Acts of Imagination


It is mildly surprising that the New York Times didn’t see John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay “My Debt to Ireland” as fit to print in its Sunday magazine on a date closer to March 17, and, actually, it’s sort of a shame, because Sullivan’s piece undercuts a certain mythology many Irish-Americans keep about Ireland the country and Ireland the nation.

Sullivan’s essay hurtles across Ireland’s rich literary, political, economic, and religious histories, and he intertwines this with a candid personal one: a boy whose near-blind father read Joyce to him in a basement in Indiana, a poor student living in Cork city in the early 1990s, a man in his late thirties touring a place formerly known as the Celtic Tiger, a mature writer trying to discern what almost every reader also is: what’s ahead?

The Times’ slide show of Irish “ghost estates” says a lot, but Sullivan’s essay says a whole lot more.

He spent time on the Aran Islands, in the company of a Ukranian barman, and Sullivan surveys the consequences of the changes that ancient place underwent during the boom years, when fishermen traded in their boats for tourist vans. Like many Irish-American writers, Sullivan prizes all the Irish ones. Take John Millington Synge, who spent several summers on the Aran Islands in the late 1890s. The island people Synge met there populate his plays. “My Debt to Ireland” ends with a note on Synge’s “In the Shadow of the Glen,” which is about an aging farmer who feigns his own death in order to test the loyalty of his young wife. Sullivan writes of the critical, brief speech by the tramp at the end of that one-acter:

“It was reminiscent of Christy’s speech from the ending of [“The Playboy of the Western World”], and of countless other passages in Synge. It’s the great discovery he made in his study of the Irish character—the idea of survival as an act of imagination. Against the unacceptability of the void, he pits the howl of irrational humor and the keen. He was too dignified to apologize much for his work to hostile critics, but he might have said, in response to the charge that he was aloof from the true rural Irish, that he shared their unforgotten paganism.

“People said he made clowns of the peasants—there are still writers who complain that his dialogue wasn’t always true to real Irish folk speech, a criticism that manages to be correct while driving past his achievement, which was to go beneath them, into something even older and deeper, the Greeks. He possessed the mercenary instinct of the artist and sought not to capture the Irish language but to mine it for his English sentences. He had in him something of Gabriel, from “The Dead,” who when chastised for not wanting to visit the Aran Islands and learn his own native tongue, answers sourly, ‘Irish is not my language.’ In his room here at the inn, they say, Synge lay on the floor with his ear to the boards, listening to the talk of the people below, making notes. Out of that stuff he made plays that caused riots in multiple countries.”

Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →