For 7th May, Text 1

For the Irish, Long-Windedness Serves as a Literary Virtue


The Irish don't really think about writing, it is just a natural extension of what we do all the time, which is talking. I grew up in a time when children were told to be seen and not heard, or were advised, "Don't speak until you have something to say," or "It is better a listener than a talker to be. " No self-respecting Irish child ever heard anything as negative and upsetting. In Ireland talk was always great, any old kind of talk.

Why be anywhere unless you could say something? Why pause and wait for an important thought to arrive? Suppose it didn't arrive? Some talkative old fellow in Ireland would be greatly admired because he had views on everything or words at will or always had something to say for himself. The same approach most everywhere else would have been poorly received. People might have thought him boring, showy or overopinionated.

I remember when a neighbor died in London, people nodded sagely in approval of his lifestyle. "He kept himself to himself," they said in high praise. To keep to yourself in Ireland would be to commit a crime. What did he have to hide? they would wonder darkly.

When the English writer Gordon Snell came first to Ireland with me, he asked in the way all suitors do if people liked him. Yes, of course they liked him, I said, but did mention that they assumed he must have spent years in a prison, but they liked him all the same.

"Why do they think I was in jail?" he asked, annoyed. "Because you don't tell long pointless rambling stories about your life and times," I explained, as if it were obvious. "They assume you must have had a very shady past if you're notforever telling stories all about it."

I didn't need to ask whether people liked me or not in England. I knew that I presented a bit of a problem to them because of all this incessant talking. Particularly at bus stops, In Ireland it is discourteous not to greet your fellow travelers as you wait. In London it is something done only by the insane.

If you address people at a London bus stop, they think you are going to follow them home and live with them, and they begin to panic and move away. Similarly, if you wait in a line for theater tickets or to be served in a store, Irish manners would insist that you talk briefly to whoever is beside you.

English manners demand that you stare ahead as if you were alone in the middle of a hundred-acre field.

In Ireland if you were making an operator-assisted telephone call, it would be extremely impolite not to inquire about the weather or whether it had been a busy day. In Ireland you get involved in the lives of the waiters who serve you dinner. It's not always discreet or desirable, but that's the way it is.

Gordon used to be astounded when a waiter would lean across the table and say that Gordon was a great improvement on the last fellow I used to go around with, and from the way it looked I was smiling a lot more, so I must be happier now. "But what's wrong with that?" I would wail. "Isn't it good?"

He would wail back: "But how do they know? How can they possibly know?"

In Ireland we used to have a class of people in the old days before books and printing called the seannachai, or storytellers. They would walk around the country going from house to house just telling stories. Sometimes they told historical stories, sometimes just gossip from the next parish. All they had to be able to do was to entertain with words, and people gave them room and board. People just loved them and vied with one another to be their hosts. Nobody ever said: "Oh heavens, here come those loudmouthed storytellers. Hide quickly and pretend that we are not at home, so that they'll go and bother someone else."

To write a thank-you letter was no big deal in our house; "Tell them all about our Christmas," my mother would say, sure in the knowledge that we would tell it well and in detail and that everyone would be fascinated. Irish people are inclined to write long letters, as if it is a matter of huge importance that no detail be left unexplained.

When we were 6 or 7 at school nobody minded writing an essay. What was an essay? Only a story, and you'd be telling one of those anyway. Math and geography were hard things, all right, but telling a story, writing it down, no problems there.

So I grew up believing that telling stories was good and sitting there like a stone listening was dull and bad. And that naturally happened with my writing.When I was a young teacher, I taught French in a Jewish school in Dublin. My pupils had Lithuanian accents, and I had a broad Dublin accent that no Parisian would have understood, but somehow we all got on great, and they gave me a ticket to Israel, where I worked on a kibbutz for the summer. My parents were nervous about all this, their girl going off to the Middle East in the 1960's. Was it dangerous or foolish or both?

So to reassure them, I wrote them long, wordy letters detailed in everything except possibly how attractive I found the young soldiers on the kibbutz. Parents don't need to know things like that. I told them instead how I picked oranges, plucked chickens, danced the hora and swam in the Red and the Dead and the Med Seas all in one summer. I wrote about everything I saw. They were so delighted with all this story of a far-off place that they got it typed and sent it to a newspaper, and the paper published it and asked for more. And that's how I became a writer.

But it can't be as easy as this, I said to myself. For me writing is talking. And surely you can't get away with just talking and people thinking it is an article or a short story or a book. But apparently you can. And it's easier if you're Irish. That's what they are doing all the time, thinking about something briefly, talking about it at slightly greater length and then writing it down. We always knew it was good to talk despite what we heard to the contrary from other nations. And if you wanted to remember the talk, you wrote it down. That's all there was to it.

Those amazing etiquette books that advise four talkers and four listeners at a dinner party have no place in this land. Where would you find the listeners? And why invite them anywhere? When our beloved boss, the news editor of The Irish Times, had a stroke many years ago, he was told that he would lose his speech but that he could communicate by pressing once for yes and twice for no. His last words were, "What would be the point of talking if all you could say was yes and no?" He died almost at once. And we echoed his words. There would be no point at all.


Source: The Irish Times, 4th November 2002.