It’s Saturday, and my Irish plumber has just emerged from his St Patrick’s Day lock-in.
This annual event is more than floating your own body weight in Guinness; it is a cultural and literary extravaganza that embraces anyone who is Irish, or who can persuade the fairies that he or she is Irish.
Call it freedom just for one night.
You must be ready to sing, and you must have a poem or a story to tell, and if you can play the Bones or the fiddle, so much the better. You end up dead drunk and legless, of course, but that mustn’t get in the way of the poetry.
My last lock-in was in Galway, and thank the saints that knowing poetry is as necessary to me as knowing how to cook. A good way to learn a poem is to stick it up on the kitchen wall. You just absorb it while you stir and chop.
So it was well that I did not disgrace myself, especially as the Irish believe that the English have no poetry, even though we have written rather a lot of it over the years.
In a way they are right; we have poets, but do we have poetry?
I don’t mean the words on the page; I mean the stuff in the soul.
Are we a poetic nation, in the way the Irish are a poetic nation?
When I think how to define this, I come back to the seduction of story-telling. The Irish love a story, as long as it is well-told. The well-telling demands the same exactness and ear for language as does poetry. The story will be more unravelled than the perfect pattern of a poem, but it will use the same materials and come from the same desire – the desire to heighten a moment.
If you can be beguiled by a story, if you can lean on your elbows over the shop counter, dally on the street, pause in the busy day to be distracted by something that has absolutely no relevance to the speeding clock, you may get a reputation for fecklessness, you may be a bit of a dreamer, but you’ll keep the poetry alive.
Most of Britain has been taken over by media and management, and none of us has any time. Well, we have time for the Internet and TV and to spend longer and longer hours at work, but that doesn’t leave much room for the poetry.
Ireland’s famous slowness, it’s relaxed pace of life that visitors love, is really to do with a rhythm – the rhythms that come with poetry and music – honouring those beats against the beats of the clock.
Sometime when I go back up north, I find some of the same thing, particularly in older people who have preserved a way of talking that is richer than television allows, and who have held on to their stories, passed down and embroidered. There are pockets of poetry wherever you go, but Ireland as a country has done well in keeping its songs at the heart of its culture.
The great thing is that there is no talk of elitism. Poetry and music belong to everyone. The Irish know their James Joyce and their Seamus Heaney. They are as proud of Sam Beckett as they are of U2.
Beckett was once asked why so many of the Irish were poets, and he replied that ‘the priests and the English buggered us into existence.’
The hard life, the poverty, the injustice, the religious bigotry are Ireland as much as the poetry and the music, and while it is difficult to define the exact relation between the two, it is not difficult to see that the heightened moment of the story or the song, can re-claim the ordinary moment ripped or ruined by others who have more power. If you know how to tell it, you can in some wise return what has been stolen. The great ballads of heroes and battles and tragedy do just that. The lyric poem or song turns to the individual and gives words to his silent pain.
My plumber likes to recite Yeats to me while he lays his pipes, and he likes to remind me that in Ireland they will divert a road around a fairy oak, not because they believe in fairies, but because they believe in believing in fairies – as he puts it.
Long live St Patrick and his lock-ins.
March 18 2006
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