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Opinion: The cultural influence of Yeats, Beckett and Heaney stretches across the world

Culturally, these Irish writers belong to the world – but all of them saw life and used language from an Irish perspective.

Cathal Quinn

IT HAS BEEN 75 years since William Butler Yeats died; 25 since the death of Samuel Beckett, and only 11 months since the loss of Seamus Heaney. Yet their poetry and other writings, their contributions to culture both in Ireland and worldwide, will live on forever.

Heaney’s poetry outsold all other poets’ writings in Ireland, Britain and America for many years; he loved living in Dublin but travelled the length and breadth of this country – and all over the world – as an ambassador for poetry.

More dissertations are written on Beckett than any other writer in the world; he always wrote English in Irish cadences and much of his work is teeming with references to Dublin and Wicklow.

Attitudes to Ireland

Yeats was woven into the fabric of Irish life: he was the co-founder of Ireland’s National theatre; he wrote movingly about the 1913 Dublin lockout and 1916 Easter rising; he was in the Seanad Éireann, arguing passionately for everybody’s right to divorce in Ireland back in the 1920s; he even helped to design the Irish currency after independence. The National Library of Ireland has a permanent exhibition dedicated to Yeats.

Beckett preferred France at war to Ireland at peace, despising the censorship, small-mindedness and overall parochial nature of Irish society of his time. Upon graduating from Trinity College – with the highest marks ever in Italian and French (which were only recently equalled, never surpassed) – he tried his hand at lecturing, but knew he was not suited to it and soon gave it up. Yet there is no bridge or naval vessel named after Yeats or Heaney!

Beckett called Joyce ‘the master’, and when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969 he did not go to Stockholm, but sent his French publisher instead, in protest that Joyce had never been awarded the same accolade.

Samuel Beckett is not as well known for his poetry, but he wrote excellent verse, and was searingly honest about himself and relationships in the best of his poems.

Revered worldwide 

I have directed 19 works by Beckett and his poetry in English, Irish and French and have toured Beckett’s work to England and as far afield as Russia, India and Japan. Indeed I have been invited back to Japan to bring the works of Beckett and Yeats to Tokyo, such is the popularity of their work that side of the world.

Not only are Yeats and Beckett revered in Japan, but Heaney is just as popular; the Empress of Japan attended a memorial service to Seamus Heaney earlier this year. While, the famous Indian playwright Mahesh Dattani recited Heaney’s most famous poem Digging at the opening of the Hyderabad Literary Festival, when we performed there last January.

Voices of our famous sons 

All three have left recordings for posterity, Beckett most reluctantly. If you dig deeply enough online you will find a ten line poem he included in his novel ‘Watt’ (beginning ‘Who may tell the tale / Of the old man…’).

Yeats recorded perhaps his most famous poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. In his introduction he explained that the phrase ‘noon a purple glow’ made reference to the original meaning of Innisfree (or ‘fraoch’) being ‘Heather Island’, thus the heather reflecting in the still waters of the lake made midday turn burgundy. Yeats was the first Irish Nobel laureate, winning in 1923. Many consider that, unusually he wrote better poetry after winning his Nobel Prize, and indeed he writes masterfully about old age.

Five years ago Heaney recorded all of his poems for RTÉ, in his own modest but direct and highly specific style. He recorded 15 CDs of the highest consistency; his voice on them has been described as ‘hypnotic’.

I played some in the car and my daughter, aged 10, listened attentively to two whole CDs. This was part of the ‘Heaney at 70’ celebration; Heaney completely filled the National Concert Hall for his recitation, all 1,200 seats were sold.

He joked self-deprecatingly that he seemed to be having birthday celebrations all year long, but was mortified that the place was so full they had sold the seats behind him. This put him off; he stumbled over lines he knew so well, until he turned around and addressed a poem to the people sitting above and behind him. He ultimately found a solution to his dilemma by moving the microphone to the side and facing both sets of audience in profile.

Culturally, Beckett, Yeats and Heaney belong to the world, but all of them saw life and used language from an Irish perspective.

Cathal Quinn is Artistic Director of theatre company Guthanna Binne Síoraí and is currently performing in ‘Everlasting Voices / Guthanna Síoraí’, which centres on the work of three Irish Nobel Laureates; Seamus Heaney, W.B Yeats and Samuel Beckett, and is delivered through both the Irish and English languages. [Headshot by Kevin Abosch]

Along with the poetry of Heaney, Yeats and Beckett, this unique series of performances will comprise a mix of music, song and dance, and will run from 12–16th August at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Trinity College. More information here

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Cathal Quinn

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