Soon after moving from Dublin, to the borders of Leinster and Munster, I remember walking across a field in Co Laois to check that there was water in a trough for the cattle in the field. The thought had occurred that day that it would be Bloomsday the next day In Dublin. Dublin’s annual commemoration of James Joyce would not have found 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 were particularly practical for rural ministry), I remember having 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 is celebrated in Dublin today 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. Living in Co Dublin, JM Synge wrote of rural life, but in such a way that he provoked a riot in the Abbey Theatre. Samuel 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, are things that 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 wrote 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 the walk that day would have been felt, but Heaney was an Ulsterman and he would have been looked upon with cautiousness by some of those who farmed in the townlands of Laois. Not with suspicion, but with caution, for one never knew what might come from the North.
The rain will be the chief concern today for many rural Irish communities – June is passing and there is silage to be cut, hay to be saved, and turf to bring in – all of which demand dry weather. It is a world far from Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus.