Friday, July 14, 2006

Who We Are 2

Who are we?  What does being Irish mean? What is Irish Culture? Part 2

There are many aspects of culture that define us Irish as a people.  One could fill pages just listing these various items.  Here I’d simply like to concentrate on literature, not in general but rather with respect to two of our greatest writers of the 20th century, namely W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett.  Why these two, apart from the fact that they were singularly gifted and both recipients of the prestigious Nobel Prize for literature?  Simply, the reason is that there are two equally brilliant exhibitions on these two profound influencers of our Irish identity, both at home and abroad.

I have visited both exhibitions twice and will revisit them a few more times before they are finished.  Why? Well, there is so much to take in at both that one could be overwhelmed.  The seasoned exhibition-goer will return several or more times to dip his/her parched tongue into the wells of inspiration.

The first exhibition is entitled simply “The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats,” and is hosted by the National Library of Ireland.  The introduction to this marvellous exhibition states succinctly that as well as allowing us into the imaginative world of our greatest poet it provides “insights into the social, cultural and political aspects of Ireland in the late 1900s and the early twentieth century.” This it does with tremendous power.

Declan Kiberd tells us in his introduction to Inventing Ireland that it was “the grand destiny of Yeats’s generation to make Ireland once again interesting to the Irish, after centuries of enforced provincialism following the collapse of the Gaelic Order in 1601.” (p. 3).  This was a cultural revival of unparalleled significance for the birth of our future independent state.  This“Celtic Dawn” was the result of the combined influences of many people, not just W.B.Y., of course.  I will return to these wider influences later.  

The exhibition shows all the influences on Yeats from Celtic Mythology, The Occult or Black Magic (Yeats was a practising member of The Golden Dawn), spontaneous writing, arcane symbolism from many diverse sources, art, literature, Sligo and its environs, his being besotted with Maude Gonne all his life and his dabbling in eugenics and in experimenting with reading his poetry in a musical fashion to the accompaniment of a psaltery etc Then we also see Yeats the politician or Senator and can read some of his speeches to Seanad Éireann.

The Beckett exhibition is a feast for the eyes.  It is interdisciplinary in its conception, as our Samuel was always besotted with art.  While living in Dublin he was seldom a week without visiting the National Gallery or the Municipal Gallery.  As the brochure to this wonderful exhibition points out: “the Gallery and its collection had a profound effect on his formation as an art lover, thinker and writer.” He would later visit the galleries of London and Paris and other European cities.  These encounters “not only enriched his personal life, but also informed his work as a writer and dramatist.”(Page 1).  What moved me most were the three marvellous Jack B. Yeats's which Beckett owned: A Morning (1935/6), another called “Evening”, I think, and one of two dock workers talking in Sligo. [I’ll have to re-check the names of these last two on another visit – I’m recalling from memory here].

I highly recommend both exhibitions. Finally check out these sites to get some relevant information. http://www.nationalgallery.ie/ and http://www.nli.ie/ The picture I have placed above is one I took today. It shows my own footprints in the sands of Donabate beach. Culture is about our collective journey as a people, is it not?

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