Walking across a field to check that there was water in a trough for the cattle in the field, the thought occurred that it is Bloomsday tomorrow. Not that Dublin’s annual commemoration of James Joyce would find much resonance on a farm on the slopes of the Slieve Bloom mountains. Wiping cow dung off the side of one shoe (black Doc Marten’s are particularly practical for rural ministry), there was a feeling that perhaps Irish literature should not be classified as such, rather there should be Dublin literature and (occasionally) Irish rural literature.
Joyce’s Ulysses which will be celebrated in Dublin tomorrow is a day in Dublin in 1904, and much other Irish writing is essentially Dublin writing. O’Casey evokes urban Dublin, and the north side of urban Dublin at that; Behan is an urban writer. Shaw moves in a cosmopolitan literary circle much removed from checking cattle troughs, as does Wilde. Beckett’s characters move beyond the city, but there is barely an engagement with agricultural life. Yeats’ Irish airman foreseeing his death may declare
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor
but the writer’s life amongst the big houses, and those who shared his interests in esoteric religion, would hardly strike a chord with rural Ireland. For Yeats, country life is an idyll expressed in poems such as The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Notwithstanding Yeats’ Sligo accent in the recordings made of him in his latter years, he does not represent rural Ireland.
Amongst the Irish Nobel laureates, only Seamus Heaney writes with an understanding of farm life. Heaney could have expressed with beauty a walk across a field, through rushy grass and over muddy ground broken by the hooves of cattle, to look into a bath filled with green-tinged water. In Heaney’s words every step of that walk would be felt, but Heaney is an Ulsterman and would be looked upon with cautiousness by some of those who farm in these townlands. Not with suspicion, but with caution, for one never knew what might come from the North where the Protestants were a strange and different people (attempts to persuade people otherwise have mostly met with little success).
Reviewing Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light in the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole writes of JM Synge, the inspiration for the novel,
A letter writer to The Irish Times suggested that in order to “honour Dublin’s literary greats”, “once the Dart Underground and Metro North projects are complete, the three rapid transit lines that Dublin will then enjoy should be named after Wilde, Joyce and Shaw”. . . What struck me, though, is the one figure who never gets mentioned in this regard: John Millington Synge. One of the many delights of Joseph O’Connor’s new novel, Ghost Light , indeed, is the way it brings Synge the man in from a curious cold.
It is not obvious why Synge should be so apparently unloved.
O’Toole suggest that Synge did not engage in the self-promotion in the way Shaw, Yeats and Wilde did, and also that his writing may have been too close to the truth for the liking of some. But Beckett was hardly a self-publiciser – he sent his agent to collect his Nobel prize – and his realities are very grim, yet the newest bridge over the Liffey bears his name.
Perhaps Synge’s evangelical Protestant background did not endear him to a wider constituency – some of his family would not attend a theatre to see his work performed. But perhaps Synge’s rural focus also puts him outside ‘Dublin’s literary greats’, the world of cutting turf is a world far from Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus.
Bloomsday will come and go and few here will notice. Perhaps we should have Christy Mahon Day.