Friday, July 14, 2017

The Stories of Patrick Pearse

That's a very serious-sounding title for what's going to be a very quick blog post, merely an observation.

Regular readers (for such poor creatures exist) will know my admiration for Patrick Pearse, the leader of the 1916 Rising and a central figure in the Gaelic Revival. He is a lifelong hero of my father's (who describes him as "Christ-like"), and therefore I heard a lot about him, growing up. (Not that this was a personal quirk of my father's. He is an important figure in Irish history and culture, by any standards. But my father is particularly devoted to him.)

I reacted against Pearse at various times, and even now I think his Irish nationalism sometimes reached the point of idolatry, and that his fiery rhetoric may have, not inspired, but encouraged some republican terrorists. (His example, however, should have had the opposite effect. I mentioned the book I was recently reading about the 1981 hunger strikers-- reading it, I learned that very many Irish nationalists at this time, in attempting to persuade the IRA to give up terrorism, appealed to the example of Patrick Pearse, who called a halt to the 1916 Rising for the explicit reason that too many civilians were being killed. The same appeal was made to the hunger strikers, as there was a real fear that their deaths might spark a full-blown civil war.)

The most fascinating thing about Patrick Pearse is that he left his mark on everything he touched. In a brief life (only thirty-six years) he poured himself into various different tasks, all of which served the overriding purpose of Irish nationalism. He founded and ran an Irish language school. He edited an Irish language newspaper. He wrote poetry and stories, in Irish and English. And he led the 1916 Rising. If he'd only been remembered for one of these things, he would have had an important role in Irish history.

I'm a particular fan of his English poetry, especially 'The Fool' and 'The Wayfarer' (both of which can be read at this link.) Not only are they first class poems, in my view, but they express some of my most cherished beliefs more eloquently than I ever could.

I'd avoided reading Pearse's Irish language stories. I taught they couldn't be much good, since Irish wasn't his first language, and since modern Irish literature was something of an artificial creation. Besides, I'd assumed they were stories written, not for their own sake, but for the sake of writing stories in Irish-- and that kind of thing always scares me off. In reading biographies of Pearse, I must have either skipped the passages concerning his short stories, or read them very inattentively, because I'd managed to gather very little foreknowledge of their contents. When I eventually read them, I did so dutifully, bracing myself for tedium.

How surprised I was when I read them! They're haunting, lyrical vignettes of life in an Irish-speaking rural area, beguilingly simple, fresh and naive. Although Pearse famously (and controversially) drew on modern European models, they seem more like folk tales than anything else-- or perhaps, prose poems. Most of them involve some kind of supernatural or visionary encounter, and most have children as their protagonists. An atmosphere of the semi-eternal, of time pervaded by timelessness, of the folk-life, fills each one.

But the thing that impressed me most about them was that they are real stories. They seem to exist in their own right, to have a kind of ontological reality, independent of their author or the circumstances of their creation.

The same thought struck me when I was reading one of the Harry Potter books. This was one of the later volumes, and I was reading it soon after it was published, so the entire world was abuzz with it. Probably somebody in every street in the world was reading the book. But, as I read it, I forgot all about the hype and the hoop-la-- it was such an absorbing story that it might just as well have been an obscure book I took from a dusty shelf in a second-hand bookshop. It was just me, and the characters. 

This is a quality that fascinates me. When a story becomes real, it seems to take on a life of is own. And this doesn't necessarily have anything to do with psychological realism, plausibility, universality, ingeniousness, artistic merit, or any other particular characteristic we can isolate. It seems to be something completely unpredictable and separate.

James Bond is real. Dracula is real. The escaped lunatic in the urban legend of The Hook is real. Freddy Krueger is real. Calvin and Hobbes are real. Every character in a well-known joke is real. When we think of them, we're not saying: "Let's pretend". We buy into the story, even if it's the most impossible and unbelievable story. It momentarily becomes its own reality. It's an extraordinary thing, and the fact Pearse could pull it off in his Irish language stories only deepens my admiration for him.

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