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Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series: Texts from the Event Flyers

“The Beautiful Bridge": Crossing The Span Between Oral Tradition and the Written Creative Word

By Frank Delaney author of the New York Times bestseller Ireland: A Novel

Book signing with Delaney to follow

Scott Simon, NPR’s Peabody-Award-winning correspondent and host of Weekend Edition Saturday will introduce the speaker.

Image of the book cover  - Ireland: A NovelTuesday, October 11, 2005
12:00 noon to 1:00 pm
Mumford Room
6tht Floor, James Madison Building
Library of Congress
10 First Street, SE
Washington, DC


One of the most interesting bridges in cultural life crosses the span between the oral tradition and the written creative word, linking the spoken history of peoples to the literature we produced when we began to write. In this sense, I refer generally to the coming-of-age of cultures and civilizations – and specifically to the connection in Ireland between what was handed down in the vernacular, spoken tradition and what became the created literature for which Ireland became justly famous.

The civilization that became what we call "Irish" had a purer strain than most; only a handful of invaders imposed upon or merged with the long-term Celtic or early European residents. Thus, the literature by which we know Ireland's soul has few colors not found since early time on the national palette. The connection between the spoken and the written in Ireland appears egregiously and recognizably – as witness the fact that this year celebrates the centenary of the birth of John Millington Synge. An Irish playwright born into the English-language tradition of the Anglo-Irish, Synge used the speech of the Irish-speaking-English when creating his magical plays – Riders to the Sea, The Playboy of the Western World , The Well of the Saints and others.

In the earliest reckoning of Ireland, little distinction exists between mythology and factual history. The first settlers of the island, largely assumed to be western Europeans crossing the long-gone land bridges, yielded in time to Spanish Celts bearing superior weapons of iron. Once record began, with the coming literacy of the Christianizing evangelists from Rome, such as Patrick in 432, nobody intruded on the island until the 8th century Vikings. They were defeated in time by the native Irish chieftains and then assimilated. After them, in the 12th century, came the Normans, Anglo-French noblemen who became famously "more Irish than the Irish themselves". They were followed in the late 16th century by the last wave to immigrate – the imposed or "planted" English and Scots farmers who, to subdue the natives and in reward for military support, were given the right to take over land in Ireland. In time, they became the "Protestant" - that is to say non-Roman-Catholic - Anglo-Irish of Swift, Goldsmith and Yeats, a spicy part of the flavor by which Irish writing became relished.

But they were not the whole story and in any case they were colored by the ancestry of their native land. Yeats in particular, himself Anglo-Irish, went back to the prehistory of Irish literature, to the legends and mythology whence the Irish imagination sprang. His founding of the Abbey Theater showcased the writings of Synge, whom Yeats advised, "give expression to what has not been expressed."
After the Rebellion of 1916, the population levels of the "Risen People" meant that the native Irish Catholics were now dominantly inhabiting the three-quarters that constituted the island republic. A new leveling off began to take place in which the "native" writers embraced all the gifts and international reach of the English language, yet reached back into the ancient vernacular past for inspiration and style. Now the merging was complete and has taken hold fully and beautifully. Poets who would once have been privately described as "from the Catholic tradition," such as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, have huge international reputations, writing as they do in exquisite English about Irish themes of prehistoric depth and tradition. And when the new Republic began to publish its writers, many of them chose to translate poems and stories from the most ancient monastic traditions of the fifth and sixth centuries.

My intent in this lecture is to guide people across this bridge from the oral to the written. Describing first the principles of storytelling in ancient Irish communities and then making connections between their tradition of myth, saga and legend, I want to demonstrate how the writers of Ireland relate to our past. Systems of dialogue, patterns of structure, movements in poems and drama - they all have currency with, and relationship to, the force of spoken storytelling whence we came: a good story is a good human story, written, spoken or acted.

Nor is this confined to the Irish; the world's tradition of storytelling, common to virtually all ethnic peoples, lights up the trace elements of every tribe on earth. And we continue - into television drama; into the more powerful and successful of Hollywood's output; into the biggest successes in the history of book publishing, which could not have happened without a fundamental and profound observation of the senior rules of oral storytelling.

Frank Delaney
September 2005

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