When someone says to me that the Irish are natural storytellers, I’m usually really pleased. I’m an Irish writer, and isn’t it the ultimate aim of all writers to tell a cracking story? The writing life is full of rejection and self-doubt. You draw hope and confidence from whatever source you can. So I’m usually delighted to think that, by some accident of birth, I might have a tiny advantage when it comes to storytelling.
But then, watching the CUNY TV series Irish Writers in America, I heard something that called into question this whole theory that the Irish have an innate ability to tell a good tale.
It was in episode five, which features Jennifer Egan and Colm Tóibín.
When asked what being an Irish writer meant to her, Egan replied that she believed Ireland was a country of storytelling and growing up in an Irish American community had influenced her in her writing life.
Nothing particularly surprising in that.
Tóibín, however, had an altogether different opinion. He said:
“I hate being called a storyteller – it’s the sort of thing that English people in particular use about Irish people – oh you are all such marvellous storytellers, all you Irish people, as if you come from an oral culture, a sort of primitive culture and that you are not really part of the great tradition that is the novel.”
I’d never thought of it that way.
Thinking more about it though, I can see his point. Dismissing an Irish writer as simply yet another naturally gifted storyteller, of which there are many, is to undermine the effort it takes to write a novel.
It takes months, if not years, to write a book. You need to show up day after day, learn the craft and be disciplined. And I am sure to write something as brilliant as Tóibín’s The South or Brooklyn, you need to work very hard indeed. So I can imagine how annoying it must be to have all that effort dismissed, and for people to assume it must have been easier for you, or that your work has less value, just because your country has a reputation for producing storytellers.
Go to any Irish pub and you will usually find someone with the gift of the gab telling entertaining anecdotes. The oral tradition is alive and well. But Tóibín is right; we should also celebrate Ireland’s contribution to literature, and recognize that it takes more to write a novel than simply the ability to tell a good yarn. And the works of the Irish writer Amanda McKittrick Ros proves the point.
According to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, McKittrick Ros is “the greatest ban writer who ever lived.” In the 1890’s, she self-published her own series of novels and instantly won a devoted following, but the critics savaged her. McKittrick Ros, however, never lost faith, calling her critics: “bastard donkey-headed mites and clay-crabs of corruption,” amongst other things. She certainly had a way with words.
With the publication in 2013 of my first novel, "Dancing with Statues," I became an Irish novelist. But I don’t yet feel worthy of that title. Perhaps, if I put in enough hours at my writing desk and write with grit and determination, one day I will feel worthy. In the meantime, I’ll happily welcome anyone who says the Irish are natural storytellers. As a new writer you have to face criticism and rejection from all sides, especially from within, so I’ll take any compliments I can get.