November 2007 Reflection

I told the US-Ireland Alliance that I wanted to go to Ireland to study politics. That was only half true. I admit now, scholarship safely in hand and passport stamped, that I actually came to study writing and to investigate how an island the size of South Carolina could give birth to so many of the world’s masters. Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Shaw, Wilde, Heaney—each called this place home. Surely it was something in the water, and I wanted a taste.

It was an unexpected surprise then that our final stop during the Mitchell scholar orientation was the “Life and Works of W.B. Yeats” exhibit at the National Library. The collection contained items that you would expect: originals of the best-known poems, assorted household memorabilia, even a few early report cards (Yeats was no academic wunderkind). The strength of the exhibit, though, is its coverage of the lesser-known aspects of Yeats’s life: his love of the mystic and occult; his hopeless, life-long romance with Maud Gonne; his public life and Senate career. In contrast to his documented interest in Thoreauvian isolation (the famous poem about Innisfree is, after all, a plan to build a cabin there and leave the world behind), the exhibit reveals a Yeats who is neither stuffy academic nor hermitic poet. He emerges as quirky and human, someone who lived and loved and let his mind wander—someone who would gladly share stories over a pint.

I was most taken by a piece not belonging to Yeats and not originating in Ireland: an English copy of Gitanjali by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, with a foreword by Yeats. I later learned that the Irish master was responsible for Tagore’s entrée into the West, a fact that is practically daunting and intellectually heartwarming. Considering the odds against their friendship in a world without e-mail and FedEx, the thought of what they must have written to each other and the sight of something they wrote together is enough to re-instill in the skeptics among us some palpable hope for the printed word. (That one would win the Nobel Prize for Literature exactly a decade after the other is perfect poetry.)

I traveled south from the orientation to Cork. Yeats immortalized my new hometown with a few lines: The town of Passage / Is both wide and spacious / And situated upon the sea, / ‘Tis neat and decent / And quite contagious / To go to Cork on a bright summer’s day. You see here the Irish writer’s tendency towards mischievousness: Cork is rarely, if ever, ‘bright.’ But contagious? Absolutely. You quickly learn that Cork is a place of outsized ambitions, referred to by locals as the real capitol of Ireland, home to world-class film and jazz festivals, with an accent sui generis (Cork is somehow pronounced ‘Cahrk’). Where else, but in Cork, would ‘Main Street’ be called ‘Grand Parade’?

Cork is a short bus ride from Blarney, home to the Blarney Castle. Legend has it that the Blarney Stone, located at the top of the castle, is half the Stone of Scone, originally owned by Scotland, and believed to grant the gift of easy locution to anyone who kisses it. Aha! Here was the secret then: the Irish masters had easy access to the stone, which, as it has done for generations of visitors, including famously garrulous guests Winston Churchill and Bill Clinton, blessed the writers with the gift of gab. But maybe not. There’s no evidence that Joyce ever visited. Yeats would probably have recoiled at its tourist trap quality. George Bernard Shaw mused that “it is not necessary for me to seek eloquence at Blarney….my natural gifts in that direction being sufficient, if not somewhat excessive.” And they’d probably all agree that the ability to spew ‘blarney’—which is roughly a cross between nonsense, hogwash, and bull—would prove useless in their trade.

But my own trip to Blarney revealed some of its magic—and offered the beginnings of an answer to my original question. Jeff, Art, and I had just finished kissing the stone. We paused and stared out from the town’s highest point. The scene bordered on the absurd: on top of a centuries-old castle, looking at a patchwork of lush hills, farm houses, rivers, with just a hint of rain. And moments later…a rainbow. It was more than enough to satisfy our sense of occasion (and to spook us; it was eerily deliberate, and we briefly suspected that Mary Lou or Trina or someone else from the Alliance had it choreographed). It also led to a thought which, in retrospect, seems too simple: if the task of the writer is, in part, to carve and save a piece of reality—to make real for others what they have seen, felt, touched—then surely a country full of scenes like this one makes that job easier. That might be stretching it a bit, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark. At the very least, it begins to explain why Irish writing in general, and the poetry in particular, shines with a brilliance that is both fierce and memorable.

This reflection would be incomplete without some thoughts on the wildly inspiring collage of fellow Mitchell scholars. Together, the group contains soldiers, scholars, athletes, a film-maker, a genocide activist, a philosopher, a salsa dancer, even a fiddle player. This much collected wisdom and experience in the minds of 11 people who are themselves only barely beginning to blossom should give us all serious hope for the species (and gives me serious cause to wonder how I ever got invited to be a part of the group). No doubt the greatest gift of the year is contained in this new and dizzying set of friendships.

Let the last word on friendship, and the last thoughts of this journal, go to Yeats:

You that would judge me, do not judge alone this book or that, come to this hallowed place where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon; Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace; think where man’s glory most begins and ends and say my glory was I had such friends.

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