Writer Samuel Beckett abandoned Ireland in 1937, but his birthplace informed his work, says Alan Graham
ONE evening during Easter Week 1916, the 10-year-old Samuel Beckett and his older brother were taken by their father Bill to a Foxrock hill, where neighbours had gathered to view the dramatic scenes in the city below.
Sam apparently remembered all his life the men laughing at the folly of the rebel insurgency; he was so troubled by what he saw that he “spoke of it with fear and horror more than 60 years later”.
This story is representative of Beckett the writer’s relationship with his country.
As a Protestant, there was a distance from the State that emerged from the events he witnessed that night.
Beckett would “prefer France at war to Ireland at peace” at the outbreak of the Second World War. Yet, Ireland provided Beckett with experiences that shaped one of the most significant bodies of prose and drama in 20th-century literature.
This week a number of events explore the relationship between Beckett’s writing and Ireland. The Beckett and the ‘State’ of Ireland conference at UCD, which begins today and continues until Saturday, investigates the writer’s Irish associations.
A highlight of the conference will be an exhibition of Eoin O’Brien’s The Beckett Country, the internationally renowned collection of photographs depicting the Dublin in Beckett’s work.
In addition, the Samuel Beckett summer school commences on Sunday, Jul 15 at Trinity College to celebrate one of the university’s most famous graduates.
These events reflect the increase of scholarly interest in Beckett’s Irishness and testify to the greater appreciation of Beckett as an Irish cultural figure.
It was not always so. Arriving in Ireland in the late 1960s, UCD Professor JCC Mays was baffled by Beckett’s lack of recognition and could only surmise that the Irish “didn’t think much about Beckett because the word was that he didn’t think much about them.”
In early writings, the young Beckett satirised the social and political conservatism of Free State Ireland and the pieties of revival-influenced writing. It was his involvement in a literary libel trial, in 1937, that precipitated his decision to quit the country. Called as a witness in a case against Oliver St John Gogarty, Beckett was labelled a “bawd and blasphemer” and deemed an unreliable witness.
Humiliated, Beckett hastily left Dublin for Paris and would only return as a visitor.
The representations of Ireland in Beckett’s work in the decade or so after he left the country harbour much of his earlier antagonism.
In First Love, the narrator says: “what constitutes the charm of our country … is that all is derelict, with the sole exception of history’s ancient faeces.” Clashes with official Ireland still occurred, most notably when Beckett placed a ban on all Irish productions of his work in response to the censoring of Sean O’Casey.
Yet, Ireland persisted as a kind of ghostly presence in his writing. In Krapp’s Last Tape, the eponymous character abandons an attempt to narrate the last year of his life and casts his mind back to simpler days: “Be again on Croghan on a Sunday morning, in the haze, with the bitch, stop and listen to the bells.”
So often the lost world after which Beckett’s characters pine is an extinct Protestant Ireland; even the minimalist Come and Go evokes the Dublin Protestant society of Beckett’s youth, when the play’s three characters recall attending Miss Wade’s, a school for girls on Morehampton Road. Indeed, Irish references are scattered throughout Beckett’s work — in his most famous play, Waiting for Godot, Estragon refers to Pozzo’s pipe as his “dudeen”, and the port of “Kov” is mentioned in Endgame.
Beckett did not abandon relations with Ireland. He accepted an honorary doctorate from Trinity in 1959 and gifted manuscripts and money to the college’s library. It must be remembered, too, that Beckett maintained his Irish passport, unlike fellow émigré James Joyce, who never had one.
Beckett was also entreated to become a member of Aosdána in 1982 and was later elected saoi.
One of the most curious of Beckett’s interactions with Ireland is a letter he wrote in 1987 to the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Bertie Ahern: “It is indeed with pleasure that I note the growth of interest in my work among the younger generation of my countrymen and with gratitude for the contacts it affords me, of which I have so long felt the want.”
The upcoming events in Beckett’s native city continue to develop the connections between his work and the land of his birth.
Alan Graham is a Beckett scholar based at University College Dublin. For information on the Beckett and the ‘State’ of Ireland conference, and the Samuel Beckett summer school, visit www.Beckettucd.wordpress.com and www.beckettsummerschool.com. The Beckett Country will be exhibited in Ardmore House on the UCD campus on Friday, Jul 13 and Saturday Jul 14, 10am to 5pm. Entry is free.
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