In America at least, St. Patrick’s Day is generally considered a good time to wear silly green hats, maybe watch a parade, and get stupidly shit-faced drunk.
But if we’re going to devote one day a year to celebrate all things Irish, why not also take a minute to appreciate something else about the country besides its famed drinking culture? I’m talking about the country’s ongoing love affair with language.
Quick quiz: Can you name any other country on the planet where a poet who predicted that the world would collapse into anarchy (W. B. Yeats) and a fiction writer whose work was tried for being obscene (James Joyce) are national heroes?
Being an Irish writer today with that kind of cultural legacy behind you has got to seem daunting, but there’s at least one contemporary writer I know who seems more than up to the task. Her name is Claire Keegan. I met her a few years ago, when I traveled to Ireland to teach creative writing at the Stonecoast in Ireland residency, a wonderful program run by poetry power duo Ted and Annie Deppe, Americans who’ve made the Emerald Isle their home.
Keegan arrived in the early afternoon to present a master class in fiction for our students. We met on the top floor of the Howth Yacht Club, in an airy room decorated with sailing paraphernalia. Through the windows there were views of the mountains and sea, and in between the Irish fishing village of Howth, which is just north of Dublin and boasts an impressive literary pedigree. (Yeats grew up there, and it’s also where Leopold Bloom proposed to Molly in Joyce’s Ulysses.)
It was winter and cool outside, but I recall the lowering sun beating on our shoulders through the windows behind us. We sat in a half-circle around Claire Keegan, standing tall in high black boots. Her face was framed by a thick wavy mane of red hair.
“What,” she asked us in a commanding voice, “is fiction fundamentally made up of?”
At first we thought she might be asking a rhetorical question, but then gradually we realized she expected an answer.
One of the students raised her hand. “Well, for me, fiction is really based in character. You see, if I can relate to a character’s story in fiction, then I…”
“No,” said Keegan, cutting her off. “That’s not it.”
We were all a bit taken aback, perhaps partly because in American creative writing classes, corrections are usually made in softer tones, with more diplomatic and meandering words.
“Plot?” ventured another brave soul.
“No,” said Keegan, staring us down with her wide bright blue eyes. “That’s not it either.”
She watched us for several more seconds of silence, during which we all shrank a little into our seats. And then she gave the answer:
“Time. The thing that fiction is made up of is time.”
And then for the next two and a half hours, as the sun sank behind our shoulders, she continued to speak, brilliantly and passionately — without notes — on her fierce convictions about the nature of fiction and the way to approach writing honestly, by building it up slowly, brick by brick, from the ground up, based on sensory details. “Fiction is a humble thing,” she said. “It’s of the earth, not the sky.”
After her dazzling performance, I was compelled to read some of her work, and so I tackled Walk the Blue Fields, an impressive story collection in which Keegan enacts the theories she expounded to us on that winter afternoon. Keegan’s language is generally spare, hard-etched, and occasionally, though only occasionally, given to quick flights of poetry, as in the sentence:
“Outside dew lies on the fields, white and blank as pages.”
In each story the prose is written with a strong sense of control, yet with the suggestions of deep emotions roiling underneath, for example in the story “The Parting Gift,” when we slowly yet startlingly discover the reason why the main character is so eager to emigrate from Ireland to America. You feel that same sense of repressed feeling in the collection’s title story, about a priest who struggles to steel himself against the alluring recollections of an intense sexual relationship in his past.
So on this St. Patrick’s Day, go out and have a beer or two if you must. But also, take a few minutes to seek out some writing by Claire Keegan, or by any of Ireland’s great writers. You’ll be doing yourself a favor, and afterward you’ll be left with something more substantial and rewarding than a hangover.