Episode 4 Transcript
Hi, Carolyn here from We Teach Well, our mission is to promote educational equality by providing English and literature teachers wherever they may teach, with truly borderless professional development options. We are inviting writers and educators from around the world to share the cultural and historical issues that sit behind the literature of their country. Today, we’re talking to Irish teacher and consultant John Ryan. I first became aware of John Ryan on the AATE Facebook group, that’s the Australian Association of Teachers of English. He was providing some really great free resources for English teachers. When Judy and I were making the list of countries we wanted to explore in the early episodes of the podcast, Ireland was definitely near the top of the list. Some of the very best writing included in English literature courses, was written in Ireland, and if any country understands how English has been used as a colonizing tool, it is Ireland. Well, Scotland too, but definitely Ireland. John is an English teacher in Ireland in Dublin to be exact. When he was at college, he set up an education consultancy to help pay the bills, he gave tuition and created study aids. This eventually led him into the high school classroom. Currently, while teaching, he provides resources to over 500 schools in Ireland, as well as many overseas. He’s been doing this for over a decade, which makes him one of the first educators to see the benefits of the internet. We ask all our English teacher guests to tell us what they love most about teaching English. So, I’m going to pass over to John now so that he can tell you that himself.
John Ryan 02:02
Oh, hi, Carolyn, thanks for having me on. Yeah, I suppose from teaching firsthand, I suppose it’s the creativity and how you can link it to student’s lives. When you’re teaching them various parts of the course, how I approach it is I use human experiences to teach a lot of different parts of English, whether it’s poetry or plays. And I focus in on how the characters or even the poets or the writers, what they’re focused on, how the experiences they’re focusing on are relevant to the students. Like we’re going to focus on today, a lot of the literature, which is generally focused on in various parts of English courses across the world, they deal with a lot of dated subject matter. So, you’re talking about content from the 20th century to 19th century, 18th century, and even content from the 20th century in the 1900s, can seem quite dated to students. So, I try and break that down, move it away from obviously, the students thinking about, it’s something which was from a very long time ago, or even it’s just a story that might not be interesting. It’s what the experience, it’s what’s actually been taught by life in general which is what they should be interested in and what they should be focusing on. And therefore, you can kind of create universality with anything you’re focusing on. I was doing something with students, yesterday, I was doing Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I know she’s not Irish. Obviously, Emily Dickinson from, wouldn’t be a 21st century poet. Her approach, with the dashes, the capitalization, she’s can be quite intimidating for students. And what I’ve tried to move away from obviously, having her as just some sort of a typical alien poet. And we were looking at this idea of being trapped inside your own head, she was obviously a recluse. And obviously, back then there was a stigma around mental health. I just broke it down and looked at this idea of being trapped inside your own head. We did this experiment where you get the students, you split the class into and give one set of students three words, which are jumbled up which they have to unjumble the letters. And the other half, you give them a set of three letter words. For one half the class has words, which can never be on jumbled, they’re just random letters put together. And what happens is, as half the class are able to do it, the other half, aren’t. The other half are really frustrated. And it’s all of that have no one doing that experiments ever puts her hand up and asks, you know, these don’t seem to make sense. They just kind of internalized the problem. And they kind of bottle it all up. And just even from doing something simple like that, you can kind of show students a lot of the time when we have problems in life, we just are kind of conditioned just to bottle them up rather than talk about them. And I think by doing something like that, you’ve maybe got them, even a baby step, just thinking about life, what life was like for Emily Dickinson, who was a recluse at home, who was told by society not to talk about mental health problems. And because of that, those sorts of problems just got bigger and bigger, which is what a lot of her poetry is about, really, it’s not just about mental health, but how these things kind of accentuates to the point where she feels a funeral in our brain and things like that. And even something like that, which only takes a couple of minutes at the start of the class, but which you can incorporate into teaching English. It just shows how you can actually take a subject like English and actually make a very applicable, you know, very personal to the students themselves by actually stripping away even the context of it, and actually focusing on, the real crux of it, decolonizing it. Breaking away from the context and focusing on, I suppose, kind of the inner heart of it. And so, something like that I find is really interesting, kind of, I suppose overlaps with what you are doing as well, with this podcast.
I’m assuming you guys don’t use textbooks for English but rather, texts? Yeah, books and plays and poems. And it’s the stories and I love that example of the words and how nobody was putting up their hand to say, this doesn’t make sense. I love English and literature, because of the universality, which you said they can touch on things that otherwise aren’t getting spoken about. I like the idea of them saying, Ah, okay, so other people were like this, too.
John Ryan 06:01
I think that’s really important to think about that, because I suppose it shapes the way in which people perceive the subject and learning as well. We’re talking about English here, obviously that’s where both of our backgrounds would be, and for your listeners, their world is probably teaching English most of their classes of the day. Some teachers might teach one other subject or something like that, but for most English teachers, their world is pretty much just teaching English, obviously at different levels in different parts of the course. But for a lot of students, obviously, there are a lot of subjects going on. And I suppose you’re trying to think about, the greater education sphere as well. The fact that obviously, a lot of subjects have to be quite rigid in your teaching, especially as students get older, and you’re thinking about, exam level and things like that. They probably have greater capabilities to kind of, think about it on a deeper more experienced level. I think it’s really important to try and put that spin on it, like you said, it’s about the stories. It’s interesting you said, stories, and actually it’s one of the things I focused on. In Ireland, we’ve six years of secondary school, which is obviously the last part of school before you go into college. So, it’s 12- to 18-year-olds. So, from first to third year, the first three years, they kind of cycle towards the state exam in the third year. It is kind of like the halfway exam. In fourth year, it’s called transition year. So, it’s kind of the transition to the two senior years and in fifth and sixth year, obviously, that’s where they build up towards the final state level exam, which is to get into college. And a lot of what I’m doing with the fifth and sixth years at the moment, the last two years, is all about how we’re looking at not just poetry, but other parts as well, like even we were doing Othello, obviously, in Shakespeare, and then we’re about to start a play called ‘Eclipsed,‘ which is an Irish play. But a lot of what I focus on with the students was this idea of, you know, the stories we tell ourselves. About how a lot of time we just tell ourselves, we’re conditioned to tell ourselves stories about what our lives are like and how they should be like, and another point as well, you can just question whether life can be different or if there are possibilities and opportunities. I found it was very applicable at the moment. We were obviously in school for the first three months from September to December. That’s how our school year goes, it might be different over Australia where you are. We would have masks on when we’re in school and obviously Ireland is in the midst of another lockdown, with the Coronavirus, at the moment. When we were talking about the idea of storytelling, and not just the stories, when we looked at characters and how they were telling themselves certain stories, we thought about whether they could ask themselves and change their life stories. A lot of student’s kind of began to think about, and we spoke of it in class, how that it’s applicable to everyone. You know, we all just tell ourselves these stories sometimes. And I think it seems so simple, but the hardest thing at times to actually think about changing those life stories. I think that’s why literature is so powerful; it gives us an opportunity to delve into someone else. Maybe learn, not just what a story is about, but maybe how we could learn about our living experience, how to act and behave a little bit differently. Because, especially at the moment life is so rigid, not just with Coronavirus, but just generally it’s so rigid, and there’s so much to do in a day and, a lot of time you don’t have time to even stop and think. That’s where English can be so powerful it just gives you a chance to assess just living in general. Think about those stories we tell ourselves. The idea of stories, you know, it seems so simplistic, but it can be so applicable and so personal, if you approach it in a certain way, it can be really impactful for students
There’s a TED talk that you might like, I can’t remember the name of the person. She’s from Nairobi, and she was speaking English at home and she was reading English books and texts and in all the stories that she read she never saw anyone who looked like her.
John Ryan 10:02
Same with a lot of students in India, they go through school reading these stories, but none of them are about them. They don’t, they can’t see themselves in the stories that are told. And I think a major shift that’s happened over the last maybe 15-20 years that’s important, is understanding that we need to show our students a whole range of stories.
John Ryan 10:33
Yeah, I think that’s fair, especially when you think about the way in which curricula are structured around the world, as you know, they’re typically, a hybrid of various different text types and things like that. I think it can be good and bad, obviously, it’s great to show students, a range of sources, because they could inspire some people maybe to pursuing this, or even I suppose another learning experience. People, students, especially younger adults, and children, monotony doesn’t really suit them. But it does get tricky then, as you said, obviously, because it’s very hard to find, especially when you think about teaching in the classroom, within state curricula, to actually find material that can be applicable to students. I think that’s very relevant even to Irish literature, as well. You know, Irish literature is kind of shrouded in that, even though it might focus on the context, a lot of it isn’t strictly applicable to, for example, Irish people. And that’s not just in terms of physical attributes and characteristics, but it’s contextual as well. It’s the physical location A lot of its even time periods and stuff like that, as well, like a lot of the material, especially Irish where, and Ireland has some of the greatest literary prowess in the world, but a lot of it is in specific time periods. Though, in recent years, there have been some people I don’t know, whether you saw a TV show recently was on BBC, it’s called ‘Normal People’. It’s a really famous TV show that came out recently, but it’s based on a book of the same name by an author called Sally Rooney, who’s a very successful Irish author, one of the most successful Irish authors in recent times. But, you know, even for a lot of the more successful Irish literature at the moment, it hasn’t broken through into the popular mainstream, where students would actually pick up on it, in terms of it being on TV shows. And because of that, a lot of the works that, they would look at and read, are quite dated. You know, like I said, 19th, 18th century. I think it ties right into what your podcast is focusing on. A lot of the literature isn’t strictly Irish, it’s obviously contextual. And, a lot of the literature is linked to the Irish historical and political elements, like the influence of English rule over Ireland. Obviously, authors wrote in response to a lot of that context, which means that even inadvertently, by trying to escape from that influence, true literature, through ironically, potentially reinforcing that link in a way, and it makes it somewhat difficult for students. I suppose harder to discern the difference between Irish and English literature and sometimes appreciate as well. It’s kind of an ironic metaphor on Irish freedom in a way, you know, trying to get away from it, and are actually reinforcing the entrapment through literature. It is interesting, I’m obviously just mentioning Ireland, but a lot of that’s applicable to a lot of other countries as well. I think literature in general, is quite responsive. It’s in response to troubling and difficult times. Even at the moment you think about various art forms, you’ll probably get a huge breakthrough in the coming years, of people responding to and writing about the lockdown experience. things like that.
Yeah. Actually, that goes right into my next question, when asked what are the primary historical events that authors in Ireland have responded to?
John Ryan 14:09
Yeah, I mean, there’s been a lot, obviously Ireland does have quite a storied history and literature. I think a lot of people would know about the British influence and control over Ireland, which would have culminated in the early 20th century with the Easter Uprising in 1916. A lot of the literature is in response to that. There’s a really famous playwright, called Brian Friel. If listeners or even teachers are taking the time to look at the Irish experience, Brian Friel would be a very interesting dramatists to focus on. He wrote a very famous play, probably his most well-known play, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa.’ It went all the way to Broadway, and it would have traveled around the world. But he wrote a little play, which is called ‘Translations’, which is a very applicable title actually, for kind of what we’re focusing on today. It’s all about how when the English began to take over Ireland and control the country, at that stage Ireland would have been an Irish speaking country predominantly. ‘Translations‘ is about, not just a set of Irish people who live in a small village, he sets a lot of his works in a fictional village in Ireland called ‘Ballybeg.’ But it was about a set of English orthographers/cartographers coming over. These mapmakers and linguists came over and remapped Ireland and translated all the Irish place names into English names. So, I think Brian Friel will be very predominant one in that he focuses a lot on the Irish experience. Obviously, a lot of people would know about Ireland’s storied history of immigration as well, in response to the famine and general economic plight. Saoirse Ronan, a very famous Irish actress, she was in the film ‘Brooklyn’ a few years ago. It is based on a novel of the same name, by author Colm Tóibín, a very famous Irish author. And that even deals with immigration up until now. So, I think immigration will be a big one. English control as well. They would be two of the predominant themes. These were themes that people would be aware of even if they are not really aware of Ireland’s history. Another thing, it’s not directly focused on, but it is important when you’re thinking about style and presentation and language use in literature is an area called Hiberno-English, which is kind of linked to what I mentioned about Brian Friel’s play ‘Translations.’ It’s kind of the fusing of the two languages, which has naturally come about because of Ireland’s links to England over recent centuries, from the control to moving away, and obviously, the movement between Ireland and England. England is our closest neighbour, so you are going to have people moving over there. And Hiberno-English is a fusion of the two languages. So Hiberno representing Ireland and Irish and English as representing English. And it’s interesting when you look at Irish literature, and even just Irish dialogue in general, it is an interesting fusion where obviously we’re speaking English, I’m speaking in English now, I’m not speaking in Irish to you. But there is a crossover between Irish and English, even in terms of some of the words that are used. Like, for example, I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but rather than saying fun in Ireland, they’ll say craic, like ‘they’re having a craic’. And craic, is actually an Irish word as well. It’s interesting to think about how you can have that idea that the Irish and English languages overlap and if you look at some of the Irish plays you will see the English influence and English context. A lot of countries curricula are presented within the ways of an overbearing English literature course. This is one of the interesting elements to think about, the idea that, Hiberno-English shows, it kind of points back to what I said about our literature, some sort of independence with the literature because it has its own, I suppose, trademark, which other countries wouldn’t have. But I suppose at the same time, it is focusing on the fact that the English influence is there. The literature isn’t in Gaelic or Irish anymore, it’s in English, it’s just an Irish version of it. The stylistic elements of Hiberno-English would be important to focus on if you were to study Irish literature. Obviously, it’s tricky, because a lot of people are attuned to their own dialogue and context, so doing some research into the language, even just some words would be things to think about when you are working on the texts with your students.
You seem reluctant to talk about some of the historical events, but I guess what I’m thinking is that there are elements in Ireland’s history and culture that I think are vital to understand before students actually can fully engage with some of the texts. Now I’m Scottish, so maybe I’m a bit more aware of them. I think there are a lot of teachers, a lot of people globally, who really don’t know about the things that have affected Ireland over time as well.
John Ryan 19:16
There’s one more, which I didn’t mention, actually, I didn’t mean to jump in there. Sorry. It is obviously the Northern Irish question as well. Which is, and we mentioned that before the podcast as well. I think a lot of people probably know about Ireland, it’s not just one country, it splits into two. And I mentioned, obviously, the Irish, the English influence over Ireland. And that culminated in 1916. The rising obviously when, hence the word, rose up against, English control of Ireland, and, tried to claim independence. But there were people in the North of Ireland, hence the name, who would have been loyal to the crown. I’m totally diluting it because I don’t want to go into too much detail, because we’d be here all day talking about that. But that is where Northern Ireland came from, and Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, which it still is today. Because obviously, it would have been a lot of people up in Northern Ireland who would have been loyal to the crown rather than actually supporting how Irish independence. That’d be one of the real political elements probably in the last century or so, the big political element of Ireland’s because it led to civil war and through something called ‘Troubles.’ Any sort of research would show that this led to civil war, you’re talking about bombings as well and people dying.
You’ve managed to talk about it for this long, without actually without ever mentioning the religious division.
John Ryan 20:39
Yeah, well, that’s it as well, you obviously have the Catholic and Protestant divide as well, that would have fueled things like the troubles as well. Yeah, obviously. I mean, that sort of element’s really interesting. You know, I think one of the things is that it’s, it’s far away, but it’s still quite recent, at the same time, if that makes sense. I guess it’s probably getting over the last century. And obviously, that led to things like the Good Friday Agreement, and things like that. So, there is peace on the island now. Poetry is a really interesting thing that responded quite heavily to that divide, I know, Eavan Boland who’s a very famous Irish poet, she would have focused on it. In some of her work, one of the ones which she mentioned, was a poem called ‘Child of our Time.‘ And it was in response to, I’m not sure the exact context, but it was in response to a particular bombing during the troubles. And she saw a photo of firemen taking a dead, baby’s body out of the rubble, who had been killed in the bombing, and ‘Child of our Time’ is obviously, that baby, and it’s all about how, society has failed that child, because of their petty squabbling and differences, and society needs to learn from those sorts of mistakes and the consequences of their actions, because of the impact it can have on other people. Poetry would have been one of the leading genres. Seamus Heaney, who was another famous Irish poet who I think probably a lot more people in Australia would be aware of, than maybe Eavan Boland, who’s obviously still famous in her own right. But Seamus Heaney would have touched on it as well. He has a very famous poem called ‘A Constable Calls.’ He obviously grew up in the times of the troubles and was affected by it. And this poem, ‘A Constable Calls’ it’s all about how, when he was born, he grew up in Northern Ireland, he was in Londonderry, or near Londonderry. And obviously, you can tell Londonderry, obviously, the name London is in it. So, you can tell you have the English influence there, and ‘A Constable Calls’ is all about when he was younger, his father was a farmer and had lands. And obviously, the British police then would have intimidated Catholic families, because of the civil war, the religious divide, which you mentioned. The poem is about the constable coming over and asking questions, and when the constable comes in, and Heaney is talking as a child, obviously, retrospectively, and it’s about how even the child feels quite intimidated by the constable being there, how even the child is aware. Like a lot of poetry, when it comes from a childish perspective, the child isn’t completely aware of what’s going on, but is somewhat or at least partially aware. And that partial awareness in itself is almost quite significant, because you think about, like I said with the Eavan Boland poem, children should be shielded away from these things. You think about the world of childhood, which should be disconnected from the sort of influences like politics and even civil war and violence and things like that. The child is quite aware of it. And you know, it suggests the child is aware of the threatening nature of the constable, which shows just, I suppose how impactful the religious divide was in the civil strife and the troubles. They influenced all parts of society, not just people who were directly involved. To add these strict allegiances to religion, and I suppose, patriotism and elements like that, influenced all parts society. Everyone’s thoughts were affected by it in some form, whether you were caught up in the violence where someone you know passed away, or even just a general unsettling ease at the moment, that is one of the things to think about. And again, like you were saying, that’s something which I suppose if people read that poem, they might be somewhat aware, but they know obviously, that the basic elements which are the child is obviously unsettled by the policeman but having even just a little bit of awareness to context would help with that. I think about how that would be presented in a strict English literature course if you were obviously trying to teach that, there might be certain curricula which you would have, you might be presenting it under a certain module, which might omit some of those contextual details. So, it shows the importance of thinking about how to present that sort of poetry because in different ways it could actually take away from the focus of it, some of its hidden meaning. Heaney is an Irish poet, he grew up in that time in that period, which was so integral and even probably you still now to a lot of people who grew up in that time. Their living experience would have dominated by it, how they would have seen life. I think if you don’t make that somewhat aware to students, you are, taking away a lot from the literature and what it’s about. Because, as we said, a lot of literature is in response to events it’s in, it’s how people try and uncover and figure out what’s going on in life, which is so crazy and chaotic and meaningless, as you can see at the moment. Literature is a lot of people’s way of doing this. So, I think it is important to be aware of how and why you’re doing that. And if you take away one or both of those things, you’re kind of really diluting the literature too much aren’t you.
Yeah, I spent some time in Scotland as a child, very Scottish Protestant family, and was very aware of the divisions in even in Scotland in the 60s, there was quite a division between the Catholic and Protestants, but it wasn’t, it was nowhere near as specific as it was in Ireland. And the other thing from the Australian context I mentioned, I think, before we started out, we were talking about the settlement of Australia, and the fact that the largest percentage of the convicts who first came here, were Irish Catholics, because it was much easier to get arrested, or get into trouble with the English if you were an Irish Catholic. And that meant that a vast number of them were transported. So, I understand a little bit of that background. But there are a lot of people who are they don’t really understand how it affected everything. And I think of the young lad in ‘A Constable Calls,‘ that’s how deep it was.
John Ryan 27:00
Yeah, I mean, a lot of it was quite impactful, obviously. I think a lot of it comes back to the lack of awareness, I suppose. I think one of the things is that when we talk about the troubles, you’re talking about the late 20th century when all this was going on, you’re talking about maybe 20-30 years ago now, which seems like a long time, but at the same time it’s not really. I think when we were saying about how a lot of people write in response to literature, I think a lot of it is how society responds to that response, which authors are undertaking. I was mentioning some of the plays, like Brian Friel who deals with things like emigration and the famine contexts, which would have really come into their own at the start of the 21st century. There’s a big divide there. It’s not just how teachers are teaching it; I think it’s how society is responding to a lot of this literature. Sometimes it might be the fact that there needs to be kind of this time lag, that the response can’t be overly immediate as well. It’s almost like, you need time to digest everything, or maybe it’s just, the nature of life. Life is so fast paced, something else has come along and swept us all along before we can go back and think about that big event which happen beforehand. It might be kind of like what you see with the Coronavirus at the moment, a lot of people are saying what they think will happen. Next year and in the coming years is that you might get like a roaring 20s where you’ve got a lot of people who’ve saved up and who have been inside, who will go into a kind of vicarious, very extrovert way of life, in response to being locked up for nearly a year or two. And it might take a while for you to digest and sit down and reflect. To understand what the lockdown experience was might take a bit longer, after the immediate response. And that may be what’s happening with literature and why, even with the troubles and things like that, a lot of courses and a lot of people aren’t actually focused on or maybe overly aware, because even though it is two, maybe three decades ago, maybe that’s not long enough yet for people to digest and maybe appreciate the historical significance of it. You think about even Brexit at the moment, things like that, which people in Australia would know about. You can see the divide there with Ireland and England and that divide is still there. And even though that civil strife has gone, and the divides aren’t there, maybe it’s still just not time yet for that to be really appreciated and to be looked back on. Like even in Irish politics at the moment there’s, three main parties and one of them would be Sinn Féin, who would be very much linked to Northern Ireland than the troubles back then. A lot of people still harken back to the divide between the country, and I suppose maybe it shows that even though that’s passed, maybe it’s not time yet for people to really engage with that. I’m not obviously taking away from the likes of Seamus Heaney in Eavan Boland because they focused brilliantly on that and brought a lot of context to it. Or maybe just you know, in a more mainstream area as a whole maybe it’s just not time yet for Irish literature, maybe not so much to be realized. shared by people. You think about what’s happened in those three decades, you’ve had things like the internet, which have come along, you’ve had so much stuff which has happened in those three decades, and maybe in the way in which the world and life plays out, maybe it will take a while more for that part of our history to be reflective. It can happen and we saw, as I said, with Brian Friel, his focus on the emigration, the famine, ‘Translations‘, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa,‘ some of the greatest plays, but that took time, that took to the start of the 20th century, and he was focusing on things which happened, two or three centuries previously. If it took Brian Friel two or three centuries, maybe it’ll take a little more than three decades to start thinking about things like the troubles. For Irish literature and the people analyzing it.
One of the things I’m interested in, and this question may not be worded quite correctly, but I’m thinking about, what are the elements of Irish life, that are encoded within the characters in Irish literature. Things like, there is a general perception that there is a sense of the poetic about the Irish. That there is a depth that’s not always spoken about but made pretty before it gets sent out into the world, I guess.
John Ryan 31:25
Yeah, no, yeah, that that’s a really good way to think about it, actually. You could talk for days and weeks on this in Irish literature, we’ve obviously spoken a bit about Irish history today. And I suppose one of the things you’re thinking about when we’re trying to put it all together, is I suppose that Irish history has always been quite a struggle. You think about things like the famine, emigration, the troubles, the living experience for a lot of Irish people in our history has been quite difficult. If you’re thinking about the idea of depth, like you were saying, which is a really good analogy. I suppose that there’s something underlying which you know, doesn’t match up. But I suppose the polished package, which is sent out, for how people view Ireland and Irish literature, there is kind of that I suppose underlying elements which you see in characters and plots, that there is something a bit dark and depressing in Irish literature, which is kind of like Ireland at the moment. I think Ireland has this element that, you know, a lot of people think we’re on this kind of great success at the moment because, you know, it seems to be quite rich, and you have the likes of Facebook and Apple and Dublin looks great and shiny. But you go past that surface, and child poverty has never been higher in Ireland than at the moment, homelessness has never been higher than at the moment. What you’re saying there about literature’s even applicable today in Ireland, maybe it is something that’s just generally quite consistent. That idea of something dark and depressing is probably something to think about when you read some of these plays. And again, I’m just generalizing obviously. But you know, if you look at these plays, like the likes of Brian Friel and people like that, they look at, Irish life, and some of these characters. Dissatisfied is probably a really interesting word to think about. People who want more from their life, but they can’t leave. A lot of time there are family influences, like the Irish family and the farm. People have to stay and work on the farm, help their parents, they can’t leave, they don’t have opportunity. That’s a really interesting start if you’re thinking about looking at those characters, who are focused on thinking about whether they’re really happy in a way. If you want to really simplify it down, it’s whether the characters really are happy. For a lot of the characters in plays, and sometimes when you look at an Irish play, and you look at all the characters, none of the characters are really happy at all. They might think they’re happy at times they might have those fleeting moments of contentment. But a lot of the time when you think about Irish plays, and other literature, its people who aren’t happy. You mentioned Samuel Beckett and things like that, like ‘Waiting for Godot’ one of the most famous plays of all time. That’s just a play about people who never really get what they want. It’s just trying to find something which they never find really. And also, a place which is quite entrapping. People want something different, but they can’t have it. If teachers are trying to make a link to what life is like at the moment, (obviously in Australia it’s different, we were talking before the podcast today how there is some level of normality there) but a lot of other countries or even when everyone had to go through lockdown at some points in the immediate response to Coronavirus. All anyone wanted was something different, just a bit of an escape from that, didn’t they? And they couldn’t have that and for a lot of time, that’s kind of like what it’s like in Ireland, Irish literature sorry, a lot of the time that’s what it’s about, people, the plays are brilliant, you know, to focus on the human experience so much and they’re quite emotional and intense and they draw you in and that’s obviously seen with the successful of Irish literature around the world. But that’s a really interesting way of thinking about it. A lot of it is just focusing on people who aren’t happy and maybe they don’t know what they want, they just want something else and a lot of the time they can’t find it. And that kind of links to what you said, which is a good way of thinking about it, is that even though Irish literature seems quite polished and famous and is celebrated around the world, the subject matter itself and the people it focuses on is actually quite depressing. It comes back to what I mentioned with the idea of stories and things. People tell themselves these stories and it works their way at times, but people sometimes tell their story, even tell other people’s stories about themselves, which are never true, everyone has some sort of struggle or difficulties or demons or what not. And that’s where maybe the beauty of it is, that even though Irish literature is quite depressing, when it focuses on things like that, there’s something quite beautiful in the fact that, – it comes back to what I said about Emily Dickinson, and that exercise I did with the students,- how a lot of time we’re so conditioned not to talk about those sorts of things, and just bottle up our problems, how Irish literature are actually, even though it doesn’t let their characters do that, it does show people you know, an insight to other people and other experiences where they might be having that same experience. How everyone wants something, and sometimes they can’t have that. And sometimes they can’t even talk about that, they kind of bottle it up. There is beauty and kind of the sadness and the tragedy of that element of Irish literature.
It is beautiful, it is written so beautifully. John, I am so grateful for the time you have given us. So, I’ve one last thing I’d like to ask you. Now you’ve given us a lot of ideas through the podcast, and we’ll provide the links to those in the show notes. But if you were going to recommend three texts, any whether, it be drama, poetry, or novels, short stories. If you could recommend three texts that most faithfully represent Irish culture and mindset or reality, what would they be?
John Ryan 36:55
That’s a tough question. I think one, everyone knows James Joyce. And everyone gets really worried when they’re told that we’re reading James Joyce, because they think of Ulysses obviously.
Yeah, me too.
John Ryan 37:10
Yeah. And Ulysses is really tough, because obviously, you’ve got the stream of consciousness, which is really hard? Yeah, but there’s another book by James Joyce called The Dubliners and it’s about, it’s not written as complexly as Ulysses. And it’s a book of short stories all about different characters in Dublin in the 20th century. It kind of sums up very much what life was like in the city at that time. And it focuses on different parts of society, whether it’s the aristocracy, whether it’s the poor in society. I think that’d be a really interesting one, because everyone thinks of James Joyce as quite synonymous with Irish literature. I think of a couple of other ones actually. There’s a really famous author in Ireland who might not be as well-known abroad, his name is Roddy Doyle. And his novels focus on Dublin’s sense of humour as well. But what’s really interesting about it is that it’s not just the way of life in Dublin. It’s also the use of dialogue. It focuses a lot on Irish accents and Irish dialogue. And for people wanting to see an authentic view of that, Roddy Doyle has written a lot of books. One is called ‘The Van.’ It’s about these people who set up a fish and chip van, and they go around selling fish and chips, you know those vans, which sell fish and chips. And it’s all about the experience of these two friends just run a fish and chip van, it sounds quite ordinary, but it’s very comedic. But there’s other ones, there’s a very famous Irish film, I don’t know what you’ve heard of it. It’s called ‘The Commitments.’ It’s a really famous Irish film about this band, which was set up. And he wrote a book about that. There’s also one called ‘The Snapper,’ which was also a very famous Irish film, they are all based around a family. So, it’s, you know, it’s about family and the books go on and tell different stories about the family. But Roddy Doyle, just generally, he’d be a really interesting one for people to look up just for that focus on what life was like in Ireland and Dublin, and the dialogue is really important as well. The last one to think of, I mentioned Brian Friel. I think Brian Friel will be really interesting for people, because the first two I focused on, they’re very Dublin centric, they focus more on life in Dublin. Brian Friel focuses more on the rural experience at that time, what life was like and like I said, he sets a lot of his plays in this fictional Irish town called ‘Ballybeg.’ ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ is probably one of his most famous works. There’s a film made of it as well. But also ‘Translations,’ which I think is really interesting one, he also has a play called ‘Philadelphia Here I Come.’ They’re three good ones. James Joyce, which ever one would know about. Then Roddy Doyle, who they might not know about but gives a real focus on Dublin life, and the Dublin dialogue. And then finally, Brian Friel, who kind of gives that balance with the rural element. So, they’d be three I’d be thinking of.
Ah, excellent. Thank you so much.
John Ryan 40:10
Not a problem at all, thanks for having me.
It’s been great fun. And I hope you guys get to get back in control of things and get to get out a bit soon.
John Ryan 40:22
Yeah, in the coming months, hopefully we’ll all be out, then we can write some, some Irish literature about our experience.
Absolutely. Poetry. It’s easier.
John Ryan 40:31
Yeah, exactly. That or short stories, maybe something small to start off.
Yeah, short stories, actually anthologies.
John Ryan 40:37
That’s it. We’ll start small and then we’ll build up to a James Joyce type book at the end of this. That could be a couple of years after we all get out of lockdown.
Thank you. Again. Thank you, John.
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Child Of Our Time by Eavan Boland
- Yesterday I knew no lullaby
- But you have taught me overnight to order
- This song, which takes from your final cry
- Its tune, from your unreasoned end its reason;
- Its rhythm from the discord of your murder,
- Its motive from the fact you cannot listen.
- We who should have known how to instruct
- With rhymes for your waking, rhythms for your sleep
- Names for the animals you took to bed,
- Tales to distract, legends to protect,
- Later an idiom for you to keep
- And living, learn, must learn from you, dead.
- To make our broken images rebuild
- Themselves around your limbs, your broken
- Image, find for your sake whose life our idle
- Talk has cost, a new language. Child
- Of our time, our times have robbed your cradle.
- Sleep in a world your final sleep has woken.
- This poem was written by Eavan Boland ‘to commemorate a baby killed in the Dublin bombing’. In fact, two baby sisters, Jacqueline and Anne Marie O’Brien were killed as well as Baby Doherty.
A Constable Calls by Seamus Heaney
- His bicycle stood at the window-sill,
- The rubber cowl of a mud-splasher
- Skirting the front mudguard,
- Its fat black handlegrips
- Heating in sunlight, the “spud”
- Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back,
- The pedal treads hanging relieved
- Of the boot of the law.
- His cap was upside down
- On the floor, next his chair.
- The line of its pressure ran like a bevel
- In his slightly sweating hair.
- He had unstrapped
- The heavy ledger, and my father
- Was making tillage returns
- In acres, roods, and perches.
- Arithmetic and fear.
- I sat staring at the polished holster
- With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
- Looped into the revolver butt.
- “Any other root crops?
- Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?”
- “No.” But was there not a line
- Of turnips where the seed ran out
- In the potato field? I assumed
- Small guilts and sat
- Imagining the black hole in the barracks.
- He stood up, shifted the baton-case
- Further round on his belt,
- Closed the domesday book,
- Fitted his cap back with two hands,
- And looked at me as he said goodbye.
- A shadow bobbed in the window.
- He was snapping the carrier spring
- Over the ledger. His boot pushed off
- And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked