Read Me, I'm Irish!

A statue of James Joyce in Dublin

This St. Patrick's Day, pass over the leprechauns, green beer, and clovers in silence and enjoy a true celebration of Irish culture in the works of this triumvirate of Irish literary giants.

Entertain your friends over the holiday weekend by reciting Jem Casey's "The Workman's Friend" or quoting the stately, plump Buck Mulligan.

Ulysses, James Joyce
Yes I said yes, we're starting here and with good reason. Joyce's shadow looms large over not only modern Irish literature, but modern literature in general. And it is mostly all this shadow-looming that scares people away from his work. But lost in all the ballyhoo about Joyce's work being difficult, overwritten, or too smart for its own good is the fact that this novel is, at heart, a comedy. Nevermind all the historical references, literary allusions, and the experimental style— this is the story of everyman Leopold Bloom's misadventures in Dublin on June 16, 1904. Despite leaving Ireland at age 22, all of Joyce's fiction takes place there. In fact, he once stated that if Dublin "suddenly disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed from [Ulysses]." And here's a pro tip: if the first three chapters (which focus on the character Stephen Dedalus) don't grab you, don't get discouraged. Just jump ahead to chapter four, where the focus shifts to Bloom. No one will blame you and there are some lovely descriptions of breakfast and cat noises. This is a book that can be enjoyed either with a single read-through or with the help of a small library of guides and companion books (such as Notes for Joyce: an Annotation of James Joyce's Ulysses or James Joyce's Ulysses). This excerpt comes from the "Lestrygonians" chapter and displays some of the narration's stream-of-consciousness style, a look inside Bloom's head at a given moment.

Excerpt:
Like a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer. Good glass of burgundy; take away that. Lubricate. A nice salad, cool as a cucumber. Tom Kernan can dress. Puts gusto into it. Pure olive oil. Milly served me that cutlet with a sprig of parsley. Take one Spanish onion. God made food, the devil the cooks. Devilled crab.

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett
Beckett might be accused of being the Seinfeld of the literary world, where "nothing happens." Of course, this couldn't be further from the truth. Beckett was a prolific writer and a student of Joyce (he helped Joyce write Finnegans Wake after Joyce's sight began to fail). This play marked a creative turning point for Beckett where he began focusing less on short stories and novels and more on dramatic works for stage, radio, and television. All of his work straddles the line between tragedy and comedy, which is no doubt why Waiting for Godot is subtitled "A Tragicomedy in Two Acts." It is a two-act play about two characters perpetually waiting near a tree for someone named Godot. The uncertainty of the characters as they pass the time is what propels this play, as they question their situation but take no real steps towards remedying it. The humor in the play, except for the occasional detour into slapstick, tends to be dry and dark.

If you would prefer to see this play performed to reading it, there is the Beckett on Film DVD set, which includes adaptations of nineteen Beckett plays.

Excerpt:
Estragon: Well, shall we go?
Vladimir: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.

The Complete Novels, Flann O'Brien
Arguably "the most Irish" author here, as he is the only member of this trio to have written a novel in the Irish language (An Béal Bocht​) and the only of the three to have lived in Ireland his whole life. So if you must bandy about a single Irish author this weekend, he would be a good choice. Flann O'Brien was actually one of the pen names of Brian O'Nolan (born Brian Ó Nualláin), the other most prominent being Myles na gCopaleen. While the ideas he works into his stories are often more fantastical than Joyce or Beckett (a scientist trying to remove all the oxygen from the atmosphere, characters in a novel coming alive and rebelling against their author, bicycles taking on the personalities of their riders and vice versa), his style is arguably the most approachable of all three. Instead of challenging the reader with experimental form or extensive wordplay, he draws the reader in with his captivating characters in very unique situations. They sound like stories rattled off by a raconteur at a pub— and this excerpt from the novel At Swim-Two-Birds is just that. It is an ode to Guinness titled "The Workman's Friend" written by the character Jem Casey and being read by one of his admirers.

Excerpt:
When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night—
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

When money's tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt—
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare—
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

In time of trouble and lousy strife,
You have still got a darlint plan,
You still can turn to a brighter life—
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

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