“I am a drinker with writing problems.” Brendan Behan
What a fantastic quote, Brendan! And so very Irish – pithy, funny, truthful – everything that good writing should be. Brendan Behan is among the list of great Irish writers that includes James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Flann O’Brien, Jonathan Swift, and W. B. Yeats. (There is an excellent permanent exhibit of Yeats’s life and works at the National Library on Kildare Street.) And my list of modern-day greats includes Colm Toibin, Frank Delaney, Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchy, Edna O’Brien, Kevin Barry, and Joseph O’Connor, Sinead’s brother. And because I’m not a snob, I have to also include Colin Murphy and Donal O’Dea who wrote The Feckin’ Book of Everything Irish, subtitled A Gansey-Load of Deadly Craic for Cute Hoors and Bowsies. It is genius. I often wonder why so many great authors are Irish. I know that Ireland’s history is filled with folklore and stories told through song. I imagine that the wet, windy weather has driven men and women over the years to their own devices. And then because of the hard working conditions and poverty, men were drawn to the pubs where the spoken word, laughter, and drink fused. But the definitive reason as to why such a small island has produced so many of the world’s greatest writers is a mystery, I think.
Today the literary tradition thrives still in Dublin where there are several places that promote the art of writing. One is Roddy Doyle’s centre near Croke Park called Fighting Words. Doyle says that when he was a boy he was never given encouragement at his school to write fiction. He believes that young students today should have the opportunity to come to his centre to develop the discipline that it takes to become fiction writers. “It’s the freedom to challenge your mind, to admit failure and then to start again. Schools don’t really allow failure and yet it’s a valid part of any endeavor, not just writing. It’s about working hard to make something good enough. That’s the deep satisfaction,” Doyle says. I guess simply put, the centre promotes what all parents and all teachers want for their children – the moment when they realize that they can do something. The posters on the walls include rules for writing fiction. Ann Enright warns, “Only bad writers think that their work is really good”, and Richard Ford advises, “Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer is a good idea.” (If only it were so easy, Richard, if only.)
And as I’m writing this an email from the Irish Writers Centre popped up on my screen with the title “Give the gift of writing this Christmas” advertising “an Irish Writers Centre gift voucher as the perfect gift for that ‘difficult to buy’ creative type.” I can only hope that I’m one of those “creative types”. Regardless, I adore the place. The centre is in a beautiful Georgian building on Parnell Square just near the Dublin Writers Museum, the Hugh Lane Gallery, and the James Joyce Centre. I attended a writing seminar there in June that inspired me to write these posts of mine. Nothing in Ireland is complete without a pot of tea and a sweet, and that’s just how we were greeted that morning. And as luck would have it, my teacher was Manchan Magan, a charismatic Irish writer who has written travel books, newspaper columns, and documentaries. (He wrote Truck Fever: a journey through Africa about his adventures riding with a motley crew through Africa in the back of a truck.) Manchan had each person in our class of twelve write spontaneously for ten minutes and then share with the rest of the group. It was scary and fun to read aloud in front of strangers, and I realized that even though I had shared my writing with my students many times, it had been quite a while since I shared with adults. Of course everyone was kind and complimentary with their comments. When we wrote more later and shared again, it was so much easier. And so it seems that even as adults, we learn as children do. By the time I left I felt like I might be able to write about Dublin from the point of view of an American woman traveling independently. And so I did.