Rome and Away – Frank McNally on the fashion for Irish writers in wartime Italy

An expansive definition of Irishness

An unexpected side effect of the second World War in Italy, I learned this week, was an upsurge of interest in Irish literature. Writers from this country were all the rage there for a while. And the fashion was not even limited to those born here. For a combination of reasons, some underhand, the Italians applied what in soccer is known as the “Granny Rule” to declare such people as Eugene O’Neill and George Kelly (US-born playwright and uncle of Grace) Irish too. Thanks to her Co Down father, Emily Bronte was similarly included.

As an ongoing exhibition at the Italian Cultural Institute explains, the phenomenon began in June 1940, when publication or staging of British and French works was banned. American ones would soon follow.

This left a big gap in the market, which neutral Ireland could help fill, especially if the children of its diaspora could be counted in too. After all, Italian fascism was only too happy to reclaim its own oriundi, foreign-born exiles.

But the liberal definition of Irishness served other purposes too: “The ruse also worked as a subterfuge to smuggle through otherwise inaccessible authors [and] dodge the payment of staging fees.”


As for Irish-born writers, it meant a belated breakthrough in Italy even for some of the most famous. WB Yeats had been largely ignored there during his lifetime, perhaps because one influential critic considered his poetry “indecipherable or idiotic”.

The fashion also had its limits. One publisher who was only too happy to gather banned American writers under a green, white and orange flag of convenience complained that “O’Casey and the others have already bored us enough with Irish patriotism”.

Even so, many Irish writers received increased exposure, with some long-term results. Among those influenced was the future film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini, “who as a teenager put on performances of Synge in his living room”.


The part-Irish writer Lafacadio Hearn (1850-1904) is another story entirely. He was the subject of a discussion at the Museum of Literature Ireland on Monday. And a sub-theme was that, although many countries can claim him, none really does, except perhaps Japan.

Born in Greece, he grew up in Ireland, England and France, variously fought over and abandoned by relatives. He emigrated to Cincinnati in his teens and lived in New Orleans and Martinique too before finding a belated home in Japan where he went native and died as Koizumi Yakumo.

One of his formative influences was a Connacht nurse who, during childhood holidays, told him fairy tales and ghost stories, sowing the seeds of an obsession that remained with him till the end. Yeats, Lady Gregory and others had similar experiences. It seems that Connacht nurses once rivalled the Jesuits: give them the child and they would give you back an adult writer obsessed with folk tradition.

But a commemorative garden in Waterford aside, and despite our usual enthusiasm for claiming illustrious exiles, Ireland has yet to embrace Hearn as one of ours.

The MoLI event centred on a conversation between Prof Toshié Nakajima from the University of Toyama, which has Hearn’s library, and UCD Prof Mary Gallagher, who lamented she was once told by officials in James Joyce’s old university that “literature is a hard sell”.

It is nevertheless hoped that Hearn will enjoy some belated promotion here over the next two years when a series of events, including a major exhibition, mark in turn the 120th anniversary of his death and the 175th of his birth.


Speaking of himself, again, the James Joyce Centre in Dublin will host a concert of songs based on his short stories from October 24th to 27th (admission free, but booking required). I have both an interest and an inside story to declare here.

When the show premiered at Smock Alley theatre in June, I had a talking part, giving background on the Dubliners collection, introducing some of the songs and quoting the famous closing passage from The Dead. Then Jim Murphy – who along with Grainne Hunt, wrote the music and lyrics – asked me to reprise the role for a four-night run at Halloween. So I said yes, with one reservation.

The dates he had in mind then were the 25th to 28th. And as I pointed out, October 28th would be the night of the Rugby World Cup final. There was a chance Ireland might be involved, I said. In which case, hype would be unbounded and even hardened Joyceans might think twice about going to a concert.

Jim agreed and the run was quietly moved a day forward. I can only hope that this has not upset what superstitious sports fans called the “Mocker Gods”: malicious deities who must be propitiated by constant declarations of humility, including predictions that Scotland will dump us out next week.

In the meantime – whisper it – I believe my caution will be vindicated, ultimately. Looking back on the last weekend of October later, I hope Jim and others will agree that, to paraphrase Joyce, the newspapers were right. Hype was general, all over Ireland.