I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection). It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey. Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American. There are rude sayings like “God Created Whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world” and “Without Guinness the birth rate in Ireland would be near zero”. What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?. It seems to me from my reading of Irish short stories that few important conversations or events happen without drinking. In your time outside of Ireland, do you see drinking to have less of a role in daily life than in Ireland?
Firstly, I think Strumpet City - both the novel and the television series that followed it – is an extraordinary piece of writing. Jim Plunkett was writing against the grain of Irish fiction, a kind of left-wing historical fiction that hearkened back to writers like Peadar Kearney, or further back to Sean O'Casey. He was trying to rediscover a narrative of Irish history that had been carefully buried by nationalism. The same project was at work in Ken Loach's film The Wind That Shakes The Barley.
Now for the the question of drink! I'm not sure why drinking (alcohol or tea!) is central to many Irish literary works, but it clearly is. It would be tempting to speculate on the psychology - a repressed people given permission by drunkenness to assert themselves - but the reality is that this is much a literary construction as a social one. I've travelled in France and Italy, for example, where wine is consumed several times a day very often, but where actual drunkenness is unusual. And it's unusual in their literature too, though perhaps France in the 19thC is an exception. I've marvelled at English and American films where spirits are consumed quite casually at home, whereas in my childhood people rarely drank at home. But none of this answers the question. Perhaps we need to go back further to the Dionysian rites and the part the drunkenness played in ancient civilisations. Intoxication as a rejection of otherwise impeccably upheld bourgeois manners. Perhaps the release provided by getting smashed explains why Irish people never took the trouble to smash the establishment, why we had a nationalist revolution instead of a socialist one. So many tempting ways to look at it, but the short answer is I don;t know.
In one of his most remember radio addresses to the nation, Irish President Eamon de Valera said “The Irish genius has always stressed spiritual values. That is the characteristic that fits the Irish in a special manner for the task of of helping to save western civilization”. I somehow have come to strongly feel this through my readings of Irish literature. Do you think there is still truth in what de Valera said? In her Trespassers: A Memoir (my source for this quote, Julia O’Faolain suggest this may have been part of a Fascists agenda so I guess we are to take this as a two edged sword of some kind. There is no specific answer for this question-I am just seeking your reaction.
I don't think the Irish are in any way suited to saving Western civilisation. De Valera may have been thinking of the well-known truism that Irish monks saved European learning during the so-called Dark Ages, an assertion that I think my Arab friends would dispute with considerable success. That is not to diminish the part played by Irish monastic settlements, but to simply say that things are much more complicated than a grand Irish mission to save civilisation. In fact the very idea is ridiculous. These grand narratives of history and civilisation are always suspect and they certainly play into the hands of the fascists who tend to think in terms of a hierarchy of 'races' and nations. I think the supposed spirituality of the Irish is nonsense. It would be easy for someone like De Valera to come to that conclusion, having been intensely involved with Irish mythology and folklore, but without much exposure to the mythology and folklore of other countries. But to suggest that, for example, a Neapolitan peasant is less spiritual than a Connemara peasant is simply to ignore the richness of other people's cultures. I was struck recently, during a lecture on Irish folk story-telling about the otherworld, on the similarities between some of the Irish stories and those from Italo Calvino's collection of Italian Folktales.
The Fall of Celtic Tiger, the Irish Economy,has caused a lot of pain and misery. Is there a positive side to this? what lessons for the future can writers take to their work? has it in any sense brought people closer to values other than consumerism? Is it just another day in the life of the Irish? You talk about how Ireland was caught up in an almost frenzy of consumerism but with most of the population left out.
The first thing I'd like to say is that Ireland is full of journalists who believe that 'we all partied'. Well we didn't. Some people partied, some people paid for the party. Young working class people, for example, or teachers, or nurses, or the many people who work in call-centres and on assembly line jobs in the technology sector paid very high prices for their homes. They ended up with mortgages that they will now never be able to repay - not by choice but because it was that or try to rear a family in the kind of substandard kip that passes for an 'apartment' in Ireland. This is not partying. Now the government is planning to introduce a near-fascist system of 'debt-relief' in which every penny that a family spends will have to be accounted for to an 'authority'. X euros for food, Y euros for pleasure, Z euros for education, etc. They will, according to recent reports, for example, be allowed to spend €899 per month. The precision of that figure is worthy of the Nazis. Why not €900? It's more like a price-point for a sofa than an allowance for living.
Equally, it's wrong to suggest that consumerism, the highest expression of capitalism, is either unique to Ireland or in some way caused by The Celtic Tiger. Without consumerism where will capitalism's perpetual demand for growth come from? The problem is in the carefully nurtured perception of Ireland - nurtured by the tourist board - of a country devoted to the simple things in life, harvesting turf with donkeys, rowing currachs, wearing tweed. The Irish are no simpler or contented than anyone else. I think we Irish writers need to beware the simplicity of the public narrative. Politicians and their media adjutants want us to feel bad about having been briefly better off. They want us to internalise the narrative of the universal party. It's the only way they can maintain the fiction that we are all in it together, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. Any writers who buy into that will be servitors, not artists. Our job is to challenge the accepted truth.
One thing that it has not done is to bring Irish people to the realisation that their best interests are NOT served by right-wing politicians and get-rich-quick wide-boys. Perhaps that's because we've never had a proper left-right division in our politics - not yet anyway!
In some of my prior question and answer sessions I have asked people if they thought Aosdana was the best use the Irish government could in these times make use of its limited money to promote the arts. I know I am a total outsider and if there was an organization that gave money to book bloggers I would not perhaps bad mouth them If i though they might give me a pension but most of the responses were really vapid. In Riding Against the Lizard (we will come back to this) you directly say that accepting government money leads to an acceptance of the status quo and prevents writers from challenging the ways things are run in any but trivial ways. I know you recall Samuel Johnson’s definition of a pension (of course he took one when offered it) “In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” is this the essence of your essay?
You've mentioned my essay Riding against the Lizard, which mentions Aosdána. I am, as they say, conflicted here. I know of several writers who have lived an honourable retirement on the subvention of Aosdána who otherwise would have been very poor indeed. Writing, and art in general, is very rarely a regular enough income to allow anyone to put a pension by. The idea of writers and artists being supported by the state is a good one. On the other hand, being supported by the state makes one well-disposed towards that state. there is always a fear that being too critical will make one an outsider. You are passed over for commissions, projects are rejected, applications turned down. There are always good reasons. If you're going to be dependent on the state, are you likely to attack it? Will you bite the hand that feeds you? Perhaps if more Irish writers openly voiced their criticisms of the state, I might be able to answer those questions. The fact is that, in the main, Irish writers are studiously apolitical, and the argument of that essay was that to be apolitical is to be for the status quo. He who is silent gives assent. A lot of writers have disagreed with me over that, but none of them in a publicly accessible form. One or two journalists have attacked the idea, but without adverting to the arguments in my essay. QED, as far as I'm concerned. The fact that no writer has seen fit to make their private objections public proves my point in a way. I hasten to add that there are important exceptions to this general trend. I could name several of them but inevitably they will be my friends and I'll irritate someone whose name has been left out because of my sieve of a memory!
Tell us something about your non-academic non literary work experience please.
My only significant work-experience was as a temporary postman in the country place where I grew up - at which job I was very bad. However it has given me a deep appreciation of the work done by postmen, in particular Don, the man who delivers letters to our door in rain or shine. One of my sons did the same job for two summers. I consider the postal system to be one of the greatest inventions of human kind. Email will never surpass it.
In your comments on The Master by Colm Toibin, a book I loved but now I wonder why I loved it, you said Henry James was a good subject for a writer who wants to seemingly talk about something shocking, the gay aspect of Henry James while intentionally picking an asexual man, a non-threatening gay who does not potential undermine the family structures modern capitalism depends on. Can you elaborate a bit on this?
Well, firstly let me say that The Master, is a fine book in so many ways. However I was approaching it from the point of view of critique. Viewed through a political lens it's quite interesting. Here is a gay writer writing a book about a gay writer. I think people have a right to expect something significant to be said about the repression that has troubled gay people for so long and which still continues to a greater or lesser extent almost everywhere. We hear so much now about the supposed threat to society and the family posed by gay marriage, that we need to think about why our particular form of social organisation - capitalist, consumerist, individualist - places so much store on an institution that is supposedly about love and solidarity and self-sacrifice. But viewed from that angle we can see that for capitalism marriage is essentially a means of securing and transmitting private property. Why should gay marriageor any other form of unorthodox association be a threat to that? It's dressed up in all sorts of stupid morality - some God can always be found to have pronounced against gay-ness, or as in the case of the Judaeo-Christian one, to have nuked a couple of cities that had a high proportion of gay citizens (Sodom and Gomorrah). I think Colm Tóibín passed up an opportunity to say something about that. But then I'm not surprised. In his other writings it becomes clear that from a political point of view he is at best centrist, and possibly even right of centre. It's a classic neoliberal position to be progressive on morals and private life, but right-wing in terms of economics and politics in general. I would be interested to know where Tóibín stands in the continuum. But, as I remarked in an earlier answer, Irish writers tend not to come out of the political closet.
It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, some with PhDs. Education is a great thing but is there a negative side to this, will it produce in few years a literary culture where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published. Will the day of the amateur writer who comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?
The main purpose of creative writing courses is to give employment to writers who don't want to do any other kind of work. In the old days they starved, got TB and died young. So creative writing classes have to be an improvement. It has a baleful effect on the production of literature though. Look at the bio of anybody who publishes a story in a magazine in the USA.
All I have read about Ireland and all the images I have seen on the net present a country of amazing beauty. How much does this saturation in natural beauty impact the writing of the residents? What is your reaction to these lines from Susan Cahill about the beauty of Ireland-”There is a hopelessness that a glut of natural beauty can create when there is a cultural and intellectual morass”. Is the beauty of Ireland is two edged sword? Does it inspire and defeat at the same time?
Ireland is indeed very beautiful - at least when it's not raining. In fact, even the rain has a kind of bleak attraction. I don't think we can blame the beauty of the countryside for the intellectual morass, though. We're a provincial country and all of our media drives us towards provincialism. To be an intellectual is to be suspect. The media celebrates the plain man. Those intellectuals who raise their voices and take a public stance are heroic in the extreme. Otherwise it's necessary to leave the place as often as possible in order to understand that there are places where ideas still matter.
What draws you to Italian culture-who are the contemporary Italian writers that should be read more than they are? Who have you translated into Italian. One of my good friends Elizabeth MacDonald has translated many stories of Liam O’Flaherty.
Firstly I don't translate into Italian. Elizabeth lives and teaches in Italy, and has a degree in Italian, so she is qualified to do so, but the general rule is to translate into your own native language. I have however translated from Italian into English. It's haphazard. I've never made a project of translating any particular writer, rather I happen on poems, like them and translate them. I post the on my website and I've included some in my books.
I love Italy and spend as much time there as I can. I think we Irish are very like Italians (but with more rain!). But my knowledge of Italian literature is not sufficient to answer your question. Unlike Elizabeth, I'm very much a dilettante.
29. Quick Pick Questions
a. tablets or lap tops?
b. dogs or cats
c. best city to inspire a writer-London or Dublin or Paris or San Francisco?
d. favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner?
e. RTE or BBC
BBC if I must. I prefer the internet for news.
f. Yeats or Whitman
Yeats but also Whitman
g. Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American corruption?
Mostly crap. Never eat food you can't cook at home if you want to. It's impossible to reconstitute the ingredients for so called 'fries', therefore it should not be eaten.
h. night or day
Day - well, morning and evening. Afternoons can be ignored.
i Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights?
j-best way to experience a new poem-hear the author read it or read it in a quiet undisturbed place?
Hear it first.
I offer my great thanks to William Wall for taking the time to provide us with such interesting and insightful answers. It is responses like this that keep me blogging on.