Thursday, April 21, 2005

bushrui on Irish wisdom

Original of review published in
Al-Hayat newspaper in Arabic translation on 20 April 2005

The Wisdom of the Irish: A Concise Anthology
Compiled by
Suheil Bushrui
Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England
200 pages

review by Susannah Tarbush

At first sight, it might seem surprising that the anthology “The Wisdom of the Irish: A Concise Anthology”, which was published recently by Oneworld Publications of Oxford, England, was compiled by a Middle Eastern rather than an Irish or European scholar.

But the scholar in question is the renowned author and literary critic Professor Suheil Bushrui, who is widely regarded as the leading translator and interpreter of Anglo-Irish literature in the Arab world, and who was from 1985 to 1988 the chairman of the International Association for the study of Anglo-Irish Literature.

The famous Irish poet and media personality Brendan Kennelly writes in his foreword to the anthology: “As an Arab, he enjoys and explores a special perspective on Irish culture. Sometimes, an interested outsider can see things more clearly than an impassioned insider. And it is precisely that fresh, detached perspective, together with a deep knowledge of Irish life and literature, that makes this book of wisdom such an intellectual and emotional experience.”

Professor Bushrui was the first Arab national to be appointed to the Chair of English and Anglo-Irish literature at the American University of Beirut, and his publications on Irish literature include critical studies of W B Yeats, John Millington Synge, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

He currently holds the Bahai Chair for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, and describes himself as “an adopted son of Ireland”.

Kennelly, who was for 30 years until his recent retirement professor of Modern Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, describes “The Wisdom of the Irish” in his foreword as a book that “readers will return to again and again because it is full of verbal jewels that shine in the darkness of the heart and mind.”

Although the book’s subtitle is “A Concise Anthology”, its 200 pages contain an extraordinarily rich assembly of words of wisdom from more than 125 Irish figures – among them poets, novelists, playwrights, philosophers, politicians, statesmen - plus traditional verse, proverbs, songs, blessings and prayers.

Some of the extracts were written in English, others are translated from the Irish language. They range in time from the distant past to contemporary voices including that of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney.

The book is a tribute to the contribution the Irish have made to the thought and culture of the world, quite out of proportion to the island’s modest size, and its small and scattered population.

Among those famous sons and daughters of Ireland who are represented in the anthology, in some cases with several quotations, are W B Yeats, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, J M Synge, Oscar Wilde, George Berkely, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Behan and the cultural champion Lady Gregory. From the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick, we have a number of passages including moving lines from “The Deer’s Cry.”

But Bushrui has also included thinkers and writers who may be less known to the general readership. And then there are those many people whose names are unknown but whose words echo down to the present day in their songs, verses and proverbs.

Bushrui’s passion for the study of Irish literature was first kindled by the book “The Genius of Ireland” by George Townshend, published in 1930. This “became a sacred book for me and led me to discover through the study of Irish literature and civilisation a whole universe of learning, not of discursive reason but of the Imagination. I entered the world of a great living mystery in which all things spoke of unity.”

Bushrui pays tribute to the late poet and literary scholar Kathleen Raine: “My ‘Ireland’ is not the Ireland of historians, of literary critics, of political scientists, of archaeologists, of folklorists, or of anthropologists: my Ireland is that Ireland of the Imagination which my friend Kathleen Raine described…”

It was this “landscape of the heart” that spoke to him when he first visited Ireland. “It was Holy Ireland, her spiritual tradition and perennial wisdom that captured my imagination.”

Professor Bushrui first visited Ireland in 1960 as a founding scholar of the first International Yeats Summer School, which has been held every year since. “In the West of Ireland, particularly in the Yeats Country around Sligo, I found my true spiritual home.”

The Institute of Anglo-Irish Studies in the English Department at the American University of Beirut undertook valuable work in English and Arabic. For example in 1970 the Institute undertook the first translation of W B Yeats’s poetry into Arabic, “Shai’un min Yeats.” In the same year, “Images and Memories: a Pictorial Record of the Life and Works of W B Yeats”, edited jointly by Professor Bushrui and J M Munro, was published by Dar al-Mashreq.

In 1971 the Institute organised a John Millington Synge Centenary Exhibition and two books were published - one in English, “Sunshine and the Moon’s Delight”, edited by Bushrui, and the other in Arabic, “Shai’un min Synge.”

Bushrui published the “International Companion to the Poetry of W B Yeats” in 1976. In February 1982 there was a four-day James Joyce Centenary Commemoration, and publication of “James Joyce: An International Perspective; Centenary essays in honour of the late Sir Desmond Cochrane” edited by Bushrui and Bernard Bernstock. The Arabic volume “James Joyce”, a study and selection of prose and poetry translated by Bushrui, was also published.

In the introduction to “The Wisdom of the Irish” Bushrui gives an enlightening account of the relationship between Ireland’s turbulent history and its literature, and highlights the importance of the Irish literary renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This renaissance included translations from the Irish Gaelic language into English, and it also expressed a vision of national unity and religious amity in a new language, ‘Anglo Irish’.

Professor Bushrui has assembled the anthology with a great deal of thought and sensitivity. The book is different from a conventional “book of quotations”, and
rather than organise the quotations by for example author, or chronologically, Bushrui has organised them into six main thematic chapters; Art and Literature; Ireland and her People; Divine Life; Ethics; Daily Life, and Forging a Nation. Each chapter is further subdivided into sections.

The chapter headings and the sections reflect Bushrui’s sense of what is most valuable in the Irish heritage, literature and life. Under Daily Life for example we have sections on men and women; love and romance; family and nation; beauty and truth, and life and death. Rather than clutter up the words of wisdom with footnotes and details of dates and background, Bushrui has preferred to let the selections largely speak for themselves.

Given the Irish appreciation of the ability to express the funny side of life, it is appropriate that there is a section on wit and humour. As J M Synge wrote: “Of the things which nourish the imagination humour is one of the most needful, and it is dangerous to limit or destroy it.” From Sheridan’s play “The School for Scandal” comes: “Wit loses its respect with me when I see it in company with malice.”
From Brendhan Behan we have: “There’s no bad publicity except an obituary.”

Bushrui has over the years come to know personally many Irish writers and thinkers, and the first quotation in the anthology comes from Samuel Beckett, who said in conversation with him: “The word is immortal. The word continues. What has helped me to continue is my faith in the word. And if the word comes to an end, everything comes to an end. The word is an anchor.”

Beckett also told Bushrui: “The work is finished. I am both happy and sad. It is a strange feeling. Others discover in my writing a secret of which I am unaware. It is a secret which is hidden from me. Many people come to see me, and I am the only one who does not know why.”

Bushrui’s friend Gearoid O Clerigh, an Irish ambassador who served in the Arab world, wrote to him in a letter: “To be sure I do not deny that imagination can lead the intellect astray but I cannot conceive of an appreciation of beauty without a cultivated imagination.”

Bushrui has very positive memories of his meeting with President Eamon de Valera, then in his late eighties, in summer 1971 when he presented him with the book “Images and Memories: A Pictorial Record of the Life and Work of WB Yeats” on behalf of the American University of Beirut.

Bushrui writes: “It seemed to me then, as if does now almost thirty-four years later, that I was in the presence of a deeply religious and spiritual man. There was something mystical in him; he was a teacher in every sense of the word, but above all I saw him as the father of the nation.”

“The Wisdom of the Irish” includes several quotations from de Valera. In 1918, while imprisoned by the British, he wrote: “Silence is preferable to mutilated statements”. In 1942 he wrote: “To partition the territory of an ancient nation is one of the cruellest wrongs that can be committed against a people.”

Many of the poems in the anthology sing of the love of Ireland – the “Emerald Isle” - and are enormously evocative of the mysterious ancient countryside, the sea, the mountains, the spirit of place. Katherine Tynan writes: “Magical country, full of memories and dreams,/My youth lies in the crevices of your hills…” An Irish blessing says: “Ireland, it’s the one place on earth/That heaven has kissed/With melody, mirth/And meadow and mist.” People the world over know at least the first line of the traditional Irish song “When Irish eyes are smiling”.

The question of the Irish language has a section of the book to itself. Thomas Davis wrote: “A people without a language of its own is only half a nation…A nation should guard its language more than its territories…To lose your native tongue, and learn that of an alien is the worst badge of conquest – it is the chain on the soul.”

The anthology includes numerous quotations from WB Yeats, and also from his painter and lawyer father John Butler Yeats. In a letter to his son, John Butler Yeats wrote: “A man is born solitary and dies solitary. Only the poet lives solitary.”

John Butler Yeats also had some wise words on marriage: “I think a man and a woman should choose each other for life, for the simple reason that a long life with all its accidents is barely long enough for a man and woman to understand each other; and in this case, to understand is to love. The man who understands one woman is qualified to understand pretty well anything.”

On the subject of literature, W B Yeats wrote: “Literature is, to my mind, the great teaching power of the world, the ultimate creator of all values, and it is this, not only in the sacred books whose power everybody acknowledges, but by every movement of imagination in song or story or drama that height of intensity and sincerity has made literature at all.”

Professor Bushrui’s book will broaden the cultural and literary horizons of its readers, and is likely to stimulate many of them into exploring further the literature and thought of the Irish. The book is also likely to have a particular resonance in the Middle East, where readers will identify with the mixture of poetry, political turmoil, passion, humour and love of language that is characteristic of the Irish.

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