The cultural milieu of Ireland has been shaped by the dynamic interplay between the ancient Celtic traditions of the people and the traditions imposed on the people from outside, notably from Britain. This has produced a culture of rich, distinctive character in which the use of language—be it Irish or English—has always been the central element. Not surprisingly, Irish culture is best known through its literature, drama, and songs; above all, the Irish are renowned as masters of the art of conversation.
Four writers from that ‘rich and rare land’ have been recognized for their genius by being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature from 1923 to 1995:
William Butler Yeats
George Bernard Shaw
If you are not acquainted with the work of Seamus Heaney, this is your lucky day. Heaney is a real treasure – both as a poet whose soul is on fire and as a prince of a man. Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, seventy two years after William B. Yeats, and is considered his literary successor. In announcing his prize, the Swedish Academy praised Heaney for “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and living past.”
Since 1981 he has spent part of each year teaching at Harvard University, where he is a Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Writing about Heaney in 1968, one critic said, “His own involvement does not exclude us: there are few private references, and the descriptive clarity of his writing makes it easy to follow…Heaney’s world is a warm, even optimistic one: his tone is that of traditional sanity and humanity.”
It is tough to choose just a single poem, but here is one that I like. It begins as a childhood memory of an innocent and pleasurable experience rooted in nature but ends with the sad realization that many things we cherish do not endure.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
This July, at Toronto Pursuits, a fortunate few will spend five mornings in the company of Seamus Heaney, discussing his exploration, through verse, the ways people today make sense of the past – politically, spiritually, aesthetically. Rosemary Gould will return to Toronto for her fourth year to lead this seminar. Rosemary is a most kind and gentle guide who believes Heaney is the greatest living poet. If you love words like “squelch” and “gleam,” why don’t you join them? Click here for details. Seamus Heaney: History and Its Inheritors.
I looked for an Irish blessing specific to St. Patrick’s Day but couldn’t find one. Perhaps you will chuckle over this one, new to me.
May those who love us, love us
And those who don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts
And if he can’t turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles
So we will know them by their limping!