Saint Patrick’s Day is something of a confounding time for me. Since I’m not Irish, I’ve done my best to compensate: I’m married to a woman named “Mollie Kathleen” and have imbibed healthy doses of Irish culture in all its rowdy, fierce, sentimental, independent, staggeringly creative, and yes, drunken glory. With another St. Paddy’s day upon us, it’s an appropriate time to take stock of a few of my favorite Irish things.
Obviously, Ireland is renowned for its literary tradition. Thus I was extremely pleased at the recent publication by the Everyman’s Library of The Complete Novels of Flann O’Brien. Prior to the last few years, O’Brien’s work was out of print for decades — a tragedy considering he wrote some of the funniest novels of the 20th century. It’s nearly impossible to describe the crazy and compelling admixture of metafiction, bizarre humor, and musing on the creative process that marks O’Brien’s work, except to say it’s brilliant. To give you an idea, the narrator of his most famous work, At Swim with Two Birds, is writing a novel about another man writing a novel, where many of the characters such as Finn MacCool and Cúchulainn are borrowed straight from Irish mythology. Eventually these characters try and break free of the confines of the story itself and go after the author.
For the legions of people out there who have found James Joyce’s writing as insufferable as it is brilliant, O’Brien is the perfect antidote. His work is at once a pitch-perfect and reverent parody of the Ireland’s foremost novelist, and yet O’Brien comes close to matching the master in his thematic complexity. Joyce himself said of O’Brien, “That’s a real writer, with the true comic spirit.”
Praise of O’Brien notwithstanding, I can’t let a mention of funny Irish novels pass without putting in a word for J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Again, though it largely remains unknown, it’s slunk by on its fearsome critical reputation. The Modern Library named it the 99th-best novel in English of the 20th century.
First published in 1955, the novel centers on one Sebastian Dangerfield, accurately described in one quite unfavorable review on the book’s Amazon page as “an alcoholic, congenital liar, irresponsible debtor and adulterous wife abuser with no moral values whatsoever. When not engaged in the physical and emotional abuse of his wife and infant daughter he’s either getting drunk and committing adultery or getting drunk and feeling sorry for himself. He has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever.”
That much is true. The Ginger Man is far from morally uplifting and that understandably turns off many readers. But it compensates by being overstuffed with black wit and terse lyricism. It’s a stylistic tour de force and its influence often goes unnoticed. Among other things, a young Hunter S. Thompson was obsessed with the book and huge chunks of HST’s seemingly inimitable style were borrowed part and parcel from Donleavy.
The past year was a big one for Irish cinema — film being one of the few areas of artistic expression the Irish don’t already dominate. Once, a film about two musicians in Dublin who fall in love but are only able to consummate their relationship musically, was a box-office hit in the U.S. and won an Oscar for best song. Shot in 17 days, and consisting largely of a man and a woman walking around Dublin having poignant conversations about the personal responsibilities that are keeping them apart, it’s not exactly everybody’s idea of rip-roaring entertainment. Nonetheless, all but the stonehearted will admit the film has considerable charm.
But the real revelation is the film’s soundtrack, which consists of a number of beautiful, stripped-down piano and guitar ballads. If you watched the Oscars, you saw the moving performance of the song “Falling Slowly,” by the film’s stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who are now a real-life item. (You can get a sampling of the film and song here.)
Though the young Czech Irglova is a newcomer, Glen Hansard is a well-known quantity in Ireland. (Astute film fans might remember Hansard from his only other film role, the guitarist in another little Irish film that was a breakout hit in America, The Commitments.) Signed to a record contract as a teenager, his band The Frames has been remarkably prolific and has attained a level of popularity in Ireland approaching fellow Dubliners U2. Many of The Frames’ better songs were repurposed for the Once soundtrack, but the band’s earnest and wistful rock and roll deserves to be heard in its own right by American ears. As an introduction to The Frames, I’d recommend two of their albums Fitzcarraldo and For the Birds.
And speaking of U2:That reminds me to put in a word for my favorite contemporary Irish poet. No, I’m not singing the praises of Bono, except to say that he’s the reason I first came to read Brendan Kennelly. In high school, I had read that the lyrics to the minor U2 hit “Until the End of the World” were inspired by Kennelly, who had a book of poems on the theme of betrayal and from the perspective of Judas Iscariot. It seemed like a novel idea and indeed Kennelly’s The Book of Judas was a monumental accomplishment, producing some 400 poems on the subject. Though it was a bestseller in Ireland, it’s hard to find stateside — here’s a copy on Amazon for nearly $1,000. You can, however, find an edited-down version of the book, The Little Book of Judas, without much difficulty.
But should you just have a general hankering for the poetry that the Irish are justly famous for, Kennelly is also the editor of The Penguin Book of Irish Verse, an excellent compendium that includes, among many others, an ancient poem attributed to none other than St. Patrick himself.
As much an evening filled with green beer and Jameson might sound appealing, it seems St. Patrick himself would smile upon at least taking some time this day to appreciate the Irish arts. With luck, I’ve given you few more things to appreciate.
— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.