‘Tis the season! In fact, when you’re Irish, ’tis always the season. It is our wont to celebrate, ritualize, glorify, extol, honor and commemorate just about everything of any consequence whatsoever from our past. And, of course, since so much of our past involves pain, we also memorialize quite a bit.
We lionize our novelists and poets and playwrights to the point where it borders upon canonization. But, then again, if you know where to properly peer into that darkness that is their muse, these literary artists are indeed saintly. All it takes is to be a bit fermented and distilled and aged. A perspective honed on malarkey with a pinch of blarney doesn’t hurt either.
And the same goes for our fallen warriors — of which there are more than a few. We love nothing better than to hoist one to heroism, especially when recalling events where courage, nobility and valor took on insurmountable odds upon the fields of honor. I’m of the opinion that we invented the concept of "moral" victory. Although we seldom "won the day" in the usual sense, we never doubted that the ethical high-ground was ours.
This month is heavy on all fronts. For starters, Samuel Beckett’s 100th birthday is tomorrow. Beckett, the Nobel Laureate most famous for his play "Waiting for Godot," fashioned literary art out of despair – now wasn’t that Irish of him. He once commented, "birth was the death of him." Join me in a toast to Sam if you would. But mind you, there will be more to follow.
Coincidentally, tomorrow also plays host to the birthday of yet another Irish Nobel Prize winner in Literature. Poet Seamus Heaney continues to conduct a lifelong "quarrel with himself," concerning both the artistic freedoms and social obligations of the poet. "Between my finger and my thumb/ the squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it." Another round if you would, my kind sir. This one for Seamus he who unearths.
Then there is J. P. Donleavy, the author of "The Ginger Man," who celebrates his 80th birthday on April 23. Donleavy inflicted upon the world a most holy terror by the name of Sebastian Dangerfield when that raucous novel first saw the dark of night back in the mid-’50s.
Set in bohemian Dublin, Dangerfield, as an Irish-American expatriate, pretty much has his way with the old sod. Shenanigans and donnybrooks guide the narrative through plot twists that stay true to Donleavy’s abiding artistic principle: "to make sure your mother and father drop dead with shame." Pints around for Donleavy and Dangerfield, my good man – lest Sebastian scatter some teeth.
All this is the lighter load, however, when it comes to commemoration within the Irish heart this April of 2006. As defining a cultural role as literature plays, it is always the historic forays into rebellion and the aftermaths thereof that give ongoing attitude — "edge," if you will – to the Irish psyche. And the events that began on Easter Monday of 1916 loom as large as any.
It is said that, at four minutes past noon or thereabouts, a hush fell across O’Connell Street in Dublin when Padraic Pearse took to the steps of the General Post Office and began reading the Proclamation of the Republic. It was a call to arms and to revolution.
If this most recent rebellion against British rule had played out like its predecessors, most likely it would have ended up a footnote to history with thousands of Republican rebels captured, tried and stowed behind English prison bars until released – when they would dutifully join the next uprising. However, that wasn’t the way it went down.
The initial response from the public at large to the "Easter Rising," as it came to be known, displayed, if not a total lack of interest, at least a somewhat apathetic indifference, but what happened next galvanized support for the Republican cause. That would be the courts-martial and quick executions by the British of 14 of the leaders of this latest bid for Irish independence.
What had bonded together this particular band of rebels was a shared passion for the Irish culture. For the most part they were well educated and highly literate — one of their main rallying points being a call for a revival of the Irish language. Many were writers and editors and publishers. Their movement would become known as the "Poets’ Revolution."
Initially, however, William Butler Yeats, one of the Isle’s most-famed poets, took issue with the philosophy that armed insurrection was the answer to his country’s plight. He saw Ireland as mythological and mystical and sensitive enough to be moved to free itself through art alone. And, no doubt he thought, he was just that artist.
But, in time, Yeats would come to view the epic events of Easter week through a more symbolic lens. Appearing some years after the fact, his poem "Easter 1916" would lend honor to both occurrence and martyr alike.
"We know their dream; enough/ To know they dreamed and are dead;/ And what if excess of love/ Bewildered them till they died?/ I write it out in a verse -/ MacDonagh and MacBride/ And Connolly and Pearse/ Now and in time to be,/ Wherever green is worn,/ Are changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born."
Around various spheres, including our own, there will be gatherings on Easter Monday of 2006 to honor and commemorate that which transpired at the General Post Office in Dublin those 90-years ago. The Proclamation of the Republic will be read and testimonies will be heard.
And previous to, and no doubt, in the aftermath of, glasses will be raised and songs will be sung and the names of Clarke and MacDiarmada and MacDonagh and Ceannt and Connolly and Plunkett and MacBride and Daly and Mallin and Colbert and Heuston and O’Hanrahan and both brothers Pearse will resonate in memory. So keep them flowing, barkeep, the season gives much to honor and to absolve.
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