“Pinto’ stout, please. . . . Now, with pleasure, sir! . . . Two Paddys, please. . . . Ah, grand, there you are, sir!” In time individual voices merge into a single animate sound that fills every corner, as warm and reassuring as a peat fire on a winter’s day. This is the hour of social communion, an affirmation, its rituals the slow pulling on the pump levers that fill glasses with dark stout, the careful scraping off of excess foam with a knife. Gossip abounds. “The Irish are a fair people,” Dr. Samuel Johnson once noted, “they never speak well of one another.” There’s talk of horses and business deals and a catching up on news of friends and relatives—for Ireland’s a small place, and the interconnections extraordinary: “Of course I know her; she’s my sister’s godmother!” Promises are here made in the best of spirits, for no one will hold you to them.
The first warning comes: “Last round, gentlemen!” More drinks are ordered, the tables crowded with glasses. Then, “Time please, gentlemen, ladies. Time, please!” As the patrons depart, the once animated room falls into a silence like death. Out on the sidewalk, benedictions are given, the last words of the day: “God bless, Frank, take care o’ yourself. . . . See you at the next meeting, Declan, God bless. . . . God bless, Mick, all the best. . . . God bless.”
SOME ASPECTS of the Irish character, it is said, are traceable to the centuries of British rule. “We’re all lawbreakers at heart, you know,” a poet said with only half a smile. From oppression had come a taste for anarchy, a belief that freedom lay not in institutions but in opposing them; a drift into fantasy, escape of the powerless. George Bernard Shaw had lacerated his countrymen for this: “Oh, the dreaming! the dreaming! the torturing, heart-scalding, never satisfying dreaming, dreaming, dreaming. . . !”
Even the wondrous circumspection in Irish conversation is attributed to English rule—a hark-back to the days when a troop of English horsemen might rein up to an Irish farmer and demand: “Be this the road to Kilkenny?” To which the Irishman, realizing the fierce captain had taken the wrong road, would reply: “Well now, would ye be wanting to go there by way of Thurles?”
The English influence cuts another way. I sat one day in the faculty Common Room of Trinity College with Brendan Kennelly, poet, professor, anthologist. Brendan is a Kerry man, raised in the Catholic tradition. He writes of farmers and fishermen, of parents and girls and pilgrimages, of history and myth, and of the darker side of love. He draws on Irish strengths: “Our consciousness of suffering, our ability to turn suffering into music.”
Trinity was founded by Queen Elizabeth in 1591; until very recently it was regarded as a bastion of the Anglo-Irish, the descen¬dants of the Normans and English who set¬tled in Ireland over the centuries.