Why Irish Writers Have Been So Influential in English-Language Literature
The following is a guest post by Zachary Kellian, whose short story “Founding the Irish Porn Industry on My Summer Holiday” appeared in issue 21 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.
An afternoon stroll down O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare, will take you on a tour of Irish history in a matter of blocks. You’ll follow in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Ulysses, as you cross the River Liffey, that famed waterway from songs by bands as varied as The Chieftains and Radiohead. You’ll see the battle-scared post office, its pillars pock-marked by English bullets from the 1916 Easter Rising. Most notably, you will pass many a statue on the boulevard. But look closely. While the United States struggles with its history of problematic statues in the American South and elsewhere, you’d be forgiven for thinking the stone and copper monuments along O’Connell Street are all memorials to great Irish war generals. But there is not a horse, rifle or saber atop these pedestals. (The Irish, a historically neutral nation, often joke that we have never won a war, even the ones we rage against ourselves.) These statues, displayed on the most prominent street of the capitol, all celebrate publishers, poets, and famous orators of the Republic of Ireland.
It says a lot about a nation that would put its famed wordsmiths front and center as an example to the rest of the world. This belief in the power of language is reflected in the sheer number of famous writers who have called the land of Saints and Scholars home. To name a few: James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, CS Lewis, to say nothing of Ireland’s four Nobel Prize winners for literature (Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney). The Irish diaspora also produced many a true literary great, from The Brontë Sisters in England, to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Flannery O’Conner in the United States.
Which begs the question: why have Irish Writers had such a profound influence on English-language literature? It all comes down to the Gaelic tradition of the Seanchaí (literal translation: “bearer of old lore”). They were the men and women chosen to oversee the histories, laws, lineage, and stories of their people, and were positions of great honor in Celtic tribes since before recorded history.
Over the centuries of Viking and English colonization, the Irish protected this role as a way of keeping their culture and its many traditions alive. The Seanchaí became the guardians of Ireland’s past and the champions of its future. They shared their tales in clandestine groups, huddled around peat-smoke fires, while imbibing on fine uisce beatha (Gaelic: “water of life,” the origins of the English word “whiskey.”)
One need only visit a public house in Ireland today (a “pub,” or bar) to see this same story-telling tradition in modern practice. All of the aforementioned writers were brought up in this tradition of lively story-telling and became experts through osmosis in the art of imagery, plotting, and pacing. It is a tradition we as writers (whether we have Irish blood or just an appreciation for the Emerald Isle’s people) have the honor of carrying on.
Zachary Kellian is an Irish American author living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the co-editor of Orca: A Literary Journal, and is putting the finishing touches on his first novel. He has never been called a Seanchaí, but if anyone ever did, the drinks (and accompanying stories) are on him. You can follow him on social media: @zackellian or visit him at zacharykellian.com