Irish Wordsmiths

Irish Wordsmiths

The population of Ireland is tiny relative to other countries. In 2022, it numbered just over five million people.*

Yet its artistic influence is huge in the English-speaking world. Perhaps this is partly because of its diaspora. Since the devastating great famine of the 1840s, millions upon millions of Irish people immigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia, and England. All these people, including my own ancestors, brought with them vivid cultural memories and traditions.

Thomas Cahill, in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, credits the monks of Ireland with saving what was left of ancient scholarship and early Christianity during the Dark Ages by copying books into illuminated manuscripts. This veneration for literacy, a literacy burnished by colorful language and images as the monks applied their curlicues and drawings of angels and devils to their parchment, has inspired countless Irish writers.

My favorites, apart from the greats like Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, are contemporary novelists John Banville, Edna O’Brien, and Colm Toibin, and nonfiction writers Fintan 0’Toole and Diana Beresford Kroeger.

0’Toole’s most recent book is We Don’t Know Ourselves. (2022). This scathing “personal history” of Ireland during 0’Toole’s lifetime ( he was born in 1958) covers political corruption, the declining power of the Catholic Church, sectarian violence, and the escapism of Irish mysticism. Even at 600 pages long, I could not put this book down.

Diana Beresford Kroeger begins her book The Global Forest: 40 Ways Trees Can Save Us, (2010) with this sentence: “The landscape of my youth was an Irish one.” That unusual childhood, in which summers were spent with her older relatives’ learning Celtic belief systems combined with a rigorous education, inspired her career as a scientist with a difference. Kroeger was trained as a botanist and a biochemist. Now living in Canada and an activist to save the boreal forest, Kroeger combines science and spiritual practices and beliefs akin to those of native peoples as she campaigns for trees, the lungs of the planet. She urges everyone to adopt a “bioplan.” This modest commitment, for everyone “to plant one native tree per year for six years” will prevent climate catastrophe, she believes.

If, as Thomas Cahil believes, even if tongue in cheek, the Irish saved civilization, maybe they can do so again.

*Northern Ireland’s population is counted separately and is just under two million.