In Seamus Heaney’s 1995 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he credited an unusual source for his early immersion in poetry. Heaney began his speech with an image from his childhood, in which he described sitting on the arm of a sofa in his family’s farmhouse in Northern Ireland, listening to a radio broadcaster announcing news of the second World War:
“I had to get close to the actual radio set in order to concentrate my hearing, and in that intent proximity to the dial I grew familiar with the names of foreign stations, with Leipzig and Oslo and Stuttgart and Warsaw and, of course, with Stockholm,” Heaney said. “I also got used to hearing short bursts of foreign languages as the dial hand swept round from BBC to Radio Éireann, from the intonations of London to those of Dublin, and even though I did not understand what was being said in those first encounters with the gutturals and sibilants of European speech, I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world beyond.”
When Beckett submitted his English translation of Waiting for Godot to the BBC, he received a rejection letter because the script contained "too many Irish inflections and idioms"
Here we see Heaney’s first encounters with the world mediated through the radio. He represents this as not only a journey into the world, but also as a journey into language. The “gutturals and sibilants” of the foreign broadcasters initiate Heaney into the diversity and complexity of the spoken word. These broadcasts also taught him to mediate between the local and the global – he learned, in other words, that he could be both a young boy perched on the arm of a chair in Mossbawn and a citizen of the world, listening to speakers across Europe.
Earlier generations of Irish writers, including WB Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen, Louis MacNiece and Samuel Beckett, describe similar experiences beginning in the 1930s. For these writers, radio was an important influence, offering a powerful mass medium for the spoken word. For the first time, people could listen to a distant speaker in the privacy of their homes. Writers were especially drawn to the new medium because it created a platform for the spoken word at a time when print culture had all but erased the last vestiges of oral traditions on the British Isles.
While Heaney describes many different stations contributing to his poetic awakening, one station that has had a persistent, if not always easy, relationship with Irish writers is the BBC. When I began researching in the BBC archives I was surprised both by the number of Irish writers who turn up and at the ways they credit the radio medium with shaping not only what they write, but how they write.
WB Yeats explains that he wrote his late poem Sweet Dancer for a 1937 BBC programme, making it perhaps the first Irish radio poem
Examples abound. Samuel Beckett describes listening to Patrick Magee performing in a BBC adaptation of his novel Molloy. He says that hearing Magee’s voice inspired him to write Krapp’s Last Tape, which he originally called Magee Monologue. WB Yeats explains that he wrote his late poem Sweet Dancer for a 1937 BBC programme, making it perhaps the first Irish radio poem. Louis MacNeice began writing parables under the influence of radio. As he puts it, “I was attracted to parable forms as a practitioner in sound radio. Here it was the medium itself propelling me.”
And Elizabeth Bowen characterises the immediacy and sense of presence of radio broadcasting as a guiding inspiration for her postwar novels. “The relation between the writer and the reader is and needs to be closer than it has been,” she writes, “The writer needs reception, good reception in the radio sense.”
Protestant Irish writers came to have a disproportionately large voice, often serving as cultural gatekeepers for other Irish writers who wanted to write for the British airwaves
The writers named above all come from Protestant Anglo-Irish backgrounds, which seems to have afforded them an easier route into the BBC. In the first 35 years of the BBC’s existence, Protestant Irish writers came to have a disproportionately large voice, often serving as cultural gatekeepers for other Irish writers who wanted to write for the British airwaves.
When Seán Ó Faoláin wrote a programme on Irish literature for Schools Broadcasting during the second World War, the producers at BBC Northern Ireland were reluctant to broadcast it unless they could be reassured that Yeats had personally recommended Ó Faoláin. Even a writer as cosmopolitan as Beckett, when he submitted his English translation of Waiting for Godot to the BBC, received a rejection letter because the script contained “too many Irish inflections and idiom[s].”
The BBC was founded in 1922, the same year as the Irish Free State. Over the years, the BBC's sound waves crossed the Irish Sea and permeated Irish homes while at the same time writers such as Yeats, Bowen, MacNeice and Beckett, but also Denis Johnston, WR Rodgers, Ó Faoláin, Frank O'Connor and Brendan Behan wrote and produced radio plays and features for the BBC.
Early on, the BBC became an imaginary homeland for those Irish writers who felt increasingly disconnected from the new Irish Free State and yet who wanted to write works that reached Irish listeners. This phenomenon became even more pronounced during the second World War when neutrality censors policed print publications that contained news or opinions about the war in Europe.
Radio as a medium has been increasingly forgotten, fading from cultural memory in the same way that broadcast sound fades away. And yet, Irish writers continue to broadcast their work and find receptive audiences in the age of podcasting and digital radio.
Heaney was not the first or the last writer to hear poetry in the sound of the wireless, and radio continues to offer a platform for Irish writers to revive the oral traditions that have special salience in Irish literature and to connect a rooted, local poetics to a global listenership. It is this paradoxical nature of radio – its ability to speak to the past and the future, the public and the private, and the local and the global-that makes it a powerful force in Irish writing.
Emily Bloom is Adjunct Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Associate Director of the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for Humanities. Her book The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931-1968 was published by Oxford University Press in 2016