Magazine article The Spectator

Intense Irishry

Magazine article The Spectator

Intense Irishry

Article excerpt

The Spoken Word:

Irish Poets and Writers British Library, £20, 3 CDS, 3 hours, 35 minutes ISBN 9780712351263 Here is further evidence that it is disillusioning, more often than not, to encounter close up any artist long admired at a distance. This generalisation applies to actors, musicians, painters and writers of all shapes and sizes, male and female.

Coiffure and couture are rarely sufficiently haute; on the other hand, bohemian grooming and costumes are often rather scruffy. In advanced cases, there are dangers of rheumy eyes and bad breath.

The Spoken Word, the British Library's admirable series of compact discs of historic literary recordings of lectures, readings and discussions from the archives of the BBC, audibly reduces icons to curios on an ordinary human scale. The latest discs, Irish Poets and Writers, take one back, as though by time machine, to Irish culture in the first half and middle of the 20th century, when Irishry was more intensely Irish than now, and regional accents were more distinctly differentiated. Since then, international and internal influences, most notably television, have had a homogenising effect, and have made the literary arts generally, alas, seem less important.

On this adventure in nationalistic nostalgia, one can listen to the recorded voices of Frank O'Connor, W.B.

Yeats, Sean O'Faolain, Patrick Kavanagh, Eavan Boland, George Bernard Shaw, Sylvia Beach, James Joyce, Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Lavin, Liam O'Flaherty and Edna O'Brien. Some of them are easier to appreciate when their words are displayed only in writing; however, all of them aloud reveal aspects of their personalities that may have been previously less fully understood, ranging from modest to boisterous and even somewhat bombastic.

Listeners may find it entertaining to decide which are which.

Shaw, in arrogant Professor Higgins mode, yet teasingly facetious, casts doubt on the fidelity of the whole Spoken Word operation by pointing out that recorded voices are true to the speakers only when discs revolve at just the right speed. If gramophones were functioning at any other speed, he warned, 'what you are hearing may be grotesquely unlike any sound that has ever come from my lips', and thus may represent unfairly 'an amiable old gentleman of 71. …

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