It’s impossible for anyone born in Ireland after 1980 to fully understand the profound changes that have happened in twenty first century Ireland. The country into which I was spawned was overflowing with dark, unspoken secrets. For the most part we had defeated the British but had surrendered to Rome. That brought social injustices fueled by a country dominated by Catholic church dogma and a post civil war political class more focused on ensuring virgins were regularly dancing Irish reels at rural crossroads than stopping the emigration of our men. Back then the predominant feeling was one of hopelessness wrapped like a shroud over a society uncertain of its future but strangely secure in its dubious past. This was the country my fellow Limerick man Frank McCourt eloquently wrote about in Angela’s Ashes. I also wrote about it, but far less eloquently, in my book The Longfellah’s Son: An Almost True Irish Story.
I met Frank in San Francisco long before he and his writing became internationally renowned. Frank and his brother Malachy had a one act show in a theater far less fashionable than Frank would subsequently enjoy as a venue. The show was called A Pair Of Blackguards. Years later, parts of it would find its way onto the pages of Angela’s Ashes. After the show, I went backstage and introduced myself explaining I was also from Limerick. Immediately they identified my accent as that of a Jesuit boy. When I explained my family background, Frank confirmed he knew my father. Then the brothers took classic Irish delight in mocking me before saying telling me how honored they were by my presence at their humble show.
During my life, I’ve lived in interesting countries on four continents and one subcontinent. The perennial question I’ve been asked is how can a county with such a small population routinely produce outstanding writers. It’s impossible to answer that question from any empirical perspective. I’d suggest much of the reason is because our ancient oral tradition is embedded in every Irish person’s DNA. This ability to create and tell stories became as natural to the early Irish as breathing air. The Seanchai was an important and often revered man. News of his arrival into a district traveled fast and was a welcome uplift to counter the darkness of wintertime or respite after the rigors of annual harvesting. In the courts of Irish nobility, the Seanchai was immune from retribution regardless of barbs directed against his hosts. Back then, the passing on of stories, of myths, was an integral part of the fabric of Irish society. An inadvertent consequence is we are now both famous and infamous worldwide as witty conversationalists who have transformed repartee into an art form.
Perhaps our oral tradition explains why 21st century Ireland has so many internationally acclaimed authors. But why are so many female? You know their names. They are many and they are, by any measurements, superb at their craft. Historically women have been intentionally excluded from achievement in public and private life. Those ridiculous times seem to resemble a bad dream from which we have slowly woken.
In my teen years, Edna O’Brien was one of the few acclaimed Irish female authors. Sadly, like so many Irish writers before her, she had to leave Ireland in order to fulfil herself creatively. Her literary legacy of nineteen novels spans a half century from The Country Girls to her recently acclaimed novel, Girl.
I must admit to having had a distinctly non-literary fascination for Edna O’Brien. Back in 1967, she did a reading in Limerick from The Country Girls. I snuck out of my home to see this scandalous lady who had been condemned from the pulpit and in the court of Irish public opinion. But to my innocent, seventeen year young eyes, she possessed an unusual combination of eloquence, intellectual strength and physical beauty. I admit to enthusiastically sinning that night because of the allure of this exceptional lady.
Many years later, I confessed that to her. She roared with laughter. I was interviewing her for my television show in San Francisco. Shortly before the taping, I heard her publicist tell her it was a television interview. “Oh shit. I hate TV interviews.” Despite that, she was a gracious and generous interviewee. In some ways, she seemed more beautiful to my older eyes than when I’d first seen her. What’s most remarkable is her ability and desire to write at the highest level for fifty years. That is a truly extraordinary achievement.
Now many female Irish writers, significantly more than male writers, have found their way to critical and commercial success. Is it perhaps a sign that Irish society is finally maturing so that ones sex at birth is no longer the determining factor of ones achievement?
What does the future hold for Irish writers? Can we presume more brilliant minds will be routinely gifted to the world? Perhaps, but I worry about what impact modern technology such as the internet and “smart” phones are having and will continue to have. Until recent times, we were a society with few external distractions. We huddled around the fireplace intently focusing on every word being shared. We were insular. Now, during my rare visits to Ireland, I’m saddened to see the trance like state people of all ages, but particularly millennials, while meandering around with phones literally glued to their ears. Is it an exaggeration to suggest we are witnessing the end of civil society as we once knew it? This is no flippant remark. Next time you walk in a crowded place, look around and observe the number of people who are engaged in animated conversation with a friend as opposed to those talking intently on the phone, or texting, or checking their Facebook to see which “friend” has shared another inconsequential non event of their boring lives. When at a restaurant look around and see how many people are engaged in conversation and raucous banter as opposed to those making passionate love to their phones. You will notice machines clearly outnumber the conversationalists.
Modern technology was supposed to create freedom, but instead it’s enslaving society. It subtly alienates people instead of bringing them closer to each other. Social media is an obnoxious deception. It’s impossible to presently grasp the long term impact of technology on creativity in Ireland and elsewhere. But I’d argue that another “terrible beauty has been born.” And it is as revolutionary to society as Yeats’ example was. It will be interesting to observe its future impact on the creative output of Irish writers and the arts in general.
Is Ireland presently experiencing a golden age of writing? Perhaps it is. Like many aspects of our lives, it may be only after its vanished and we enter the world of the mundane, that we will fully appreciate how important it was in our lives. Is that too pessimistic an outlook, or is there merit to my statement? It’s too early to tell but, as sure at the moon inevitably orbits our planet, we will eventually know, because everything will be revealed in the fullness of time.
(c) Michael Cassidy
About More Almost True Irish Stories:
Although rarely mentioning Murphy by name, this sequel to The Longfellah’s Son: An Almost True Irish Story, mainly focuses on the author’s life after leaving Ireland. Stories are written in various locations around the world where the author has lived. They include New York, San Francisco, Costa Rica, Ireland, and the Philippines.
But the book opens with a non-Murphy related chapter called Love Story. Two individuals, Nora and Mario are outcasts in society since birth. Nora leaves the orphanage in Ireland to live in San Francisco where she meets Mario, a paraplegic, who is destined to live out the remainder of his life needing constant care. They take refuge in each others’ beauty before life, yet again, cruelly cheats them.
Order your copy online here.