I had another blog all ready to go for today, but when I found out that my regular Tuesday blog fell on St. Patrick's Day, I had to change my plan and write about Ireland. This is a true pleasure for me because I am a major fan of many things Irish. I spent the first semester of my senior year of college living and studying in Dublin, and it was one of the formative experiences of my life. In fact, for what it's worth, after New York and Los Angeles, Dublin is the city I've lived in the third longest.
Libraries of books cannot do justice to the wonder of Ireland: what can I say in a blog? I can tell you what Ireland means to me.
As a writer (and a reader) – Ireland was the literary miracle of the late-19th-twentieth century. For a country with a population of roughly four million to produce William Butler Yeats ... Oscar Wilde ... George Bernard Shaw ... James Joyce ... J.M. Synge ... Samuel Beckett ... Seamus Heaney ... and dozens of other excellent writers in the span of less than a century is simply astonishing. There are few comparable explosions of such concentrated artistic genius in the history of civilization: perhaps the painters and sculptors in the Florence during the Renaissance, or everyone in Athens around 550 B.C.
The question persists: why has Ireland produced so many literary geniuses? It is a combination of factors. The Irish were an oppressed people for so long – oppressed by the English for many long and bloody centuries – and oppressed populations are a natural petri dish for the growing of artists. Rebellion that can't be expressed politically comes out artistically. As a society, the Irish were outsiders, even in their own country (with the Protestant Ascendancy subjugating the Catholic majority), and artists are natural outsiders. They are, by definition, observers looking at a reality that they cannot control but only remake through their art. Add to that the cold weather that keeps people inside a lot, the excess of alcohol, and the infinite resources of the English language, and you have the conditions that gave rise to the Irish literary miracle.
What these writers mean to me personally and artistically is a topic for a separate blog. Suffice it to say that I have a Samuel Beckett autograph on my wall, right next to my desk, and the title of my novel is a (partial) homage to one of Beckett's titles, "How It Is." I won't even mention Joyce and Yeats.
Here is a YouTube gem – the original "Krapp's Last Tape," Beckett's heart-breaking one-act play with the actor for whom he wrote it: the great Irish actor Patrick Magee ("A Clockwork Orange," "Barry Lyndon," and de Sade in the original "Marat/Sade.")
As a music listener -- I love Irish music, both traditional Irish music and Irish rock and roll. As I've said before on this blog, my favorite modern musician is Van Morrison. There may be better songwriters (Dylan), better performers (Springsteen) and better vocalists (lots of African-American singers including Ray Charles, Al Green, Sam Cooke, etc.), but no one puts together the total package like Van. I believe that he is a true artist: uncompromising, visionary, sui generis. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Van in concert: somewhere between thirty and thirty-five times. He can be inconsistent in concert, his engagement with the audience is sporadic, and he'll throw in too many genre tunes. But almost every show guarantees some moments in Musical Heaven, moments of Genius. Fortunately, the Tiny Goddess loves Van as much as I do. That's why I've seen him so many times. He used to come through New York regularly in the 70s and 80s, and the TG knew that I would like the shows, so she made sure that we went. We saw great concerts at the Beacon, the un-lamented Felt Forum, the now-demolished Academy of Music/Palladium (thank you, NYU), the Pier, Avery Fisher Hall, and other places. I listen to Van more than any other non-classical, non-Keith-Jarrett musician. Here's an idea why --
-- the complete "Astral Weeks" in concert at the Hollywood Bowl from 2008 (I was there with my family, and it was an unforgettable night.)
“ASTRAL WEEKS” live – new link
And then there is U2. As the Last Great Rock-and-Roll Band ("the last band where you had to know the name of every member" – Bruce Springsteen), U2 carries a massive burden. I admit that their recording history is spotty: some great records ("Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby") and some not so great. Their songwriting is also inconsistent: some truly spectacular songs and lots of dross. Even their methodology – their riff-based songwriting – has been questioned by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and others.
But if you've never seen them in concert, you can't really appreciate how great U2 is. I've seen them twice – the Zoo TV tour in 1993 and the Elevation tour in 2001 – and they were two of the greatest rock concerts I've ever seen. The only ones that come close really are the best Springsteen and Who shows. Remember that young Paul Hewson started out to be an actor first, not a musician. So when he grew up to be Bono, he made sure that U2 is "theatrical" in everything it does. Finally, the group reminds me of The Who: power-trio-plus-vocalist line-up, amazing peaks, lots of dross, huge pretensions, and an absolutely stunning live show. To be compared to The Who is a high compliment from me.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYOu7N8e9PU -- the complete Boston show from the 2001 "Elevation" tour – (Watch this, doubters.)
And then there is traditional Irish music: "trad." The great purveyors and international popularizers of this music are, of course, The Chieftains. This is the soul music of Ireland and highly addictive. One of the other greatest concerts I've been to was a private party thrown by the school where I studied in Dublin – the School of Irish Studies – where they hired the Chieftains to play. They rented out the basement room of McDaid's, a pub off of Grafton Street, and the Chieftains played just for us. I sat right at Paddy Moloney's feet and got as drunk as I've ever gotten in my life. The music was fantastic; the hangover was not.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEZNlaZFZnw -- some classic Chieftains from 1974 and 1985
As a traveler – If you've never been to Ireland, go. I've been there twice: once as a poor college student for four months, and once again, thirty-five years later, for two and a half weeks, as a not-so-poor middle-aged tourist. Both times, Ireland was terrific (though I do prefer castles-converted-into-hotels to student hostels.) What matters are the people ... and the scenery ... and the music ... and the "craic" (the untranslatable Irish term for good talk/gossip/fun/entertainment such as you'd find in a pub.)
I'll do a separate Irish travel guide in another blog. There is so much to see, so much to talk about. Again, we're talking about books' worth: the Rock of Cashel, the Burren, the lakes of Killarney, Tara, Galway, Sligo, Yeats' tower, and on and on. So just let me finish for now with some of my favorite memories of Ireland:
Walking the streets of Dublin, one of the world's most people-friendly cities because there are no high-rises (they would block the sun, what little there is.) ... seeing Jack MacGowran's one-man Beckett show at the Olympia Theatre, a homecoming for him ... walking around Glendalough, the early monastic site in the Wicklow Mountains, founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century, a holy place if there is such a thing ... driving the Ring of Kerry ... soda bread ... smoking hash with David Bernstein, the blond stuff he brought back from Amsterdam, and listening to "Caravan" ... hitchhiking all around Ireland ... seeing a wonderful "Uncle Vanya," translated by Brian Friel, at the Abbey Theatre ... walking around Ashford Castle, past "The Quiet Man" house where they shot some of the classic John Ford movie ... thick rashers of bacon ... walking and talking in gardens all wet with rain ... Harp on draft ... James Mays, my excellent Yeats teacher, who is now a Professor of Modern American and English Literature at University College Dublin ... a brilliant lecture on Joyce by the young, contemptuous Seamus Deane (part of the all-star faculty at the School of Irish Studies, including Mary Lavin and Thomas Kinsella) ... meeting people from Pasadena (!) on a deserted beach in Count Kerry – and meeting them again on the ferry across the River Shannon the next day ... and walking on the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, near homicidal cows.
The operative word for today is – SLAINTE! That's the famous Irish toast for "good health."
In other words, don't drink too much.