The soul of Irish writers
The wind swept clouds into inky puddles across the sky. A few swollen drops of rain fell on the windshield of our rental car as my friend and I sat at a service station. A red-haired lad, with a spattering of freckles across his face, pumped our gas. He craned his head upward.
“Ah, the weather is desperate today,” he said.
Desperate. The word clung to me. How had he found the most poetic and best word to describe the weather? Although this trip was many years ago, I still recall that young man, as well as the cadence and lilt of words that greeted us in shops, pubs and when asking for directions. As a writer, I was inspired and intrigued by the Irish and their facility for language and poetic prose.
While Ireland is a small island – you can drive from the east coast to the west coast, or north to the south in about four hours – this green and fertile land has produced more writers per square inch than any other country. And it has done so for centuries, from James Joyce to today’s Nobel-Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney.
But how? What organic ingredients have created a recipe for so many gifted writers and poets? Is it the mythical landscape itself?
During that trip, I still remember how the geography – the green, undulating mountains that opened up to vistas of the ocean, cliffs and ruined castles – seemed to be permeated with an ancient wisdom and other-worldly energy that seeped from the earth into my spirit. Did all that make the Irish such prolific writers with a gift for the lyrical word?
Perhaps. I believe it’s also about the Irish soul that is so twined with storytelling. Much like the primeval land that was carved over centuries, the Irish seem to allow for the flow of space and time. They are present to the rhythm of their lives and allow the creative process to speak to their souls. One of my favorite authors, the late John O’Donohue in his book Anam Cara, spoke of the power of simple presence which takes us ultimately where we need to be, as people and as creative writers.
“It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives by using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their lives into shape. If you work with a different rhythm, you will come easily and naturally home to yourself. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore, you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go.”
The Irish are also well-known storytellers. In fact the Seanachie (prounded shawn-a-key) or storyteller is still an honored profession in Ireland as it has been for centuries. Sean O Suilleabhain in “Storytelling in Irish Tradition,” writes:
“The good storyteller, who had a large repetoire stored in his memory, seated at his own fireside, in an honoured place in the house of a neighbour or at a wake, was assured of an attentive audience on winter nights. Nor was it only adults who wished to hear tales. My father described to me how himself and other children of eight years of age would spend hours, night after night, listening to an old woman storyteller in South Kerry, and an old man in the same area told me that, as a youth, he and his companions used to do all the household chores for an elderly neighbour each winter evening in order that he might be free to spend the night telling them long folktales …”
The desire to tell stories, to weave narratives, is still central to the Irish people, as their works of literature demonstrate. James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, C.S. Lewis, Frank McCourt, Maeve Binchy, Niall Williams, and countless other Irish writers have not only given us moving stories but told them, often times, in words that resonate to the rhythm of our soul.
At the end of that trip, we found time to visit the grave site of Yeats in County Sligo. The weather that day was more than desperate, as biting wind whipped leaves around the Drumcliffe cemetery. I took a quick snapshot of his grave, and stood there, part of his poem “When You are Old and Gray”wafting through my thoughts.
…How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face…
I thanked him for sharing his gift of words with the world and asked him to help me do the same. Weeks later after we had returned home, I had the photos developed (no digital cameras back then) and was amazed at what I saw. There, above his grave, floated a form, a shape — a hazy gauze of white that I could not explain.
I like to think his Irish soul was wishing me well as a writer.