Tuesday, March 17, 2015

More than just green beer and cabbage


     Happy St. Patrick's Day, though the actual Tuesday holiday seems an anticlimax and afterthought following the weekend of heavy pre-Paddy partying. I walked from the Sun-Times to the Four Seasons Saturday night, through a city of drunk people, one vast beery queue of guys and gals draped in green beads and wearing green t-shirts and green deely boppers, waited to get into the next bar.  Not a good look. 
     My sympathies to the actual Irish.  Being Jewish has its downsides, true,  but at least we don't have to put up with a lot of crude expropriation of our religion (by people other than ourselves, I mean). I wouldn't want to walk to synagogue for Yom Kippur through a crowd of rowdies swilling Manischewitz from blue and white plastic cups, wearing fake beards and rubber noses and big black foam Borsalino hats, chanting, "Re-pent! Re-pent!" 
     I don't know how the Irish do it. How year in and year out they watch their proud and long and tragic history get put through the meat grinder of American culture. "Kiss me I'm Irish!" It breaks the heart. But I guess the Irish experience is a machine designed to break the heart, so why should this be any different? Still, resistance is both futile and necessary. Nearly 20 years ago, the Sun-Times published this guide, the idea being that the St. Patrick's Day revelers packed into Irish pubs and faux-Irish pubs might glimpse these portraits on the wall, through the crush, and be puzzled as to who those old guys might be, and it wouldn't detract from their celebrations, and might even help, if they were informed, and equipped with a bit of verse to recite once they are really in their cups, around noon. 

     One mark of a real Irish bar is the inevitable shrine of portraits of Ireland's greatest writers. Some are easy to identify -- George Bernard Shaw with his big beard, Eugene O'Neill with his cadaverous cheeks (he started writing plays in a tuberculosis asylum). But some are a puzzlement to the average Chicago bar crawler of today. Here is a quick guide:

William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939                          

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
W.B. Yeats

And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

     "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry," W. H. Auden said of Yeats, the towering figure of Irish literature. Yeats seems to bring together all the threads: 19th century dreams of romance, 20th century slaughter, mysticism and fascism, Greek history and the "mere anarchy" of the new. Unlike every other poet who ever lived, Yeats blazed brighter and brighter as he aged, dictating brilliant poetry even hours before his death.


James Joyce, 1882-1941

. . . and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

     Joyce left Dublin when he was 22 and, like so many expatriates, spent the rest of his life looking homeward. To the narrow-minded censors of his day, Joyce was a pornographer whose writing stank of sweat and dirt and sex. His masterpiece, Ulysses, was banned from the United States until 11 years after its publication, which only drove the curious to read it.  E. M. Forster, a Brit, called the book "a dogged attempt to cover the universe with mud."


Samuel Beckett, 1906-1989

Pozzo: . . . One day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (calmer) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instance, then it's night once more!
Samuel Beckett


     Beckett was a 51-year-old obscure poet and novelist who had only recently stopped working as a shop clerk when, in 1953, his play "Waiting for Godot" took Paris by storm. The haunting words and dark wit of his masterpiece immediately hurled him into the company of Kafka as a bard of disjointed and menacing modernity. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969.


Brendan Behan, 1923-1964

I am a cowardly man by nature, and to go there I had to take a couple of drinks and when I saw her so small and lonely in that stark, ether-smelling ward of the hospital, I knew that I loved her very deeply.

Brendan Behan
     Behan was 16 years old when he was sent to a British prison for his activities in the Irish Republican Army, and, like Oscar Wilde, he used his time in prison to feed his muse. His play "The Quare Fellow" rocketed him to fame in 1956, and he divided his few remaining years writing amusing memoirs and drinking everything within reach.

         —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, March 15, 1996


              



18 comments:

  1. Too funny-"drinking Manishewitz or fake beards"

    good one

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  2. What a lovely bar photo. Looks like late 19th century era. Look at that mahogany.

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    1. Thanks. I was having breakfast there in London. Right across from Waterloo station--or some train station. I'd have to check to be certain.

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  3. Neil, Would love to hear your thoughts on the Aaron Schock developments.

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    1. I think Mark Twain covered it more than a century ago:

      “THERE IS NO DISTINCTLY AMERICAN CRIMINAL CLASS - EXCEPT CONGRESS.”

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  4. At least now there's more to the regular part of the ST paper as well. Not listings saying go online and read this.

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  5. Not that it matters, but "Waiting for Godot" took Paris by storm in 1953, not 1957. I saw the first English language production at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadily Circus in 1956. I recall being, like most viewers, amused but confused. And, like most people living in London then, had followed the controversy over it in the press. The play originally went unnoticed and was set to close early when Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan, writing in "The Observer,' pronounced it the theatrical wave of the future, inspiring several prominent actors to say it marked the end of "theatre as we know it." Conservative critics poked fun at it or suggested that it, having originated in Paris, must be morally suspect. The Lord Chamberlain, who at that time was still charged with shielding the British public from indecency on the stage by censoring plays, excised some of the lavatorial jokes and required that the word "erection" be removed from the script. Reading about it after all these years makes we want to see it again, but only if well cast. It's not for amateur actors.

    Yeats is worth reading not only for the music of his language, but for the sometimes eccentric notions expressed. I like what he had to say about what modern man has lost by knowing so much about everything.

    "The woods of Arcady are dead,
    And lost is their antique joy.
    Of old the world on dreaming fed.
    Grey truth is now her painted toy."

    Tom Evans

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    1. Of course it matters. The 19-year-old error fixed, and acknowledged. Thanks.

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    2. Mr. S. You seem quite well traveled.

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  6. Well, today's intro seems to me to be a curious take on the occasion, but thought-provoking, as usual. "'Kiss me I'm Irish!' It breaks the heart." I can't say that that ever occurred to me before. I'm no fan of this city's ridiculous 5-day bacchanal to mark what in Ireland was more a religious holiday, but such is the "meat grinder of American culture," as you note. That being said, there's a reason that those portraits are in bars beyond the fact that these guys were among "Ireland's greatest writers". Uh, I believe 4 for 4 of the ones noted enjoyed a drink or two, as well. Anyway, "I wouldn't want to walk to synagogue for Yom Kippur..." is funny and clever, but a bit of a false analogy. The percentage of Irish folks, especially among the younger cohort, who are walking to church today is pretty darn small, I'd wager. But, hey, shank o' the mornin' to y'all!

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  7. I think I've heard that the day is not much celebrated in Ireland, possibly because the holy saint was actually born in Scotland. I feel somewhat thankful that my own ancestors did not come over in great numbers and go into politics instead of more useful occupations, else I would be obliged to make a fool of myself on Saint David's Day.

    TE

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    1. Would love for TE to tell us a bit more of St. David's Day and the Welsh connection.

      At any rate, this is an informative blog with the writer's list and such.

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  8. Tom Evans, you are such a windbag and show off.

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    1. I write these comments because doing so amuses me, but the fact that they displease the likes of you is an unlooked for bonus. I would ask what your problem is. But then I can't really say I care.

      TE

      .

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  9. I read Angela's Ashes, etc. I think it's not a stereotype to say the Irish/Brits drink a lot, as much as it is a cultural attribute.

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  10. Missed the '96 column the first time or maybe I hadn't "discovered" you yet then. Very funny indeed. By the way, when I was in the seminary in the '50s, we used to have a basketball game on St. Patrick's Day: the Irish v. The Hunkies. Not that anyone thought that most or any of the Hunkies were of Hungarian extraction, but the idea was that if you weren't Irish, you might as well be Hungarian.
    John

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  11. the seminary? good thing you got out of there

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  12. I suggest another, PJ Donleavy's The Ginger Man, which is to be ruined in film by poser Johnny Depp

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