Thursday, March 4, 2021

A Look at Irish Writing, Language, and Culture: My Interview with Enda Brennan



St. Patrick's Day is soon upon us, and many Americans don't celebrate the holiday beyond drinking and wearing a lot of green. I felt it would be a great idea to dive more into how Irish culture has shaped us, so for March, I decided to interview a dear friend and expert in Irish language and culture, Enda Brennan. Enjoy!

What got you interested in studying the Irish culture and language?

I'm Irish-American and I grew up in a really insular Irish-American environment in Southeastern Massachusetts, with many people around me being first and second generation - largely from Cork and Kerry. My father, interested in heritage himself, was always rich with stories and I latched onto Irish folklore at a young age and had a few books on mythology and faeries, etc. I grew up Irish step dancing as well, from the age of 8 until my late teens/early 20s both competitively and with a local pipe and drum band. So I guess you could say an interest in my heritage formed due to my environment at a very young age and has stuck with me well into adulthood. 


How long have you been studying Irish writing?

Not that long. I read some Joyce and McCourt in my early 20s and covered Yeats etc in college but it's only been in the last couple of years that I have consciously sought out Irish writing and writing from the diaspora outside of academia.

How much have Irish works of literature influenced you as a whole?

The musicality and anti-climactic trajectory of Joyce's prose are major influences in my own writing, but it's more the rich Irish tradition of oral storytelling that has inspired me -- this seemingly culturally inate tendency towards using language to color expression and stories to frame experience. 

Who are some Irish writers you deem most important in understanding the culture?

Lately I've been reading a lot of Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning poet. His works so deeply examine both the Irish landscape and psychological condition in a quiet, understated way. I also strongly recommend Dinneen's Irish-English dictionary. Published in 1904 and meticulously researched with monolingual and bilingual Irish speakers in Gaeltachta (Irish-speaking regions) -- the dictionary captures so much of the beauty and inherent poetry of the language. 

How much has Irish culture ingrained itself in the United States?

Heavily. There is so much in my own upbringing and formative environment that, looking back through the lens of my own present research, is so quizzically Irish. For instance: traditionally in Gaelic society land was divided by a head of household among living offspring instead of being bequeathed posthumously-- which meant multiple generations often occupied the same land and raised the children communally. Where I lived in Massachusetts, often people of Irish descent lived within walking distance of grandparents who took a major hand in raising them. I've also been in environments in Appalachia where people of Irish descent live in trailers or smaller houses on the land of older relatives. There is so much Gaelic influence in 1920s American slang and Irish influence in uniquely American things such as tap dancing, bluegrass, and even the blues -- with many descendants of freed slaves combining themes of spirituals and old slave songs with Irish laments. 

What subject matter do you like to cover most?

I'm fascinated by the relationship between Irish-Americans and American Blacks -- one that has been deeply fraught, often violent, yet in many instances has contained moments of beautiful cultural exchange. Despite centuries of colonial dehumanization, the Irish have frequently exploited their white privilege in America and gained many advances in society on the backs of Black people. At the same time, many freed slaves took Irish names. Irish indentured and African slaves shared space in the Caribbean, Irish workmen and Freedmen fought for scraps at the bottom of society in American cities from the late 1860s well into the early 20th century. The banjo is a re-configuration of a West African instrument that was introduced by Black musicians to Irish musicians in the American South where it is a central part of bluegrass. It eventually made its way back to Ireland in the 20th century where it became a staple of Irish traditional music in the folk revival movement. 

Do you think there are any stereotypes of Irish language and culture that continue to burden the writing community?

Absolutely. The idea of Irish writers and Irish people in general as drunks lacking general direction and work ethic is a pretty heavy one. I also think this idea of the Irish language as a dead, mystical tongue and Irish-Gaelic culture as obsolete has snuck its way into genres like fantasy and neo-paganism where you see a heavy amount of cultural appropriation.  

Tell the readers a little about yourself and your writing. 

I live in Texas, far removed from tangible trappings of Irish culture, and it's been this separation that has forced me to consider my ethnicity as a major part of my identity. I have an academic background in poetry and creative non-fiction and these days I write mostly about Irish-American history and culture, as well as about post-colonialism. I also write about recovery, transgender rhetoric, a fair amount of poetry, and some occasional fiction. 

Do you have a publication you are especially proud of?

"The Port Of New Orleans" in Another Chicago Magazine

How much has religion influenced Irish writing?

Hello in Irish is "Dia duit." God be with you. The response is "Dia 's Mhuire duit" -- God and Mary with you. Historically the formation of literate Gaelic culture occurred around Christianity -- monastic communities being the first centralized areas of written culture in Irish history. Writing was considered a sacred act, a way of participating in the miracle of God's creation -- all the while contemplating the mystery of shape begetting meaning. Before Christianity the role of bard and historian were intermingled -- stories of gods existing alongside those of kings. The connection is, in my opinion, irremovable in many instances. There has also been such a complicated and often abusive relationship with the Church in Ireland that is explored very deeply by many modern Irish writers and filmmakers.

Are there any modern Irish writers you would say have a positive influence on the culture?

Theres so many amazing Irish films at the moment, I just wish I could remember the names of the writers. A lot of them, like Black 47 and Arracht, are largely in Irish -- which is really exciting. Normal People was also a smash and somewhat surprising international hit, considering its insular nature (kinda like Derry Girls) based on the book by Sally Rooney.

If one were to start studying Irish culture and writing now, where should they begin?

An Gorta Mór. The Great Hunger. In order to understand the bulk of modern Irish history -- the diaspora, the Troubles, and the present struggle of Irish people to define their own national identity-- you have to understand the history of brutal colonialism and particularly of genocide. Irish culture and language was systematically suppressed for 800 years and the miracle of its present existence is a testament to Irish cultural tenacity ☘


 Enda is an accomplished writer. Check out his article, "Port of New Orleans." 

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