This week we see the end of the quarter and St. Patrick’s Day, and my
reflections turn in two directions. Let me take the scenic route, bringing
us by a “commodius vicus of recirculation” from the pluck of the Irish to
Two days a year remind me of my Irish heritage: Bloomsday and St.
The first is June 16th, Bloomsday, an entirely imaginary holiday, or
rather an entirely literary holiday, since it exists to commemorate the
day in which James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is set in 1904. In 1954, several
writers reenacted the novel’s protagonist Leopold Bloom’s peregrinations
around Dublin to celebrate the half-century of the novel’s setting. These
included two of my favorite Irish writers, the poet Patrick Kavanagh and
Brian O’Nolan (also known by one of his noms de plume, Flann O’Brien).
Flann O’Brien’s imaginative novel The Third Policeman is an enigmatic work
of slapstick physics, a beautiful blend of science and art. In a landscape
every bit as odd as Alice’s and as coherent as Einstein’s, policemen amuse
themselves by carving impossibly small pianos, and bicycle riders become
literally one with their vehicles.
St. Patrick’s Day, by comparison, provides but a pale mythological
substitute for these latter-day heroes and antiheroes plucked from Irish
fiction. Thus the need to make it all about green beer, shamrocks, and
leprechauns instead of a fourth-century saint who was a Roman Brit
enslaved by Irish raiders who found God as a shepherd and returned to Eire
to convert the unwashed and expel the slithering spawn of Satan (which I
suppose amount to the same thing).
In New Orleans, where I lived for a decade, St. Patrick’s Day is the first
big parade day after Mardi Gras, a brief suspension of the restraints of
Lent in the run-up before Easter, as it is in Ireland as well. In a city
where every hiccup is an excuse for a celebration, St. Patrick’s Day
serves as a kind of belated “hair of the dog,” and a way to cast off a
gross of leftover green beads.
There are other Irish giants—Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, William Butler
Yeats, Sean O’Casey, and so many others, as well as Finn McCool—but above
them all stands, or rather hovers, bird-like, Samuel Beckett, author of
Waiting for Godot.
As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, I had to memorize as part
of an oral final exam a few lines from a poem in French. I chose one by
Beckett, who wrote most of his work in his adopted language.
je suis ce cours de sable qui glisse
entre le galet et la dune
la pluie d'été pleut sur ma vie
sur moi ma vie qui me fuit me poursuit
et finira le jour de son commencement
my way is in the sand flowing
between the shingle and the dune
the summer rain rains on my life
on me my life harrying fleeing
to its beginning to its end
Much of what we learn in classes glides and slides away from us as though
our brains were made of Teflon. But certain moments in our education
stick. These lines from Beckett continue to haunt me, as much in their
meaning (a life of tidal shifts and starts, beginnings and beginnings
again, like the starts and stops of school terms) as in their wave-like
rhythms (which match the meaning).
Given that only a few strands of my DNA can be attributed to my
ne’er-do-well grandfather and his plucky forefathers, it is perhaps
appropriate that only two days a year remind me of my Irish heritage. (My
apologies to those faculty in the School of Arts and Humanities with a
more perfect pedigree, such as History professor Cliona Murphy, who is
Irish as Irish can be.)
My homage to the genius of the Irish, however, cannot be more heartfelt,
and like a heartbeat is at its best when thought about least, which is
even more often than every day.
Dr. Robert Frakes
Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities