Spreading the real news from Ireland


This country’s economic crisis may be making headlines, but a much more serious and deeply influential image of this country emanates from the culture we send out to the world, argues Colm Tóibín. And now, more than ever, that mission is vital.

I THINK it is possible to argue that both trade and diplomacy are culture for slow learners, that what happens with music and books, with painting and poetry, how they move and spread, how they do not recognise borders, how they find translators, is a blueprint for what happens later with goods and services and with treaties between governments. I love the idea that while Afghanistan and Ireland have not yet had a close relationship as traders, and our diplomatic ties with that country have not as yet been close, yet the blue in the Book of Kells came to us from Afghanistan. That blue remains a sign of culture, riding over waves that politicians, economists and diplomats still have problems with. As with colours, words from novels and poems move like the Danube from country to country, create fertile plains rather than natural borders.

In the past century, most governments have come to understand this strange power which culture has. Some of them have been afraid of it, have reached, as it were, for their revolver when the words in poems or the images in paintings seem to threaten them with their innocent power.

And others have come to realise, as the French realised when they built their canals in the 17th century, that trade has a funny way of following rather than leading, and that it follows culture as much as it follows water. Thus in the century known as the American century we have had the spread of American images and books as a central aspect of the spread of American influence and the growth of American wealth. In the world still, in Germany, in China, in the smaller countries everywhere, a new American novel to this day has a glamour, an attraction, that no other country can easily match.

In other countries there has been a full understanding of the power and primacy of culture, as anyone who has dealt with the Goethe Institut, or the Alliance Française, or the Instituto Cervantes, or the British Council knows. The governments who set up these institutions, and fund them, have understood that culture is a human construct and, despite its innocence and its natural ability to flow and fly, it has a strange way of looking like a commodity – it can fail, it can thrive, it can be competitive, it can be made powerful, it can be helped along.

These countries have also understood, in their dealing with individual artists, how important it is that culture be free to do as it pleases, say what it likes. As one of the greatest Irish people who has ever lived, Lady Gregory, said in one of the most important statements about censorship and freedom: if it is a choice between a subsidy and our freedom, we will always take our freedom.

Thus when the West German government 20 years ago made a momentous decision to re-unite Germany, the Goethe Institut, funded by the same government, decided to respond by inviting Günther Grass, who passionately disagreed with his government’s decision, who believed that instant re-unification of Germany was a mistake, to make a tour to voice his objection to what was happening in his country. When he came to Dublin to do so to a crowded hall, it was a victory for freedom of speech, for the right of the passionate artist to make a case against his own government’s policies, an artist whose journey was sponsored by that very government itself.

For many years, Irish writers basked in the glory of a great past. We lived in a country known for its material poverty, its gnarled history and for its famous writers. We were lucky to live in a country which produced literary geniuses but lucky too that figures such as Lady Gregory, WB Yeats, John Millington Synge, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett either had private incomes of their own, or had benefactors throughout their lives who had private incomes. We were lucky also that the very first Irish government understood the need for subsidy and state support for culture and were the first government in the English-speaking world to publicly fund a theatre.

For many years also we watched as other countries followed suit. We watched with awe the power of the British Council as it made sure that British culture was known throughout the world; we watched the Germans doing it, the French, the Canadians, the Spanish. We allowed a myth to take hold that Irish writers were so well known that they did not need support until we found that there were many bookshops in which there was not a single work by a single living Irish writer on display.

Thus the Arts Council initiative in 1994 which gave us Ireland Literature Exchange has been of immense practical importance for Irish writers, for Irish culture and, by implication, for Irish trade, diplomacy, tourism, and for the Irish economy. In every bookshop you go into now from China to Chile, from Berlin to Bogota, there are Irish books on sale whose translations have been subsidised by Ireland Literature Exchange. It must be emphasised that the primary value of this is not material, it is spiritual. Or it has not much value at all.

It is done for its own sake. It has a right, as Harry Clifton has pointed out, to be perfectly useless, maybe even a duty to be so. Its power derives from that right, that duty. Writing is done alone and silently just as reading is done alone and silently. The reader is enriched by reading, the world enhanced by writing, in ways that cannot be measured.

But now in the world there may be those who believe that the image of Ireland comes from newspaper reports, from the Wall Street Journalor the Economistmagazine, or from economic indicators and statistics sent with wonder and deep puzzlement from Brussels to Berlin. And the answer is no, the image of Ireland in Europe which is more enduring and embedded, more serious and deeply influential, comes from the poetry of Anthony Cronin, Seamus Heaney and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, the fiction of John Banville, Anne Enright and Eilis Ní Dhuibhne, the plays of Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and Marina Carr, much more than from anything in the daily news. Literature is news that remains news. The rest is pressing hard on us now, and that can be solved – or not, indeed – by politics.

Literature and art, culture, have, on the other hand, a way of being slippery, and that is part of their whispered power.

This slippery news that stays news has made its way into the world via the sterling and serious work which Ireland Literature Exchange has done, via its funders – the Arts Council, An Comhairle Ealaíon, via its co-funders Culture Ireland, and via the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. For publishers all over the world who deal with it – and I know this for a fact – Ireland Literature Exchange is known for its efficiency, its effort to keep bureaucracy to a minimum, its seriousness about its own mission, and its belief in that mission.

Now, more than ever, that mission is vital. Now, more than ever, the role of culture to delight us — to make images and offer moments which will have strange power or even a mysterious and insistent powerlessness – is more important than it has ever been. After the fall of Parnell, when Ireland seemed at its lowest ebb, when politicians and church leaders seemed to have done their very worst, when there was an abiding sense in Ireland of darkness and despair, WB Yeats saw something which interested him. He saw a country which was like soft wax which could be moulded and reshaped and he saw a crucial role for artists and for artistic activity in that remoulding. As with Günter Grass 20 years ago, it is not our job as artists to be an arm of government, or to represent the state. As writers we must remain an uncomfortable, and even an unpalatable presence. We must demand as always the right to be awkward and circumspect. When Lady Gregory wanted freedom more than subsidy, what she really sought was both. This is a delicate time to make such demands, and all we have to back up our demands with are 1,500 books, the books which Ireland Literature Exchange has sent around the world. Think of the delight, the knowledge, the beauty in those books. That is the spirit of the Ireland which Yeats recreated in the 1890s and the early years of the 20th century. It is the country we have inherited and we seek to re-make. For prose writers our duty and responsibility is simple. It was outlined in France during L’Irlandais Imaginaire 15 years ago by John McGahern. It is to our sentences.

Our duty is to make good sentences, and that is our responsibility too.

Beyond that, nothing much. But maybe good sentences stand for other things that are good, or might be improved; maybe the rhythms of words used well might matter in ways which are unexpected in a dark time.

In the meantime, we live in the real world, in real time, a world in which there is much debate about the role and cost of public servants and civil servants. We are in a building where we cannot talk lightly of such matters because it was here that dedicated and inspired public servants created draft after draft of what became the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement. And it is here that we celebrate not only the role of culture in our world, and the secret power contained in 1,500 books, but another group of dedicated and inspired public servants — led by Sinéad MacAodh, the director — who manage Ireland Literature Exchange with such flair and skill and seriousness.

This address was given by Colm Tóibín at an Ireland Literature Exchange event in Iveagh House last week. It marked 1,500 books in translation