Tiernan & O’Carroll Kelly: the real Irish culture?

Voices and words. It’s always voices and words, or voices about words. Contemporary society. Irish literature. The latter hasn’t embraced the former. Or has it? I’m not going to be so stupid as to decide one way or the other. Luckily, Julian Gough, god’s gift to literature and self-appointed arbiter of literary distinction, has investigated the issue for us. First of all though, a digression.
Whenever my old man sees me struggling to write something, he always tells me to start with a quote, or to shove a good one in wherever I’m stuck. So here’s a quote. A clever man once said a clever thing: “tradition is the illusion of permanence”. That’s Woody Allen. Very clever. Keep that in mind, we’ll come back to it. Anyway. Julian Gough.
“I hardly read Irish writers any more,” says Gough, “I’ve been disappointed so often.” For the sake of a bit of fun and controversy, I would love to be able to say that Gough has launched a scathing attack on the Irish writers. Unfortunately, that isn’t really the case. Rather, he scribbled on his blog. However, The Guardian did pick up on his words and a little bit of a storm has brewed in the tiny teacup that is popular literary criticism. Gough did quite a bit of scribbling actually, so it might be worthwhile to sample his words on the Irish writers that he, by his own admission, hardly reads anymore.
“To revive a useful old Celtic literary-critical expression: I puke my ring. And the older, more sophisticated Irish writers that want to be Nabokov give me the yellow squirts and a scaldy hole. If there is a movement in Ireland, it is backwards. Novel after novel set in the nineteen seventies, sixties, fifties. Reading award-winning Irish literary fiction, you wouldn’t know television had been invented.”
According to Gough, contemporary Irish writers are out of date. They are only contemporary insofar as they exist and write now. They don’t really have any meaningful link to modern society and seem to be in denial of their position within it, clinging to the past in dour nostalgia.
“I don’t get the impression many Irish writers have played Grand Theft Auto, or bought an X-Box, or watched Youporn. Really, Irish literary writers have become a priestly caste, scribbling by candlelight, cut off from the electric current of the culture. We’ve abolished the Catholic clergy, and replaced them with novelists. They wear black, they preach, they are concerned for our souls. Feck off.”
There must be concessions, surely. Yes, there are. Young Irish literary talent exists. Gough kindly gives a few suggestions as to where that talent lies. Among the literature suggested was something a little alarming. Guess. Just guess. For Christ’s sake. Obviously. Those Ross O’Carroll Kelly books.
“For me, the only writer to grab the Celtic Tiger by the tail and pull hard while the tiger roared was Ross O’Carroll Kelly, the pseudonym of Paul Howard. And that was a newspaper column, collected every year into a new book – read them all if you want to understand Ireland’s rise and fall. No other writer caught it while it happened.”
Brilliant. Gough champions Howard’s books as the “best, funniest, and most historically important run of Irish satirical journalism since Myles na gCopaleen.” Should I take these books apart? I should, they deserve it, but I won’t. I have to argue. I have to get back to Woody Allen. Remember him?
Tradition is the illusion of permanence. Tradition is supposed to trickle down through passing generations, to defeat time by preserving something, whatever it may be, good or bad. The Irish literary tradition is notorious, producing a ripple effect that is, for a comparatively small speck on the globe, disproportionately large. Consistently Ireland has known itself as a land of literary scholars. I think Gough (who?) has bought into that.
Tradition is the illusion of permanence. The real problem with Irish literature, what is not taken into account by Gough and the many that share his opinions, is that this lettered legacy is just a tradition. It is a fallacy. It is an illusion. It does not mean that Irish literature has a divine right to be brilliant at all. We as an island of emotional, imaginative and humourous wordsmiths feel we can just spew whatever runs through our stream of consciousness and it will be art. It will enlighten a world devoid of passion and fire as only the words of an Irish man or woman can.
Note: Gough uses Tommy Tiernan as an example of Ireland’s wonderful voice. “Tommy Tiernan is Ireland’s most philosophical voice, but he has chosen stand-up comedy as his way of delivering his philosophical prose … On the right night you will end up on the floor weeping tears of laughter and recognition as he takes Ireland apart.” This is rubbish. Tommy Tiernan is a twit who swears too much, has a mildly amusing accent played for lowbrow laughs and abandoned satire a decade ago to please the glorious graduates of Copper Face Jacks who fill Vicar Street to see him.
Tradition is the illusion of permanence. Maybe what Gough fails to state is his assumption that Irish literature is failing by not advancing its position as traditionally remarkable. This position is not permanent, obviously. If the best we can produce is Ross O’Carroll Kelly and Tommy Tiernan then it is difficult to see how Julian Gough can be so hopeful. Striving for greatness is a noble act, but to assume greatness is an Irish illusion of permanence.