Today is Bloomsday, it is the annual commemoration of James Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom and his day on 16th June 1904 as it is described in Ulysses.
Moving back to Dublin last year after an eleven year absence, there has been an increasing conviction that perhaps Irish literature should not be classified as such, rather there should be Dublin literature and (occasionally) Irish rural literature. It was a conviction that began whilst walking across a field one day with a farmer of mercurial moods to check there was enough water for his cattle in a trough.
Joyce’s Ulysses, 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 the realities of rural life, 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 my walk across the 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, would have been sensed. But Heaney was an Ulsterman and the tones of his voice would have prompted a sense of wariness by some of those who farmed in the townlands of a rural county. Not with a suspicion, but with a degree of caution, for one never knew what might come from the North.
The world beyond the M50 motorway can be a very different place, It is to Kavanagh, Friel and McGahern that you would have to look for Irish rather than Dublin literature.