Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Declan Kiberd Appreciation Society
In honor of (yesterday's) St. Patrick's Day, I want to lift a jar to Declan Kiberd, Irish literary scholar extraordinaire. Kiberd is the author of definitive books on Irish literature, including Synge and the Irish Language, Men and Feminism, Inventing Ireland, Irish Classics and The Irish Writer and the World. (He's also annotated and written the introduction to the Modern Classics edition of James Joyce's Ulysses.) He has all the drama, pathos, contestatory intrigues, and language-in-several-languages of nearly every Irish writer in his head, and can recite text and verse from hundreds of sources, in the grand Celtic story-telling tradition. He's a meticulous, respectful critic, able to locate writers in their historical moment and its aftermath. Beyond that (as it says on the Declan Kiberd Appreciation Society facebook page) he's an "all-round solid man." (I know he would get a chuckle out of that – if he read facebook!)
I first met Declan in the summer of 1984, when I attended the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo. I arrived there after a 6-week International Semiotic and Structural Studies Institute Summer School in Toronto (that's another story), listening to lectures by thinkers as diverse as Howard Gardner, Paul Ricouer, Fred Jameson, and Jacques Derrida. Suddenly I was in Sligo, staying at a modest b&b near the sea (the only guest of an elderly couple), sitting alone at an opening lecture on the topic of "Anglo-Irish Attitudes" (later to become an influential Field Day pamphlet). Declan Kiberd was on stage, speaking at a podium with such passion and fervor that he simply released his notes to the floor when finished with a page – they floated down around him, to be gathered up at the end to the sound of resounding applause.
I looked to my left to say something in amazement to the small red-haired woman who happened to sit beside me; she giggled and said "Oh yes, he's my brother, he can get very worked up on the topic! He's mad, quite mad!" We stole Declan away afterwards for a quiet fish and chips lunch, where I learned that his 2nd daughter, Amy, had just recently been born in Dublin; he was missing his wife Beth, daughter Lucy, and the baby. He warned me to "Pace yourself!" during the Yeats Summer School, which does, indeed, become very intense. (Imagine a seminar with poetry critic Helen Vendler, followed by drinks at a crowded pub, and then céilidh dancing and ballad singing, with Seamus Heaney in company, at the St. Columbanus Club into the wee hours: it was amazing good craic!)
We became friends and there is much more to say, except that it's been far too long since I've seen the Kiberds. The entire Kiberd family is remarkable, and when I taught in Ireland in 1987, Declan's parents, sister Marguerite, and brother Damien were the anchors of my experience. (Declan, Beth and the girls were in Santa Barbara that year, alas, importing Irish literature to the land of sports cars and surf boards.)
No email for Declan Kiberd, something I do find appropriate, for some reason. I can see his distinctive handwriting in green ink on long yellow ledger papers, swiftly preparing book after book. With love and admiration in the aftermath of St. Patrick's Day, I want to join all of the others in the Declan Kiberd Appreciation Society (electronic and no) whose lives and minds have been touched by the brilliance, kindness, humor, and passionate generosity of this exceptional man. Here's a shout!