The Writin Irishby Williams Cole
“We don’t say Irish writers are more important than writers from any other place,” says Mac Barrett, one of the producers of CUNY-TV’s 13-part series Irish Writers in America, whichdebuts November 22 and runs into next year. “Instead,” he says, “we pose the question, ‘What is it about this rock on the edge of Europe that has caused such a preponderance of enduring literary works, by not only those who have been raised there but by those connected through their genes?’”
A good question, indeed—because from Yeats, Joyce, and Behan to O’Brien, Heaney, and Tóibín, writers with genes from the Emerald Isle keep the great tradition of Irish letters flowing.
That lineage can also produce a “green shadow” at times. For example, when accepting the Eugene O’Neill Award recently, the playwright John Patrick Shanley spoke about how for many years he downplayed his Irishness, so as not to see his talents reduced to genealogy. Many of the Irish-born and Irish-American writers in this series approach the subject as one would hope, insisting that it is a complex array of influences that make one “Irish” and that being of such heritage in itself is certainly not something that makes writing any easier.
And certainly the insights from interviewees are diverse. In one segment, the novelist Colm Tóibín talks about how the English language came to Ireland “with an army” and how he dislikes being called a “storyteller.” In another Jennifer Egan recalls that it was when she was in a room in Chicago with a group of white-haired friends of her late policeman-father—who looked like him—that she realized she was part of a quite specific gene pool.
Senior Producer Lisa Beth Kovetz says that she and Barrett looked beyond the “standard Irish literary mafia” to include choices like Conan O’Brien, Kenneth Lonergan, Billy Collins, and Egan. And, it must be said, Conan, scruffy and irreverent about grappling with his Irish genes (“refusal to be practical,” “passive aggressive,” “we feel more comfortable when we are suffering”) is hilarious. Kovetz also admits that “To some extent doing a show about Irish writers was just a good excuse to talk to a bunch of really good writers” and that the producers always gave them the chance to contest or even shrug off the label.
One important theme when talking about the Irish or Irish-Americans is immigration. Both countries have a history defined by the many millions flowing between them (mostly from the one to the other, of course). “America has been an obsession of Irish literature,” adds Barrett, “and for Americans, especially those of Irish-American descent, the feeling is mutual.”
Each episode will air Fridays at 9am, 2pm, and 8pm; Saturdays at 7pm; Sundays at 8:30am; and will be archived at broadcast for viewing anytime at www.cuny.tv. CUNY TV is broadcast over the air on digital Ch. 25.3 in the tri-state (NY-NJ-CT) region, and cablecast in the five boroughs of New York City on Ch. 75 (Time Warner and Cablevision/Optimum), Ch. 77 (RCN) and Ch. 30 (Verizon). The station is also live-streamed for mobile, tablet and desktop viewing on Aereo.com.
Check www.cuny.tv for more information