Clare to here

I love Nanci Griffith’s voice, and I love the songs she sings. For years I listened to one of her early albums, the one with songs about race hatred and about her sister (not very flatteringly) and about going down the road with the radio on. A few nights ago I started to play another album on Spotify. My favorite song from this one has a chorus, It’s a long long way from someplace to here. I couldn’t quite make out what she was singing: There to here? Where to here? I finally listened more closely to the lyrics, about missing home, about drinking to soften the pain. Clare.

It’s a long long way from Clare to here, it’s a long long way, gets further every day.

This is a song about Irish emigration.

IinC RyanAir            The Irish were among the first of the immigrants to the U.S. in the nineteenth century, although for many Irish leaving their home was not an option they would have willingly chosen.  They came in great waves, mostly with nothing, fleeing an island that was starving to death. Some were shipped away like so many cattle, given passage to rid the British of the dying. They landed in New York and stayed there or went the short distance to Boston. Others, mainly the ones who could afford it, spread out across the country, some to tie their fate to the goldmines and business prospects of San Francisco. Mostly they lived in ghettos and did the menial jobs, cleaning and mining and digging ditches and minding the horses. And all the time, they missed home, even though home was for these exiles a cottage or worse on land they didn’t own. They farmed it but couldn’t eat the food they cultivated—that was exported for profit by the English landlords– except for the potatoes that grew so generously in the loamy soil, until they didn’t.

There were signs all over America: No Irish need apply. Irish not welcome. No Irish. No Irish. They worked hard but they got reputations as drunks and brawlers. When discrimination kept them from success they resorted to dirtier politics. Ultimately they thrived, and they sent money home, to the few relatives remaining there, and then to the cause of Irish nationalism and a free state. And always, although few managed it—gets further every day–they longed to be rooted back on Irish soil.IinC diver

It’s difficult not to see a connection between this longing and the over-exuberant and ultimately disastrous building during he Celtic Tiger period in Ireland. Houses built all over the island, now sitting empty. Ghost estates. Even in the new wave of prosperity, brought about after the Irish buckled to the EU’s insistence on an austerity plan and made it work, the houses are simply too numerous to fill, too isolated, not near jobs. A census completed this month identified 260,000 vacant houses a number called scandalous by the report. Nonetheless, the good news is that there are 170,000 more people in Ireland than there were in 2011. This is a small number to be sure, but in a country of 4,750,000 people a 3.7% increase is a good sign. The increase is nearly all in Dublin and its close environs; the counties of Sligo, Donegal and Mayo, all in the west, are continuing to decline, leaving populations of older adults who need public services but with few younger people to help provide and pay for it.

The houses were built because what Ireland loves, what the Irish fought for so passionately over so many centuries, is land. When the money was there the logical conclusion was to build, because who wouldn’t want to come home if the opportunity presented itself? When the Celtic Tiger collapsed, what was left were stone skeletons rising out of the earth all over the island, except in those places that needed them the most. What does a country do with 260,000 empty houses, built but mostly never occupied, but tear them down again?IinC Bono

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Irish arts, Irish serendipity

IMG_2534At the Dublin Airport for my trip back home:  I bought two newspapers at WH Smith. One, the Irish Independent, is a tabloid, and although there is resistance across Ireland to division by religion no matter what the topic, this newspaper is generally seen as Catholic. The other paper I bought is the one I generally read while I’m in Ireland, The Irish Times. This paper has retained the traditional 8-column format. It is a good 2 inches wider than US papers and as such is challenging to read while sitting in economy class seats on an airplane. I bought the Times to read the news; I bought the Independent because I had had lunch with one of the arts reviewers, Sophie Gorman, while I was in Galway at the Arts Festival and wanted to see what she had to say.

The lunch was an accident. Two women whom I had chatted with briefly at an installation that morning walked into Ard Bia (‘high food’), a Galway institution and wonderful place to eat, just after I had been seated for lunch.IMG_2459 Since there were no tables available I offered to have them join me. The other woman, Rachel, was an independent theatre director who had just begun a new job at the Irish Arts Council. We had all been to see three playlets by the Irish playwright Enda Walsh. The plays, each about 15 minutes in length, took place on three different small sets. In each case a small audience (2-5 people) sat in the room while a disembodied voice spoke. I had seen one of these, Room 303, last year in Galway; after seeing two more, Room 303 remained by far the best. The other two were voiced by women; I don’t think Walsh gets women, which is why most of his plays are heavily or completely male.IMG_2452IMG_2456

At lunch Rachel and I discussed the performance we had both seen the night before. Sophie hadn’t seen it yet, but as I found out after she left the table to go off and write her radio piece for that evening’s broadcast, she was always very careful not to discuss any piece before she had reviewed it. The performance Rachel and I had seen (me from front row center, the second time I have ended up in that seat by sheer luck) was Invitation to a Journey, a multi-media work about the architect and designer Eileen Gray. The performance was a collaborative project between three Irish companies, dance, music and theatre. The dance (CoisCeim Dance Theatre) and music (Crash Ensemble) parts of the performance were terrific. Three dancers dressed in white moved between contemporary fluidity and the juttering, angular postures of Nijinksy, situating the play in the Modernist period in which Gray lived and worked. Three musicians carrying their instruments, including a cello, moved around the stage with them, and a percussionist, his instruments mostly fixed on the stage, performed with tour de force power and energy.IMG_2422

The actual play was by contrast conventional, slight and emphasizing Gray’s sexuality (one of her lovers was a French chanteuse with whom she strolled through Paris with their pet ocelot on a leash) over her huge professional life. The chanteuse featured unmemorably in the performance but not, mercifully, the ocelot. Ingrid Craigie, the actor playing Gray, was lovely but was given neither material nor costume nor decent wig nor even dignity. I have seen other FIshamble productions and enjoyed them, although they had not been experimental even with their focus on unusual approaches like walking plays (where the audience follows the actors to a series of locations as the play unfolds). In the Independent, Gorman, who did see the performance during the week, wrote,

The various strands don’t full knit together and we are not given much emotional foothold or narrative to build on. And ultimately it is hard to reconcile this too slight picture of Gray.

I covered quite a bit of territory during my 28-hour visit to Galway; I even made it to a few talks of the Irish Print Networks Conference at NUI Galway, including a paper by a friend, Molly O’Hagan Hardy, the only other American in attendance. One thing I missed was the Arts Festival’s first-ever ‘Art Book’ exhibition, which turned out to be in a venue that was very far from city center (I walked for 30 minutes and never got close so finally turned around and walked back) and in the end proved too complicated to get to by car. I’m sorry to have missed the open-call exhibition. Artists’ books don’t have much of a presence in Ireland, and it would be interesting to see what was there.

 

Month’s Mind

Although I didn’t plan it, I was in Ireland for Nodlaig’s Month’s Mind. I wouldn’t have known about this custom, a requiem mass held for someone a month after their death. Nodlaig’s was at her church in Broadford. I had never been in the church. Even though she was married to a Protestant (my cousin Charlie) she would have thought it odd or even pandering if I had offered to take her to a Sunday service, and at any rate when she lived in the cottage she could mostly drive herself there. Once she was in Sancta Maria, the nursing home where she lived for the last five years of her life, mass came to her.  I was visiting on more than one occasion when the priest walked into the main reception room, greeting everyone quickly as he walked around the perimeter of the room past each resident. His presence was my signal to leave; walking out, I would hear the mumble of the rosary, said so quickly and with such rote that the words had long since lost their shape and become instead a compelling murmur.

IMG_2527Broadford Church matches the standard of Irish Catholic country churches. Set back from the road, these buildings rise from a cold sea of concrete and are dressed in grey stone that rain makes nearly black. Stern, cold and unadorned, these large steep-roofed edifices invite penitence; the most optimistic church-goers must feel weighted down sin by the time they arrive at the front door after crossing so much hardscape. The Church of Ireland churches, by contrast, seem almost jolly, couched as they are in small grassy enclosures with their worn round stone walls, their red wooden doors and their humble bulk, fitting for a population of Protestants that is well under 5% of the country.

Inside the church the colors are bright, almost vulgar, with an odd three-D depiction of the Last Supper that glowed from some inner lights.IMG_2397 Nodlaig’s name was written in the Mass bulletin and spoken several times throughout the service by the priest. His homily was a thoughtful sermon about the Good Samaritan; Ann told me afterwards that it was more fitting for Nodlaig than the sermon on the day of her funeral. Throughout the service I pictured Nodlaig there, reciting the various creeds and beliefs (‘through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’). As I sat and stood and kneeled and followed the service as best I could, I realized how grateful I was to be there, in the midst of her family, to think about her and especially to grieve.

When we left the church the rain was coming down in buckets. A small contingent made its way to her grave before heading to lunch. Nodliag is buried at Ballinadrimna along with her husband and many generations of my family. The plot is small, surrounded by a fence; the names of the dead are listed in a long line on two stones. Nodlaig’s name isn’t there yet. It will be the final name on the second stone, under Charlie’s. The end of an era, many people said when she died, and it does seem that way.

Lunch, gardens & then some disturbing listening

My short stay at Tipperary was already over, but before I headed back to the Midlands I stopped for lunch at my friend Joan’s in Hymenstown. Lunch with Joan is a wonderful treat. The only concession to her age (91 or 92) is that she walks with sticks, at least when she remembers them. Joan is American. She and her husband Bill, who died a couple of years ago, had their honeymoon in Ireland, back when it was possible to cycle everywhere. They fell in love with the island, and eventually bought a place here. I’ve never been in the main house—Joan and Bill moved out some years ago when all the stairs became too difficult and switched into a refurbished cottage just behind the big house. It’s small (although still with a flight of stairs), somewhat rambling and very comfortable.IMG_2365

For lunch we had soup the Joan made from vegetables in the garden, and artichokes that were also grown there. It was warm enough to sit on the small patio, right next to the glorious garden. Joan tells the gardener to just let the garden grow, and it does, spilling over the low fences and over a pergola in big blocks of bloom. Immediately behind the cottage is a small stream that runs through the woods that surround the houses. Joan loves to walk there but we didn’t have time today. The whole place has an air of natural calm, peaceful but very much alive and vibrant with life. After lunch we took a quikc trip to a neighboring garden. It was the antithesis of Joan’s, all formal walkways and groomed allées and pollarded beeches, surrounded by controlled meadows and a mounded maze.

On the drive up I listened to RTE1, a cross between NPR and talk radio—chat shows, traffic reports, sports on Saturdays, lots and lots of weather forecasts and plenty of ads. One of the afternoon presenters, Ray D’Arcy I think, was interviewing a woman from Dallas about the recent horrific violence there. I didn’t hear who she was or how he found her (there was a reference to some public role that she plays in Dallas that I didn’t catch). But what she stood for was not in question. During the 10 minutes or so of her interview, she spouted nearly every racist platitude that could be said on the air, with the self-righteous smugness of someone who has never questioned her position on any value she holds. She blamed #blacklivesmatter for the shootings, explained that she grew up and went to school with “the blacks” and that there was never any problem until Obama was elected. Obama had created the rifts in the country; before he became president everyone just got along.

“Don’t get me started on Obama; I could talk all day.”

She had no sympathy for Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, who was calm and dignified as she livestreamed her boyfriend’s shooting. According to the Dallas woman, Reynolds was too calm, evidently proof of something that she could not articulate but that Megyn Kelly of Fox News had also pointed out.

“I would have have been screaming. I would have been shouting. I would have been going after that officer.”

Although a couple of minutes later she stated that police officers should always be given the benefit of the doubt and never questioned. Except, evidently, if she is doing it.

D’Arcy did have a second woman on, one who, when she was finally invited to speak, attempted to point out the evident racism of the first woman. She was not given time to do this—clearly the racist made much better radio. This is what this nation hears about America. Trump must seem more believable to Irish people after rants like this one. It’s stunning how much it hurts to have the U.S. represented in this way. IMG_2363

 

 

An Irish walk

Last evening, sometime after 8pm, Breda came by the house where I am staying in Tipperary to pick me up and take me on a walk. I have been on Breda’s walks before. They are always adventurous; she loves walking and a physical life. She’s an expert horsewoman, a retired teacher with a good command of Irish and an absolutely intrepid outlook. Her husband Greg is a mountaineer who travels the world to do climbs.

For this walk Breda drove us into the Knockmealdown Mountains, one of three ranges that ring the Tipperary valley. We stopped in town to pick up Siobhan, a friend of Breda’s and another dedicated walker.

IMG_2337I had never been on such a late evening walk before, but the sky stays bright until nearly 11, and yesterday had been one of the most gorgeously sunny days I had ever seen in Ireland. By the time we drove to the end of the rocky dirt lane, more like a worn line in the earth than a road, the light was holding and the weather was balmy, with just enough breeze to keep us cool. We set out over the hill on an invisible path, going up the slight incline (what they call mountains are friendly here) and striking out through the heather and ferns.

IMG_2329I have been on very few walks in Ireland that follow established trails. Walks here are created where the walker wants them to be. Since bogland is not an issue in Tipperary, there is no need to worry about suddenly sinking up to your waist in muck. Holes and ruts in the land are another issue. The ground nearly everywhere is rough, necessitating good boots with ankle support and keen observation about where you are about to step. In these hills the general rule is to follow the sheep trails, since they invariably find the best route. For this walk Breda shared one of her hiking poles with me (the Irish don’t use the word hike; a walk is a walk whether difficult or meandering).

Around 10pm we came to a Mass Rock. This one was a natural outcropping tucked into a small gulley and sitting by a stream. This is the first Mass Rock I had ever seen. IMG_2346They were used in the seventeenth century for clandestine Catholic services when Catholicism was outlawed after the 1695 Penal Law. The piece used for the altar was usually taken from a church ruin and transplanted to this hidden and otherwise natural location. IMG_2349Services were announced by word of mouth, since they couldn’t be held at regular times. This Mass Rock, which is now commemorated with Virgin Mary statuary and a plaque, is the location for an annual pilgrimage of remembrance of the time when Catholics were refused the right to worship, priests had to register and bishops were outlawed.

IMG_2348After the Mass Rock the three of us moved at a more concentrated gait, aware of the gathering dark and the promise of a stop at the local pub for a well-deserved glass of Guinness. We passed an isolated cottage, owned now I was told by a 20-something Irish woman who is a sheepherder like her father in Scotland. All over Ireland these cottages exist, many in ruins but some like this one, and like the one I am staying in, brought into the twenty-first century as places of refuge, contemplation and creativity but also energy, resourcefulness and renewal.

A(nother) grand day out

Back in Irelalnd! The night after I arrived I went to a dinner party (see One Way to Live in a Mansion). There were ten people there, only three of whom I had met before. It was, as usual. lovely.

IMG_2247The next day I woke to the realization that if I didn’t go to Dublin that day I may not get there at all this trip. At 10am I hopped in the car and headed to town, not having a plan for when I got there. While on the road I decided to visit the Chester Beatty Library. I hadn’t been there in at least a couple of years, except to eat in the café. I parked at Euston Station, took the LUAS into the center of town, then walked across O’Connell Bridge and through Temple Bar, already teeming with tourists, to Dublin Castle, where the library is located.

Chester Beatty was an American mining baron who started his career shoveling rock in Colorado after training as a mining engineer. He parlayed his knowledge of mines into a fortune, moved to London and, on a visit to Egypt with his second wife (his first wife died of typhoid), bought some Egyptian decorated Qur’ans in the market. He added these to his growing collection of European and Persian manuscripts, later setting up winter housekeeping in Cairo. A few years later he became equally enthralled with Chinese and Japanese paintings, and added these to his ever-burgeoning collections.IMG_2248

Ireland became the repository for these books and manuscripts after London rebuffed his offer of a gift. In 1957 Sir Chester became Ireland’s first honorary citizen. The library is now in trust to the public, and admission is free.

Of all of the treasures in the Beatty collection it is the papyri that are the most compelling. The collection contains some of the earliest and most important of the Christian biblical papyri; these texts are bound in papyrus pages rather than scrolls, providing a link between Christianity and the development of the codex. The collections are shown in two permanent exhibition spaces.

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A third space holds the changing exhibitions, which are wide-ranging. The last exhibition I saw there was Matisse’s Jazz; this time the library took advantage of needing to dis-bind a copy of a rare sixteenth-century Persian Qur’an to show many of its pages. The wall signs included information about the conservation of this book, including explanations about why it had to be disbound; one case showed the book’s nineteenth-century binding and explained that the pages would be rebound into the same binding once the exhibition ended.

The Beatty Library holds classes and workshops, many in techniques from the Middle East or Asia such as marbling and calligraphy. Free yoga classes are held on their roof garden. The sense of community engagement is clear.IMG_2257

The rest of my Dublin day was devoted mostly to walking and books. After a quick stop at the Douglas Hyde Gallery on the Trinity College Dublin campus where Caoimhe Kilfeather’s maximally minimal works were on show, I made my ritual stop at Ulysses Books, a second-hand shop (formerly Cathach, changed recently when the owners gave up hoping anyone could pronounce the name—CahHah). There I found a copy of Hilary Pyle’s biography of Jack Yeats, now out of print. (There is a chance I will be meeting the author next week, so this was providential.) Around the corner is Hodges Figgis, for new books. Like all Irish bookshops, books by Irish authors and books about Ireland take up the lion’s share of the floorspace.

Home again, via my favorite local pub, Furey’s Bar, where Esther and I ate baked haddock and salad. Definitely a grand day out.IMG_0650

One way to live in a mansion

I have a friend in Ireland who doesn’t use email, so reaching him from California can be tricky. The 8-hour difference makes a phone call difficult to time; I resort to letter-writing. In a way this is fun: When else do I get to write phrases like, Hence this letter? My friend’s traditional style extends to most parts of his life. He is not an unsophisticated or untraveled person; he studied in England and was a banker for years in Chicago before moving back to Ireland after inheriting an estate. A year ago or so I received a letter from him. Concerned about the sale of one of the big houses in the area of north County Kildare where I stay in the summer, he wrote me to ask, using slightly more subtle language, if I had any rich American friends who might want to buy it. The snobbishness was implicit: If the wrong sort of people buy the place, there goes the neighborhood. The letter was on paper so thick it was like opening up a letter from the queen herself. I happen to have one of the private Christmas cards the Obamas send out to friends (given to my daughter by someone she knows who is close to them), and the engraved and tipped-in interior of the card, signed by all four Obamas and the dog, has nothing on this stationery.

Obama Xmas card

IMG_0408 Drummin, my friend’s house, is what the Irish call a middle-sized mansion. Set back from the road on broad acreage, it is a small Georgian house, modest but still imposing, its external austerity belying the grace of the interior rooms, where he often entertains. Luncheon is at 1, beginning in the small sitting room, surrounded by books. Books are his passion; the books he orders by mail come in a steady stream. They are piled up on the floor and in front of the glass-front mahogany bookcases. One small side table always has several stacks of books perched so precariously that it looks like the table will tip over, like an outsized game of Jenga.Drummin bok table

After sherry for me, something stronger for him, we move to the dining room where the housekeeper, Mary, has set out platters on the sideboard—meat, potato, two veg. We sit at the table and he pours the wine. Mary herself clears the plates and brings in dessert. She stays to chat for a few minutes, then leaves for the day. We finish the meal, go back to the sitting room, let the talk drift well into the late afternoon. Sometimes we are joined by a mutual friend, a barrister of some repute who is usually dropped off by taxi and stays for coffee or more drink. On the days he comes, I drive him home to his newer and much grander country house, where we might talk over coffee for another hour or two as the shadows deepen into evening.Drummin doorway

Dinner parties at Drummin are more formal. It’s eight for eight-thirty, drinks in the large drawing room, dinner around the table with frayed linen and silver (always boy girl boy girl boy girl, an uneven balance being unthinkable). Conversation is conventional, polite and always remarkably stimulating.

These experiences are fleeting these days, mercifully so in many ways. Yet the pull of them is compelling, a reminder of an old life almost completely gone now, one that is rooted in whiteness and privilege but also history and reminiscence and a passion for repartee and smart conversation about music, art, literature, politics. My grandmother’s life, one kind of life that I am grateful for knowing and always look forward to when I head back to Ireland.Drummin stairway

 

Brexit & the Irish

Brexit could once again divide Ireland from itself. What is now a porous border between the Republic and Northern Ireland could become instead a guarded, passport-required wall. In Northern Ireland the unionists voted to leave, wanting to take England and their own country back to a place of xenophobic isolation that will work to keep the two Irelands separate. The Remain voters were in the clear majority (56-44) but, like Scotland, which was similarly out-voted in its desire to remain in the EU, both Northern Ireland and the Republic must now deal with the consequences of an England gone mad.

The best outcome would be that the Border Poll being called by Sinn Féin would unite Ireland, but the likelihood of that happening without factionalism or worse is remote at best. Ireland has just finished marking 100 years since the Rising of 1916. The Republic itself was only fully brought into being in the 1930s–such a new nation. The northern unionists have fought fiercely to keep Northern Ireland separate, and won’t easily let that go now.

July is marching season in Northern Ireland, culminating on July 12th in a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne, William of Orange’s conquest of the Irish. This is typically the tensest time of the year in Northern Ireland, with the Orange Orders insisting on parade routes that take the marchers through predominantly Catholic, nationalist neighborhoods. These parades can turn ugly and violent, defiant rather than celebratory.

In some Belfast neighborhoods the walls which have separated Catholics and Protestants into segregated neighborhoods are still present. The gateways through them are propped open but the walls themselves have never been knocked down. This situation seems like a tinder box. If Ireland is miraculously able to find its way to unification as a result of Brexit the ultimate outcome would be spectacular. At what cost might this happen?

East Belfast BrigadeBobby Sands

This terrible day

On this terrible day, when Americans can now claim ownership of the worst mass shooting in our history, when 50 people are dead because of who they love, how do you search for hope, or joy? This tragedy stems from prejudice and hatred, and is given permission to unfold by the NRA and by the politicians who refuse to stand up to them.

The history of Ireland is not immune from violence, of course. The British Black and Tans were brutal actors in attempting to tame the Irish ‘rebellion;’ in just one of many unthinkable acts, they drove a tank into the midst of a packed sports stadium and opened fire. The IRA and other revolutionary groups’ use of violence is more difficult to discuss: How could a republic be won without the brutality of war? Echoes of these times—the Rising, the civil war, the Troubles—are seen in certain practices today. When an armored truck comes to collect money from the local bank, it is surrounded by men with assault weapons poised. This is a grim and frightening reminder that the young country has suffered profound distrust and the warring of neighbors.

But today in Ireland the gardai, the police, do not carry weapons. What seems so casual in the U.S., a blue-uniformed cop strolling into Burger King for lunch with a weapon around his waist and several more stashed in the car that is idling in the parking lot, is unthinkable in Ireland. The term garda comes from the phrase an garda siochána, protectors of the peace. For all the reputation of Ireland as the country of outlaws, the Irish recognize, as Americans do not, that peace begins with each person, most particularly those assigned to defend it.

In November 2015 the Republic of Ireland became the first nation in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. This happened despite the vehement campaigning of the Catholic Church. Catholicism claims some 85% of citizens in the Republic, which a visit to any town in the country on a Sunday morning will confirm. Whatever Ireland has been through, even just in the past hundred years, and that is quite a lot, the lessons of war and intolerance have left a legacy not of hatred but of inclusion and peace, lessons it does not seem possible, on a day like today, for America to grasp.

My daughter and her wife are on the road this week. As they move from campground to campground, will they need to practice extra vigilance about where they are settling for the night, who is next to them, who might be watching, whose truck has a gun rack? Stay safe, I text. Stay safe.

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Colm Tóibín & the Bay Area Book Festival

bay area book festivalColm Tóibín was in Berkeley over the weekend as part of the Bay Area Book Festival. I missed the Saturday panel but was there for his conversation with his friend, U.C. chancellor Nicolas Dirks, on Sunday morning. The subject, loosely, was censorship and the state’s role in suppressing writers’ voices (Freedom to Write, Perchance to Dream). Tóibín has a big following in the Bay Area; many of us in the audience (learned through overhearing chance remarks or in conversations in the bathroom line) had heard him speak before. Even so, the woman giving the introduction, one of the founders of the festival, struggled over Tóibín’s name. Most Irish people say the word film as a two-syllable word, fil-um, so the name Colm becomes Col-um, but for anyone without an Irish accent the name would be one syllable, Colm. Tóibín is pronounced Toe-BEAN. At least as far as I know. It’s a puzzle why the introducer didn’t ask Tóibín how to pronounce his name (she tried Cahlumn, Cohlum, Toybin, Toybean and a couple of other variations in the course of her five-minute introduction) before getting up in front of a few hundred people, but I imagine the Irish are long-suffering about any non-Irish attempt to say anything Irish correctly.Toibin on stage

Tóibín’s part of the conversation began with Lady Gregory and her role in establishing the Abbey Theatre in Ireland in 1904, as Irish nationalist fervor was escalating. For Tóibín, Lady Gregory seems an odd hero, just as she was an unlikely hero in the Irish nationalist movement. She, like her partner in the Abbey Theatre, W.B. Yeats, were Anglo-Irish, part of the Irish ascendency whose history in Ireland was one of land-ownership, not tenancy, Protestant not Catholic, ancestorily loyal to the crown.

Her friendship with Yeats began in 1894, two years after her husband (who was 35 years her elder and a staunch loyalist) died. Their friendship and working partnership lasted until her death in 1932, during which time Lady Gregory displayed contradictory attitudes about a nationalist Ireland, both embracing and shunning it. This ambivalent position was not at all atypical of many Anglo-Irish, who were often torn between what they perceived as the inherent unfairness of a system that so brutally exploited its indigenous population while retaining loyalty to their own families and their right to the land they had occupied for generations. Tóibín quoted Lady Gregory as saying, in response to why she was so passionate about the Abbey Theatre: ‘I just want to give dignity to Ireland.’

Tóibín also talked about his gayness, his teaching, Irish censorship of books and particularly film, which went on into the 1970s, and the Irish love of literature and books. He claimed (wrongly) that every town in Ireland has its bookshop, but it is true that every bookshop in Ireland has a prominent section at the front of the store that features books about Ireland or by Irish writers.

Toibin signingAfterwards a very long line formed for his booksigning. I’m not normally given to caring about having a signed edition of a book, but I was upset that I hadn’t thought to bring my copy of Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, his small biography of the woman whose life and motivations Tóibín continues to explore so deftly.

Wandering through the book festival afterwards, I ran into an old friend of mine. She had just come from Lacuna, an open-air library filled with 50,000 free books. She had three of those books in her hand, odd only because it is her husband’s enterprise, Internet Archive, that furnishes the books. She therefore at any given moment has access to any book she could possibly desire. How charming that she demonstrated her love for her husband and his work in this particular way.

Lacuna is billed as the largest free bookstore in the country. Who can dispute that?