Why are there so many Irish writers?

This light comment on Irishry and writing (and language and weather) was broadcast on Arena last night. Happy St Patrick’s Day, everyone!

Why are there so many Irish Writers?

It’s a popular question in interviews and at festivals. Theories range from our blood ties with the fairies & the leprechauns at one end of the scale all the way to the 800 years of oppression on the other and whatever you’re having yourself along the way.

I blame the weather.

Really.

I’m a writer first and foremost because I’m a reader – and have been as far back as I can remember. I was thrown out of doors to play as much as the next child in the days before non-stop TV but when the rain closed in we’d be kept inside. With strong injunctions to be seen but not heard,  what else was a child to do only curl up in a corner and read?

So that’s the first thing.

*

Next: Look at how we talk about the weather – we give it a title; we pay attention to it – as we should, because Irish weather is a moody, temperamental – and above all changeable – creature.

A sense of uncertainty and impending change feature in the best fiction. The endearing tendency of our forecasters to get the weather wrong only adds to those fictional properties. Who can blame them if our forecast tends towards a menu of options rather than statement? – It’s a matter of possibility, rather than prediction.

*

Then there’s the actual language we use for weather. How we dramatise it.

In the story of any Irish day weather plays its part; each element is given characteristics and things to do. Sunshine is wintry, sweltering, breezy or squally, intermittent, unreliable. Wind and cloud sow seeds of hail, sleet or snow; a river threatens to seep through the skirts of a town; storms fly in like planeloads of tourists, we’re overrun.

Here we have cause and astonishing effect: The sea roars in to steal a field from under a farmer’s feet. Ancient forests re-emerge along the shoreline. Centuries late, the remains of an Armada finally runs aground.

*

Something in the cadences and rhythms of our speech suggests that language is still under construction, for us. It’s there to be played with, flaunted, turned in on itself. We use English as though we’re still trying it out; as though it might have something more to give, it’s a mystery we’ve yet to solve.

Nothing suits this verbal excess more than the weather. It rarely rains but it pours, it buckets, it lashes; we’re pelted by it. It’s filthy, brutal, torrential, even Biblical – and we pretend to be shocked by it, every time.

Someone drips their way into a shop and says, Isn’t it something? and everyone turns, embellishment at the ready, to join in. It’s a national pastime.

*

We like talking, we like reading – we even like to talk about reading, hence our love of bookclubs. This isn’t peculiar to Ireland, but there’s a case to be made that we started it – what was the Revival, after all, only one giant bookclub the whole country ended up joining?

And even that could be down to the weather. On a long rainy evening when other nations put on their lightweight jackets and step out for a walk, the clouds roll down on us. Damp sets in.

Where else would we go, on a drenching, spiteful night, only to a neighbour looking for shelter, firelight, stories?

So, really, I blame the weather.

*

Here’s a link to the podcast:

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/arena/category/special-features/?&page=2

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