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Wearing O’ the Green: Irish Literature for St. Patrick’s Day

Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

In a few days everyone will be Irish and blarney-talking and drinking and shillelagh dragging and wearing o’ the green, so let’s talk about Irish writers. Who are your favorites? I’m calling all James Joyce fans: explain your multilingual stream of consciousness obsessive modernist selves to me, will you? I have just to look at the steely sidewinder font on the front cover of my dad’s old paperback copy of Ulysses to feel intimiated. Especially because in the margins he’s written equally impenetrable notes like, “Dante!”

Does Irish writing mean tragic hilarious? Filled with witticism, in a put-the-kettle-on-it’s-time-for-tea accent you can hear on the page? Irish-American Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes; and William Butler Yeats, slouching there like a gigantic lion, or Oscar Wilde’s daringly slung bon mots and boutonniere. I don’t think of the Victorians being funny, but dear god of risque uncovered piano legs, if there is a funnier play The Importance of Being Earnest, I don’t know what it is. I often say to myself, You could do a lot worse than becoming Lady Augusta Bracknell, and then I put on my tweed and go for a moody constitutional upon the moors of Target.

I’m not a frequent memorizer of poetry but the older I get the more I’d like to be. I have retained this, by Yeats, that lion, because my (1/4 Irish) grandfather loved it and was always quoting it and so I write it here, from memory, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, which I otherwise also honor by making soda bread with currants and caraway, the way my grandmother taught me.


One had a pretty face,

and two or three had charm,
but charm and face were in vain,

because the mountain grass
cannot but keep the form
where the mountain hare has lain.

Doesn’t having a poem in your head seem so Irish? And by that I mean, spectacular, magical like a Leprechaun. Giving you special powers is what great literature does, and maybe this is why so many people like Joyce.