Jul 22, 2009

Dead Irish Writers*

The Fool (excerpt)
by Padraig Pearse

Since the wise men have not spoken, I speak that am only a fool;
A fool that hath loved his folly,
Yea, more than the wise men their books or their counting houses or their quiet homes,
Or their fame in men's mouths;
A fool that in all his days hath done never a prudent thing,
Never hath counted the cost, nor recked if another reaped
The fruit of his mighty sowing, content to scatter the seed;
A fool that is unrepentant, and that soon at the end of all
Shall laugh in his lonely heart as the ripe ears fall to the reaping-hooks
And the poor are filled that were empty,
Tho' he go hungry.
I have squandered the splendid years that the Lord God gave to my youth
In attempting impossible things, deeming them alone worth the toil.

I often find myself clinging to the conceit that if I'm not exactly well-read, I have read enough literature of the classic and not-so-classic variety to pass just about any reasonable sniff-test.  And like a lot of Irish-American Catholics boys who found that they enjoyed curling their hands around a pint of the black stuff, I went through my Irish writer phase.  It probably began in High School or college, I'm not sure of the exact time in my young life.

There was a certain feeling growing up as an Irish-American in my family.  I'm just not sure exactly what that feeling was, however.  My mother's side of the family mostly came from the County Cavan toward the North, but not in the North if you know what I mean.  My father's side mostly came from the South and County Cork.  And the two clans couldn 't have been more different if they had tried.  The tribe from Cavan were landowners and had Irish royalty in their blood, but then again just about every family with Irish roots can boast that.  There were an awful lot of Irish kings mucking about.  My father's side of the family were mostly workmen and members of that unique band of tinkers that traveled the countryside. 

Those cultural divisions continued when each family moved across the Atlantic to the New World.  My mother's side of the family became wealthy landowners on Long Island's Gold Coast before selling the land off bit by bit as farmland became estates.  They were eventually left with nothing in the way of land in one of the most exclusive and wealthy areas of the nation.  Too bad.  My father's side of the family built things and lived by their wits.  My grandfather was a professional gambler himself counting the likes of W.C. Fields amongst his regular friends and gambling cronies.  But he also knew Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart from their time as aviators at Roosevelt Field, as he often worked there.

The odd fact was that even though each side of my family has been here in America for a number of generations, our clan stayed strictly Irish and Catholic.  Young Irish Catholic men and women finding each other in love was perhaps aided by our strict upbringing and the influence of the Church, but somehow looking back on my family tree as far back as I can go it is all Irish and (mostly) Catholic.  That's amazing to me, especially as it is near impossible to find someone whose families have been in country as long as mine that can make the same claim.

It all stops with me and my siblings, however.  None of us married Irish Catholic.  I thnk society in general has moved past those kind of restrictions, at least in the circles we travel in.  So looking forward we will contribute to the growing population of mutts in this country.  Well...not all of us.  Gia and I decided long ago not to have kids.  Cats made more sense to us.

It's in the looking back, however, that we can see how our foreparents heritage has shaped  our own lives.  Part of that is in the literature and poetry of our homeland, of course.

So when I went about figuring out who I am and were I came from, I turned to the Irish Writers who have filled our libraries with their prose and poetry.  Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde and John O'Keefe.  Some I took to in a modest way and some were beyond me.  I still have never made it all the way through Ulysses and I doubt I ever will.

Frank O'Connor was a favorite of mine and a more recent choice as he passed away the year that I was born.  I loved his voice and the pacing of his short stories.  He was a fine biographer as well, writing the definitive book on Michael Collins, the Big Fella himself.

There were others, of course.

Frank McCourt died just the other day at the age of 78. He is probably best known for his autobiographical memoir Angela's Ashes, but I enjoyed 'Tis a bit more. Actually I'm more of a fan of the brash storytelling from his somewhat of a blowhard brother Malachy.  He has been a radio personality in the New York area for about as long as I have been around, and his rousing tales of love and violence told in a lilting Irish brogue have always been a charming source of entertainment.

But it is Padraig Pearse who will always have a special place in my heart when it comes to Irish writers and poets.

He was born in Ireland from a father who had emigrated from Manchester, England and an Irish-speaking mother native of Dublin by way of County Meath.  His father actually converted to Catholicism some time after moving to Ireland and a good portion of his relatives remained Protestant.  I'll get back to that a bit later on.  His love of Gaelic and Catholicism came mostly from his mother's side.

From early on, Pearse enjoyed the academic life.  He received a degree in Modern Languages (English, Irish and French) and began his own bilingual school to help prevent the Irish language from disappearing all together.  He felt that the Irish educational system need an overhaul as it generally was meant to produce good Englishmen or obedient Irishmen.  This was unacceptable to Pearse.

Eventually his educational talents and predilictions ld to his entry into the political debate that raged across Ireland in the early part of the 20th Century.  Home rule for Ireland.  Pearse eventually became a major player in the Irish Volunteers, The Irish Republican Brotherhood and The Irish Republican Army.  Rising to the rank of Commander-in-chief, in fact.

He was listed as President of the Provisional Government on at least one bulletin released by the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916.  There was some dispute on that title, coming from within the leadership itself as well as historians afterward.  Regardless, he was generally considered to be one of the leaders of the movement and one of the co-authors of Proclamation of the Republic.  The reading of the Proclamation by Pearse himself in front of the General Post Office on Sackville Street was actually the beginning of the Rising.

It was also the beginning of the end for Pearse.  After six days of fighting, Pearse and the other leaders were forced to surrender.  He and fourteen other men were court-martialed and executed before a firing squad.  Just scant days after the Rising.  He was 36 years old.

Why did Pearse's life and words come to mean more to me than any of those other fellows?

My grandmother's maiden name was Pearse and she was his cousin.  Yeah.

She was a cranky old broad.  About as funny and outrageous as a diminutive Archie Bunker.  She was one of the Protestant branch of the Pearse family, and she was always messing with us about that.  Her own fault really as she married an strict Irish Catholic man and let him raise their sons and daughters as such.  I think she just enjoyed hoisting her Protestant superiority above us lowly Catholic peasants...for fun.

It's been around 25 years since she passed away and she was ancient even then.  She was born late in the 19th Century and lived through two World Wars.  She was an educator and an acedemic.  Something that was none too common for women in the early part of the last century.  In fact, she was the first female librarian at the New York Public Library.  A position formerly held by stuffy men in bow ties.

I never got a chance to talk with her about her cousin when I was younger.  I don't know if she ever met him, but I kind of doubt it.  She was around 18 at the time of his death.  But I still wish I could hear this intelligent woman speak of her relative.  I'm sure she would have sprinkled in a bunch of Catholic jokes as well, but like I said...she liked to have her fun.

So here is to Padraig Pearse and Frank McCourt and Frank O'Connor and even James Joyce.

Sláinte Mhath, gentlemen!

PS - I started this post over a week ago after I left a comment on his blog.  Then I left it in draft and almost forgot about it.  Then Frank McCourt passed away and began to think about it again.  That's why it took so long.

*With all due respect to Aaron Sorkin and the rest of the writers of The West Wing, this was too good of a title to pass up. - Earl

Note: Remember to play the Bug-Eyed Trivia Challenge every day. Rest in peace, Frank McCourt.


SK Waller said...

Great post, Earl. I'm half Irish and I too shall probably never finish Ulysses.

I saved the last two lines of the Pearse poem and intend to use them somewhere.

A toast to McCourt! (Really? You like 'Tis better? I thought he whined an awful lot. But I loved Angela's Ashes.)

Paticus said...

Never read 'Tis, as I was not much of a fan of "Angela's Ashes"...Oops. Am I allowed to say(type) that out loud?
Nice post...I have never actually heard of Pearse, but methinks I might have to check him out. Another attempt at Ulysses is looming on the horizon as well.

Verdant Earl said...

Steph - I didn't love either of those two books really. Like I said, I prefer Malachy.

Paticus - Sure, you can type/say that. I'm with you actually.

Slyde said...

you're Irish?

i never knew.

Heff said...

Where I come from, the "sniff test" is something entirely different, and men usually frown upon having to partake.

Verdant Earl said...

Slyde - as Irish as you are gay. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Heff - yeah, that's a totally different sniff test right there.

i am the diva said...

great post, Earl! i like reading about people's heritage...

And i never woulda taken you for Irish, I assumed you were just 'dude'.

Verdant Earl said...

Diva - I'm hesitant to say I am "Irish", because most of my family has been here for a number of generations. Howabout "American of Irish ancestry?" Too long?

Kevin McKeever said...

I raise my Guinness to all Irish writers, dead or alive. Cheers, E.

Mrs. Hall said...

Random thoughts:

1. Wait, what is the 'the black stuff?'

2. I met James Joyce once. Not even a remotely interesting story.

3. The poem at the top. All this unrepentant foolishness... is this you, feeling that it all was worth it? Very nice, very nice!

4. So, how do cats make more sense in the way of progeny for you and the Gia? Curious . . . :)

5. I miss being Catholic. sigh. Such tradition. Such interior decorating of the churches. offt.

I can say that my uncle married a protestant around 1950. Big controversy.

It was only recently, like LAST YEAR WHEN HE DIED that we saw that side of the family again. Such bullshit, the divisions of religion.


7. Awesome reply to Slyde BTW. hee hee hee....

ok, yeah. good. Irish then. Family and having cats as children. Poems. Good damn writing.


more please!


Verdant Earl said...

Uncool - Slainte.

Holly -
1. Guinness
2. James Joyce died in 1941. ???
3. Not sure if it me, but I like it.
4. We just never wanted kids. Period.
5. I'm agnostic myself.
6. I'm not very poetic either.
7. Nope. Back to dick and fart jokes tomorrow. ;)

Candy's daily Dandy said...

Earlsie, I gotta say you struck a chord in my Irish/Italian heart.

My mother was the Irish half and never knew her real father, so we had our step-grandfather to thank for the Irish education. And we ADORED him.

As much as I identify with my Italian heritage and my fathers people, your words and the Irish twinkle in my eye have been awakened.
A wonderful post. I have not read Angela's Ashes, but I did read "Teacher Man", McCourt's memoir about his teaching days and liked it very much.

Might I recommend another Irish boy's memoir from my neck of the woods-"All Souls" by Michael Patrick MacDonald. If you check my profile you will see it is listed as my favorite book and it's author someone I would love to meet. He is the same age as us, and his words, too, awakened my Irish.

Verdant Earl said...

Candy - All Souls sounds interesting, but another one of his books is called Easter Rising and it has to do with the 1980's punk subbacultcha. I think I would really dig that. He lives in Brooklyn now, by the way. Because he knows that NYC in all ways is superior to Boston. ;)

Faiqa said...

This was a really nice post. I don't have anything clever to add, but I thought you should know that I liked it.

I liked Angela's Ashes, a lot. I;ve read it several times.

sybil law said...

I love this post. It was definitely worth the wait!

Bruce Johnson said...

The Irish....never fail to entertain and confound. Religion, whiskey, rolling green hills, a chip on their shoulder and a tenor somewhere in the background.

This is all timely, since I resently finished watching the LaserDisc of David Lean's "Ryan's Daughter" which is set in Ireland during the time of "The Troubles". Great work and a beautiful if not some biased look at the Irish through Lean's eyes.

I actually have a copy of the film made from Joyce's novel "Ulysses" on LaserDisc. I have never made it all the way through it, since it watches much like it reads. But maybe I will have to dust it off and have another go at it. It might be more watchable with a pint of Guinness in hand.

Barlinnie said...

An interesting post my friend, and please accept my apologies for the lateness of my comment.

You know how tardy we Celts can be when the drink is about us.