What is it about the Irish that makes them so gifted as writers in English? What is the magic at work that has produced such extraordinary figures as Shaw, Yeats, Beckett and Heaney?
Somewhere in one of his very many books, Anthony Burgess attempts to illustrate the revolution James Joyce wrought in English prose by translating the first paragraph of Ulysses into standard English. One fine summer morning, on the roof of a tower overlooking Dublin Bay, Malachi "Buck" Mulligan was preparing for his morning shave -- that kind of thing. It was an amusing exercise, but it had a sharp point. What it showed was not only how innovatory Joyce's style is but also that the English employed -- one might even say invented -- by Irish writers is an entirely separate medium from that used by their colleagues on what many English people still refer to as "the mainland," even though most of Ireland has been independent of England for more than 70 years.
Considering its size and situation, an offshore island of an offshore island, with a population of a few millions, Ireland has a remarkably rich literature. Even if we ignore writing in the Irish language -- hard to do, for there is still a small but thriving literature in Irish -- Latin and Norman-French, and concentrate only on the past couple of hundred years or so, the record is impressive. We have four Nobel laureates -- Shaw, Yeats, Beckett and, most recently, Seamus Heaney; Wilde, Synge and O'Casey are giants of world drama. In our own time, fiction writers such as John McGahern and William Trevor are international figures, while in Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Thomas Kinsella and Paul Muldoon we have four of the world's finest living poets. Why? How?
It is a question worth pondering, not out of national pride -- there are many aspects of life in this little country sufficiently shaming to cure us of any temptation toward chauvinism, literary or otherwise -- but because the search for an answer leads out of books and into life, which is the proper direction to take for writers and readers alike.
The assimilation -- or imposition -- of the English language in Ireland, effectively completed after the Great Famine of the 1840s, was a painful but productive process that wrought deep changes both in the Irish national sensibility and in the language itself. Hiberno-English is a wonderfully versatile yet often treacherous literary tool. The subtlety, richness and volatility of English as written in Ireland is the result of an alchemical fusion, as it were, between two wholly dissimilar methods of linguistic interpretation of the world and our being in it. Standard English as we received it in Ireland was, like Latin, an implement of bureaucracy, a mode of command; the building and maintaining of an empire requires a language capable of reducing itself to essentials without losing any of its coherence and concrete force. "O, rocks!" as Molly Bloom memorably said, "tell us in plain words," unconsciously reminding us of her girlhood spent as the daughter of a military official on Gibraltar's stony outpost of empire.
If English is the language of the colonist -- one of the first words Crusoe taught Friday to speak was "Master" -- lending itself to directness and clarity and well suited to the imperative mode, Irish is an altogether different tongue, convoluted in its grammar and syntax, onomatopoeic rather than descriptive, and oblique to the point of evasiveness. Certain straightforward statements of fact are impossible in Irish: For instance, one cannot say "I am a man" but must use a formulation that roughly translates as "I am in my manness." It is a language the fluid structures and formulaic elaborations of which seek to apprehend reality not by the narrational method of standard English but in the manner of a fine-meshed yet amorphous net thrown over the stubbornly solid objects that make up the commonplace world.
And that mesh or grid of the old Gaelic tongue is still there, a sort of "deep grammar" underlying the peculiarly airy constructions of Hiberno-English. I believe it is this intermeshing of the two languages, with all its political, psychological and epistemological consequences, that goes a long way toward explaining the continuing extraordinary richness of Irish writing. Fiction, drama and poetry in Ireland, even when it is seemingly at its most engaged, is primarily, I am convinced, a linguistic endeavor.
Take the case of Samuel Beckett. Since "Waiting for Godot" in the 1950s brought him to the attention of a wide if largely bemused audience, he has been regarded as the Great Pessimist, whose Manichaean vision of humankind's benighted condition in the world demanded extreme and fractured styles of linguistic expression. To conceive of Beckett's work in this way, however, is to view it through the wrong end of the telescope. From the start his concern was with language itself, its possibilities as a key to the House of Being, its areas of recalcitrance and exhaustion, its capacity to aestheticize and therefore in some sense redeem quotidian reality or, viewed from a bleaker standpoint, inauthenticate and betray it. Thus at an essential level his increasingly refined raids on the inarticulate are no more than technical exercises. No more, and no less: What is remarkable, what is well-nigh miraculous, is that from these seemingly sterile forays he should bring back a representation of humanity and the world so persuasive and of such thrilling poetic intensity.
By a combination of stratagems -- going into exile, writing in French -- Beckett made of himself a thoroughly cosmopolitan artist, although his Irishness is always and everywhere apparent in his work. For the writer living and working in Ireland, however, the linguistic peculiarities in which, and under which, he labors bring with them peculiar disadvantages. For instance, although Ireland has a native publishing industry, it is still a youthful growth, and the Irish writer, especially the Irish novelist, who is aiming at an international audience -- and what writer would wish to be read only in his own country? -- must look to London for a publisher. The consequence is that when an Irish novel is published, its first reception, so important in these days of dwindling shelf-space in the bookshops, depends almost entirely on London book reviewers, most of whom, perhaps understandably, regard fiction written in Hiberno-English as either insufferably "poetic" or quaintly comic.
Their own novelists for the most part follow Orwell's dictum that the novelist's prose should be a clear pane of glass though which the story can be clearly viewed; for the Irish novelist, on the other hand, language is not a sheet of glass but a lens, and a lens, as we know, not only magnifies but inevitably distorts. It is precisely that distortion, the product of willed linguistic ambiguity, that the Irish novelist aims for and revels in.
Since I am a novelist, or at least, that appellation having become problematic in recent decades, a writer of fictions, I have concentrated here on the novel, though I believe that the things I have said so far apply equally to all forms of what academe calls "creative" writing. However, though we seem to produce poets and dramatists at a steady and unvarying rate, the past 20 years or so have seen the appearance of an extraordinary number of new novelists. To try to list them would be foolhardy -- I would be bound to omit someone -- but one has only to look at recent long- and shortlists for major literary prizes, not only in Ireland but also in England and Europe, to be struck by the preponderance of Irish names -- many of them, incidentally, female; the growing strength of women writers is the most marked Irish literary development of recent years. To pose the question again: How on earth do we keep producing so many writers?
Besides our fascination with language, there is I believe a second factor which, however paradoxical it may seem, contributes to our productivity in the novel form, and that is the lack of a strong Irish tradition of fiction writing. Or, perhaps I should say, we have no tradition of minor fiction writing, as England and America have. The contemporary American or English writer whose talent is less than great has a large number of predecessors against whom, unconsciously or not, he can measure himself. In Ireland, however, though we have our Carletons and our Edgeworths, they are isolated figures, more like sports of nature than parts of a tradition; when we look back, what we see are the giant figures of Swift, Wilde, Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Beckett. No petty people they.
To have to measure oneself against such colossi is at once liberating and daunting. They can seem sustaining ancestors, or they can be like Easter Island statues, vast, mysterious, unavoidable, looming over the land and darkening it. But however we, their heirs, may regard them, they are a standing example to us that the Irish voice speaking through English is distinctive, resonant and carries far, and, beyond that insular boast, that language, even one imposed by colonizers, is the supreme mode of interpretation of this baffling world into which we find ourselves so unceremoniously thrown.