Literature, prose and poetry, is the truly greatest export from the Emerald Isle. And Irish-American storytellers abound as well. Who can forget the speaking and writing ability of John F. Kennedy? He won a Pulitzer Prize for his way with words in “Profiles in Courage,” even before he became president.
In the speech he delivered in San Antonio the day before he died, JFK paraphrased a quote from an Irish writer. Frank O’Conner wrote in An Only Child, “When as kids we came to an orchard wall that seemed too high to climb, we took off our caps and tossed them over the wall, and then we had no choice but to follow them.” Kennedy said, “This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space and we have no choice but to follow it.”
Other Irish authors continue to inspire today’s writers and readers. Local poet Peter Holland remembers George Bernard Shaw for the play developed from Pygmalion. “GB had such a great gift of language,” he said.
Schreiner University professor and musicologist Kathleen Hudson finds inspiration in William Butler Yeats and his “Second Coming.” Sun Poet Charles Darnell agrees. “His poetry is exquisite. Yeats was a man in tune with his time and place and it is reflected in his poetry.”
Philosopher David Montgomery likes this particular dead poet as well. “Probably because he was the first Irish poet whose work I was introduced to,” said Montgomery, who still carries a copy of “A Memory of Youth.“
San Antonio College International Student Coordinator Martha Buchanan is another fan of Yeats. “His work changed as he changed,” she said. “He was creative and socially responsible. He loved strong, vibrant women. He did not work with limitations. He was also theatrical and collaborative. He had ethnic pride and a vivid sense of history. He was flawed — as we all are — but triumphed nonetheless. I use a quote from him on my professional email: ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’”
Californian transplant Tia Downe likes the dark side of literature, so it is no surprise to find her favorite is Bram Stoker. “He has a way of transfixing you into Romania and you become as frightened as his characters in ‘Dracula,’” she said. Dan Althoff, a professor in Oklahoma, had a childhood fascination with “Dracula.”
“I’ve read the original novel three times,” he said.
Michael Muller holds degrees in creative writing and counseling psychology from UT-Austin and is a fan of C.S. Lewis. “I liked Mere Christianity because he made some lucid points,” Michael said. Personal Development Coach Betsey Garland finds a home in Lewis’ work, “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
“His creativity and imagination as a child reminds me very much how I was and still am, always writing and inventing stories to get lost in,” she said.
Another favorite of Garland’s is Oscar Wilde, “because he has the best quotes!” For example: “Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.”
Garland also is a fan of the poetry by James Joyce. “His insight is magnificent.” L. Dean Clark of Texoma concurs, “Hands down, James Joyce! Loved ‘Ulysses.‘”
Steve Brooks, a musician in Austin, has two favorite Irish authors. “It would be a tossup between Joyce, because he reinvented the English novel. And Yeats, because he wrote about the politics of his day from the viewpoint of the eternal and the archetypal.”
Motorcycle enthusiast Steve Johnson may have been imbibing in that green beer already. “Patty O’Furniture is my favorite Irish poet,” he said.
Jazz poet Catherine Lee is a fan of Brian O’Donovan of Boston’s WGBH radio show, “A Celtic Sojourn.”
“His voice moves me in the deepest layers of my barely 25% Irish soul,” Catherine said. “He knows it all about authentic music in the classic Irish way. He personifies Irish.” Folks around the world can hear the show online at WGBH.org or friend him on Facebook here.
Wordsmith Gary Whitford is enthused by an Irish storyteller that toured the mythopoetic men’s movement gatherings with Robert Bly.
“Michael Meade could tell a story, that’s for sure,” Gary said. “And in every story, he would describe a bottle of wine, the finest ever made – ‘And I saved a bottle, just to bring to you. But my golly, it rolled out of the car and broke.’” Gary believes Meade’s work is unforgettable and suggested viewing the video, “This World is Made of Stories” below.
One of San Antonio’s favorite poets, Marion Haddad, has two favorite Irish authors. “My favorite Irish person of letters would have to be Samuel Beckett. No matter the genre…. his staying power, his important existential questioning, is incredible in its impact and its resonance. Add to that, his wit, smart humor, and realness, and he makes his mark, and continues to make his mark,” she said.
“Right behind him,” Marion adds, “would be Seamus Heaney, whose poetry touches my soul.” She recalls his poem about the Sunday morning he and his mother stayed home from church. “And wordless,” Marion remembers, “they peeled potatoes in the light coming through the kitchen window; the air was thick with love, the poem pregnant with memory, the quiet space of childhood, maternal presence, and a son’s recognition of his large love.”
Nathan Brown, Poet Laureate of Oklahoma, admits he is not familiar with that many Irish authors. “But I’d have to say Seamus Heaney,” he said, “because I heard him read in Dallas once, and he was simply fantastic.”
Rod Stryker, founder of the Sun Poet’s Society, remembers a reading by Seamus Heaney too. “I actually spoke to him a few years back when he was in San Antonio. I had the audacity to ask him to defend his contention that the only good poetry is spoken poetry,” Rod said. “He looked at me with a very withering look and said, ‘Young man, it is my opinion that poetry needs to be heard as well as read. But the best poetry is spoken and shared.’” Rod loves Heaney’s poem, Postscript, especially the line, “and catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
“I also love W.B. Yeats, especially for his challenging of traditional truths as well,” Tafolla said. For example: “Whoever has it I do wrong/ whenever I remake a song/ should know what issue is at stake/ It is myself that I remake.”
Rivard Report editor Iris Dimmick admires the work of Frank McCourt. Though born in the U.S., his parents returned to Ireland when he was just a boy. “’Angela’s Ashes‘ was one of the first novels my Mom gave to me after I stopped being an idiot in high school,” she said. (Editor’s note: She stopped being an idiot altogether soon afterwards.)
Houston poet Brian Swain said the decision to choose a favorite Irish writer was a tough call, but he will go with “Angela’s Ashes” because of the extremely vivid (and depressing) image of the immigrant experience, i.e., the destitute Irish family coming to America. “It’s all the more poignant because it wasn’t fiction, it was his family’s real experience,” he said.
“I think the best scene in ‘Angela’s Ashes‘ was when the family was so cold one winter that they ripped out the wall studs of their apartment to burn, to the point where the ceiling collapsed. That moment redefined poverty for me,” Swain said. “Also, flipping over the mattress so they could sleep on the side with fewer fleas was a bit sobering.”
Frank’s younger brother, Malachy McCourt, continues the family’s travails in his book, “A Monk Swimming.” After being sued for an appearance on a talk show, Malachy exclaimed with Irish wit, “If they could only see me now in the slums of Limerick, a big shot, sued for a million. Bejesus, isn’t America a great and wonderful country?”
Yes it is. But authors and poets are not the only creators of the Irish word. Songs by Van Morrison can be mystical and transcendental. Singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor has won Grammys, American Music, and Golden Globe awards for her work.
Barefoot poet Chris Billings has another musical favorite. Bono is a singer/songwriter/poet and a philanthropist. “He writes very powerful, meaningful lyrics and gives articulate speeches,” Chris said. “He stands up for the stepped upon.”
Kat Walston, a Texoma woman with Irish blood, recalls the late poet, minstrel and peace activist, Tommy Makem. She believes he should be remembered for his abilities as storyteller as well as singer.
As we celebrate all things Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, let us never forget the contributions from the Celtic tongue and quill.
“The Irish Word” by Don Mathis
The Irish are so good with words
with shortened verse or rambling dirge;
it provides an inspiration.
It makes me want to emulate
minstrels of old or imitate
their sources of stimulation.
How they used to praise their king!
Of his exploits, they would sing.
It gives me admiration.
Life, according to bards of yore
and tales of ancient troubadour,
was rich beyond imagination.
The women all were hardy souls
whose beauty writers would extol
with their frequent recitation.
The Irish warrior’s speed and strength
were simply far beyond belief
as per poet’s proclamation.
And the curses of the Irish tongue
would make the Devil’s own ears burn
with unending consternation.
Ahh, but the Irish prayers are best.
You know when you’ve been blessed
with heavenly adoration.
The Irish have a way with words
with shortened verse or rambling dirge;
the best in all creation.
Previously published on The Rivard Report