March 17, 2005

Today Me Name Is Seamus O'Llama

Message to Sadie: My Dear, You worry me sometimes.

(As a matter of fact, I've always found the Disneyfication (there's that word again!) of St. Patrick's Day to be rather irritating. The Llama-ettes were carrying on about catching leprechauns this morning, as if they were cute n'cuddly little things. The truth is that, like Cupid, the Easter Bunny and Halloween spooks, they have a much darker and violent pedigree. Patrick O'Brian wrote a short story - found in the collection The Rendezvous - and Other Stories about a man who stumbles across one of their treasure hordes with ghastly, if elegantly understated, results.)

Way back when in law school, I had a small role in a school production of John Synge's Playboy of the Western World. There is a raw poetry to the way Irish peasants speak (or at least used to) that Synge tried to capture in his texts, a prolific use of metaphor and simile coupled with a particular wild syntax that I could not begin to describe. Once you get used to it, it is really quite beautiful, both to speak and to hear. Alas, as we performed in front of a student audience, I had the distinct impression that about nine tenths of what we were saying went rocketing right over their heads (at least until about three quarters of the way through). This wasn't entirely their fault, since it was probably the first exposure to Synge most of them ever had. Also, we were just a bunch of amateur hacks - this was a pretty ambitious attempt on the part of the theatre professor who staged it. I'm not sure we measured up to what he had been hoping to accomplish.

Synge wrote about the world of the western Irish (County Cork) peasant around the turn of the 20th Century. Oddly enough, prior to reading him, I had long been a fan of the Irish R.M. stories by E. O. Sommerville and Martin Ross, whose works were set in exactly the same time and place. Synge tried to paint a stark, gritty, "realistic" peasant's eye view of things (thus enraging certain sections of his audience, who rioted upon the premier of the play in Dublin). Sommerville and Ross, on the other hand, wrote comic pieces from the viewpoint of the Anglo-Irish gentry. Despite coming at it from completely different angles, there is a great deal of similarity in their portrayals of this world.

(Before you ask, no, I don't much care for the Peter Bowles television adaptation of The Irish R.M. The stories are first-person narratives spoken by Major Yeats. As with the case with Bertie Wooster, half the humor is the way in which he goes about telling them. It is impossible to translate this to the screen.)

UPDATE: The O'Brian story I was thinking of is called "The Happy Despatch". Very chillling.

Posted by Robert at March 17, 2005 02:25 PM

If you go out to the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, you can still hear the rough beauty of the Irish speech. Synge spent a lot of time out on Aran (as I have myself ). WB Yeats basically sent Synge out there, thinking Synge needed to "get real". Get in touch with the Irish language, with the folk people - and write some good hearty plays for the Abbey Theatre (which, of course, is what ended up happening.) Good hearty Irish plays? Like you said - people rioted!!

Synge, over the course of 4 different trips, wrote down the myths, the folklore, the customs of the peasants on the island, and most of all he was interested in the speech patterns. His book The Aran Islands is a book I treasure.

It's wild out there on those islands, wild and rough. To this day it is so. I am sure it's overridden by tourists in the summer, but I've only been out there in late fall or during the winter, when it is bleak and ferocious indeed, and where you can bicycle around, passing the crumbling clochá
ns on the side of the road.

The story of Playboy as well as the story of my personal favorite of his plays (Riders to the Sea) were based on folk-tales told to Synge around the turf-fires, out on Aran.

Posted by: red at March 17, 2005 03:19 PM

Sorry ... that should be clocháns ... Unnecessary paragraph break, due to Irish accent. :)

Posted by: red at March 17, 2005 03:20 PM

Heh heh. Easter is just around the corner, boys;-)

Posted by: sadie at March 17, 2005 04:05 PM

Ooooooo, I remember that O'Brian story!! The careful buidling up of suspense and then the unseen, but nonetheless overwhelming horror at the end.

For St. Patrick's Day, I recommend anything by Flan O'Brien. There are several books of his newspaper stories ("Flan O'Brien At War", "Further Cuttings"), and his novel, "At Swim Two Birds", is probably the wildest, most comically inventive thing I've ever read.

Posted by: D. Carter at March 17, 2005 04:09 PM
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