Sean nós

One of Ireland’s many tricks is to fade away to a little speck down on the horizon of our lives, and then return suddenly in tremendous bulk, frightening us.

—George Moore, Hail and Farewell

For St. Patrick’s Day (or, in Boston, Evacuation Day—a ruse so transparent that even the mayor can’t be bothered to keep up appearances), a bit of George Moore, a quintessentially disreputable Irish writer (“I would lay aside the wisest book,” he once wrote, “to talk to a stupid woman”), who, in true Irish fashion, confounded the stereotype by both maintaining a lifelong skepticism towards his native country and also being a very good writer indeed. Hail and Farewell is his often biting three-volume memoir of the Irish literary Renaissance at the turn of the last century; upon publication of the third volume, the New York Times opined that “if Mr. Moore revisits Ireland he is the bravest man in the world.” But Moore could also accurately and sympathetically capture the Irish susceptibility to romance. Here, Moore attends a Dublin literary dinner organized by the journalist and politician T. P. Gill; a fellow guest is William Butler Yeats.

My neighbor laughed, but his laughter only irritated me still more against him, and my eyes went to Yeats, who sat, his head drooping on his shirt-front, like a crane, uncertain whether he should fold himself up for the night, and I wondered what was the beautiful eloquence that was germinating in his mind. He would speak to us about the gods, of course, and about Time and Fate and the gods being at war; and the moment seemed so long that I grew irritated with Gill for not calling upon him at once for a speech. At length this happened, and Yeats rose, and a beautiful commanding figure he seemed at the end of the table, pale and in profile, with long nervous hands and a voice resonant and clear as a silver trumpet. He drew himself up and spoke against Trinity College, saying that it had always taught the ideas of the stranger, and the literature of the stranger, and the songs of the stranger, and that was why Ireland had never listened and Trinity College had been a sterile influence. The influences that had moved Ireland deeply were the old influences that had come down from generation to generation, handed on by the story-tellers that collected in the evenings round the fire, creating for learned and unlearned a communion of heroes. But my memory fails me; I am disfiguring and blotting the beautiful thoughts that I heard that night clothed in lovely language. He spoke of Cherubim and Seraphim, and the hierarchies and the clouds of angels that the Church had set against the ancient culture, and then he told us that gods had been brought vainly from Rome and Greece and Judaea. In the imaginations of the people only the heroes had survived, and from the places where they had walked their shadows fell often across the doorways; and then there was something wonderfully beautiful about the blue ragged mountains and the mystery that lay behind them, ragged mountains flowing southward. But that speech has gone for ever.

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