Archive for March, 2014

Writing and the Irish – Guest columnist – Barry Wallace

March 18, 2014

Almost everyone in my family writes well. My twin brother is a poet; my two sisters have collaborated on an unpublished novel and one of them writes a weekly column for a small Florida paper. My younger brothers surprise me with their articulate emails; my father was a gifted speaker; my mother wrote me wonderful vivid letters when I was away at college. I have kept journals for decades and tried other forms of writing. Always writing.

 

For a long time I wouldn’t have associated this gift with our being Irish, but the older I get the more powerful the connections grows. Our story is a familiar one. Famine Irish from the mid 19th century. We never knew much more than that. Staunch Irish Catholic, meatless Fridays, weekly confessions, Sunday Mass and the Holy Days of Obligation. We were poor but didn’t mind it. This world didn’t matter as much as the next. That’s when the Irish would get their share of what life had conspired to take away from them. Mother had second hand furniture. My father couldn’t afford a car that worked. Our TV never held a station. We couldn’t get sick because Dad had no money to pay the doctor.

 

But we had words. Always words. There was no shortage of words. My father loved to talk about the world. My grandmother and her brothers and sisters argued over politics and religion at every meal. Only my mother was silence, and in her silence I also heard words, unsaid words, quiet words that may have led me to write a diary instead of trying to produce the great American Novel. Of course there were plenty of Irish writers that the world knew about. We read James Joyce’s “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” when we were in Catholic high school. Our literature writers included short stories and poems by Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolin and William Butler Yeats. These were new names to me but I instantly recognized something in them that I had never before felt in a classroom – kinship with the  ideas and the people they wrote about. I sensed that I knew them and that they were my own.

 

Why in the world did I decide at 17 that I wanted to become a writer when I hardly had read a book on my own? Where did that come from? Why were words so important to me? Why did I need them? They were like the air I breathed. I needed them before breakfast and after supper. I needed to dwell in words all day. I didn’t know anything about Ireland or the life of the pubs. Or the unique heritage of stories and poems in a small enchanted nation brutalized by colonialization and rended by Civil War. I began to read as much as I could, and many of my interests and questions brought me back to my Irish roots. We had lost contact with our past, but we hadn’t lost the trauma, the gift and the humor that came with it.

 

My great grandmother Mary Clark, whose parents were born in Cork, kept a diary throughout her long life. Nothing fancy – she entered birthdays and holidays, Sunday Mass, spring time drives into the country, good meals, weddings, deaths and parties. Grandma Ma as we called her was barely literate. She sounded out words she couldn’t spell, but I love her diaries and consider them next to my dearest books. The Irish wrote to say, “We were here.” It was a powerful statement given the cultural genocide they faced in the old country, and the fight for survival in the bustling new world they entered full of fight and blind endurance.

 

I later realized that an entire nation had a gift of words, even the silent ones like my mother. I explored my own Irishness in my diaries. I kept coming back to certain indivisible aspects of my own personality and they seemed set for me in far-away places like Cork and Armagh and Sligo, places that I would visit years later and be brought to tears by my sense of having been there in a prior life, the life of a race of people.

 

On this St Patrick’s Day I am once again driven by words. Words to write in a diary, words to send out into endless space of the internet. With words I hold onto what I love and value most; with words I join the community of writers and ordinary people; with words I pain the world I have known. I won’t take a drink on St Pat’s Day. I won’t attend any of the parades. But I will sit down with a book and breathe in the soul of a people with the voice of the Irish to console and to guide and to remind me of why this day matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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