-foot high stones with ancient scrolls), were spread across Europe, it was generations of storytelling that enabled Ireland’s great contribution to the global understanding of the Celts. I recall how I loved reading about Cu Chulainn and Finn Mac Cumhaill, and I didn’t think there was anything unusual about the Celtic heroic tradition of the equality of women -- the power of goddesses featured in roles of similar diversity as their male counterparts. It simply becomes an intricate part of one’s outlook .
Fortunately, for all of us, the art of story telling lives on and was revived in Ireland in 2003. (For a sample of a hilarious type of storytelling, check out storyteller Eamon Kelly, on YouTube -- start with the “Tae Man.”) Much of the popularity of Ireland’s music is in the form of storytelling put to music -- romantic, political, humorous and often self-deprecatory, all with a uniquely fresh point of view on life.
The Irish became fully literate with the arrival of St. Patrick and the introduction of Christianity in the 5th century. Once written in the language of Ogham, the real beginnings of Irish literature started with writing in the Latin alphabet by monks in monasteries which began to appear all over the land.
This early Christian period produced world famous illuminated manuscripts, including the Book of Kells and the Book of Darrow, permanently on display at Dublin’s Trinity College library. It has remained a mystery as to where the inspiration for these old masterpieces came from. The Book of Kells is believed to have been written between 700 and 800 AD. The magnificent Book of Kells is the Latin text of the four gospels copied by hand and illuminated by monks. It is predated by the Book of Darrow, the oldest complete, illuminated insular gospel book which was written in the period 650-700 AD.
To stand before these amazing books at Trinity College, with the slightest inkling into the immense amount of spiritual energy, inspiration, time and patience required by artists, is uplifting and comparable to visiting a holy place. To turn away, leaving behind the all-pervading presence of the monks, is like being introduced to still another of life’s mysteries; you want to know more.
The Book of Armagh; The Confessions of St. Patrick, is another astounding book written by St. Patrick shortly before he died. It is safe to say that without St. Patrick, Ireland’s history would lack its richness. Beyond the revelry, the myths and celebrations on March 17th, in memory of St. Patrick’s death in 461, there was a deeply spiritual man of great conviction, great energy, great charity, with a practical side, who combined the drive and audacity of a soldier with an immense love for Ireland. He manifested this great love by sowing the seeds of Christianity against all the odds.
During the ancient and early Christian periods the stage was set for monastic and literary tradition which set Ireland apart from many European countries in the coming Dark Ages/Middle Ages from the 5th to 15th centuries. Monasteries built in the 6th century played important roles in teaching and worship. They became renowned as the best in the world for teaching the gospel as well as poetry, literature, and the arts. Anyone who had an interest in learning went to the monastery. It was then that Ireland became known as the island of saints and scholars. The monasteries housed historical documents as well as gold chalices and items of great value.
When the Vikings invaded Ireland in the 9th and 10th centuries they set out to attack and destroy monasteries and to steal all the possessions. But the monks were ready for such invasions, having built defensive round towers. The round towers you see dotted across the land were hiding places where valuables were stored; so although much was destroyed, much was saved. Even more destruction was to come in the 12th century with the Norman invasion.
The first Irish Rebellion came in 1641, which turned into the Confederate Wars, pitting Irish Catholics against English Protestants and lasting 11 years. The United Irishmen, led by Wolfe Tone, appealed to Napoleon Bonaparte in seeking to overthrow British rule. When the next Irish rebellion broke out in 1798, French troops landed and battled British troops but were defeated.
Following the thread of Ireland’s literary development in the 17th and 18th centuries under British rule, the Gaelic language was forbidden. A few outstanding Gaelic authors continued to write. Among those were Michael O’Cleary, who fearing that the ancient records of Ireland would be lost, became the chief author of a history calledThe Annals of the Four Masters. Geoffrey Keating (1569-1644) wrote a masterpiece of Gaelic prose in a delightful history “ called Foundation of Knowledge in Ireland, and blind poet Turlogh Carolan (1670-1738) had some of his poems put to music . These are sung today by various bands including the 'Chieftens” and the “Dubliners.”
Ireland in the 1800’s was again filled with strife and was stretched to the limit with the Famine of 1845-1852, which wiped out entire communities and ended in the deaths of 450,000 people. The entire century was marked with Irish resistance against British rule.
Meanwhile, a number of internationally famous playwrights emerged leading to the Irish Literary Renaissance. Leaders of this enlightened movement, which included W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, were sensitive to the revival of interest in Ireland’s Gaelic heritage and the growth of Irish nationalism. They joined forces with the demands of political agitators against the controlling powers in the British government and called for a national theater. The first theater, the National Theater, (i.e. Irish Literary Theatre), was established in 1871 and is now the Abbey Theater. The low price of tickets opened the doors to a cross section of the populace, giving everyone the opportunity to sit down together and laugh, cry, or glean a greater insight into the political mood of the country. It was the belief of the nationalist that every Irish person needed to feel a sense of common ground, a shared past and an interrelated future. The stage became the sounding board where playwrights of the period found the freedom to express ideas, some which were seen as irreverent by the government, but would culminate in a gradual emergence of a stronger Irish identity and a sense of belonging on their own land.
Still struggling for independence, the seeds of rebellion came around once again in full force in The Easter Rising of 1916, and the War of Independence. Ireland’s independence finally came in 1921 with the Anglo Irish Treaty, but with a partition between 32 counties in the south and six northeastern counties, including Belfast, which would be ruled by Britain.
Needless to say, the Irish have a lot to write about continuing in the great tradition of its ancestors. Through its novelists, poets and dramatists, Dublin has enjoyed an unparelled influence on the world. For students and lovers of great literature, always lively Dublin provides a unique cultural experience with literature at its heart. A “Literary Pub Crawl“ guided tour is a must and a great way to get to know James Joyce and all the other famous writers who resided in the city. Combining the jovial pub atmosphere with Irish literary history, wit and humor makes it is an unforgettable learning experience.