CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Terry from Derry: The Magi – A Night at the Opera

   

By Terry Boyle

The following piece of imaginary playfulness is rooted in my understanding of modern Irish literature. Yeats, a pioneer of the Irish Literary Renaissance, paved the way for writers such as Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan.

While one cannot fault Yeats’ literary talent, he was still a flawed human being. And, it’s these foibles that I wanted to have fun with in this flight of imagination. 

Last night at the pub was good craic. I overheard Yeats complaining to Sean O’Casey about changing times. The celebrated statesman began eulogizing the death of feudalism and bemoaning the excesses of democracy. A point that was not well received by his listener, who began fidgeting with a cardboard coaster and biding his time. 

Yeats, well accustomed to being in the spotlight, had perfected the art of speaking loud enough to be heard above everyone else. Sadly, I was probably the only one who paid his discourse much attention. 

The other barflies were too engrossed in a televised football match to notice the poet’s antics. Occasionally, their spontaneous outbursts drowned out the clever man’s sophisticated oration. Not impressed by the lack of interest, Yeats began channeling his frustration into a more erudite discussion on the sad state of Irish art. 

O’Casey, pushing his tweed cap to the side, adjusted his glasses, and coughed. Yeats’ elitist manner proved too much for the ardent socialist to stomach. Flipping the bar coaster up, O’Casey caught it the first time. ‘Not bad for a blind man’, he interjected.

Thrown off his stride, Yeats watched as O’Casey completed the trick for the second time. ‘Now, it’s your turn. You try it.’

If looks could damn you into obscurity, O’Casey would be shoveling snow in Siberia. An indignant Yeats placed a determined finger firmly on the coaster. He wasn’t happy with such a frivolous diversion.

O’Casey, equally determined, exhorted the poet to just go for it. ‘No one’s watching you. What difference would it make, anyway? A man of letters like yourself isn’t above a bit of fun. Is he?’ Yeats was rattled. It was written all over his studious face.

As the poet reflected on his options of whether to stay or go, the pub door pub swung open with a dramatic flair. Brendan Behan brutishly staggered into the premises. Singing at the top of his voice, he was quickly admonished by those watching the beautiful game. Not one to be silenced, he was about to cause a great ruckus when he caught sight of Yeats and O’Casey.

Taking his leave with a loud belch, Behan planked himself beside the celebrated duo. Without a second thought, he shamelessly threw his arms around his literary comrades. Reeking of smoke and booze, he kissed both men on the cheek. ‘Ah sure, look at us. We’re some of the best fecking writers, this country has known.’

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a host of smile wrinkles light up O’Casey’s face. Yeats’ fate was well and truly sealed. The boisterous drunk was holding him captive with his uninhibited display of self-congratulation. 

Yeats, who had begun to fidget with the bar coaster, found himself suddenly taken hold of by the lapels of his jacket. Behan’s spit got dangerously close.

Pulling the poet towards him, he mawkishly slurred ‘You’re the father of us all. You know that don’t you? Where we would be without you? Sure, it doesn’t matter that you’re an Anglo-Irish Prod.’

Turning to O’Casey, who was looking as if he was experiencing some religious ecstasy, Behan continued. ‘Sure, it doesn’t Sean. Oh, sorry, you’re one too, aren’t you? A Pod but you’re one of the good ones.  Working-class, like meself.’

Desperately trying to free himself from Behan’s huge hands, Yeats’ humiliation was eased when O’Casey intervened. Gently putting Behan back into his seat, O’Casey began to soothe the inebriated writer. 

‘Brendan, sit down. There’s a good man. You need to take better care of yourself.’

Temporarily appeased, Behan begins to lavish praise on his friends, stating unequivocally, that Yeats will be remembered as the ‘father of us all’ followed by ‘but no one can understand any of that Irish mythology shite.’
  
When O’Casey’s smile turned to laughter, the poet’s scorn was hard to contain. O’Casey might be shoveling snow in Siberia for an eternity but from the look on Sean’s face, he thought the hardship was worth it.  

As the supporters’ cheers faded into a postmortem of their team’s loss, the TV screens lit up with a news report. The former American’s fake tan and weird hairstyle were unmistakable.

Behan, leaping up from his chair, pointed to the image of Trump. ‘I can’t wait until someone makes that wan as their prison bitch. Look at him. The waster! They should lock up the whole fecking family. 

Ivanka can design and model the new orange jumpsuit. Trump Junior can write his new book, Fingered. Melania, oh she’s a hooker…. Jasus, sorry, I meant looker! She’s a top-shelf Prossie.’

O’Casey’s peals of laughter found the poet rising to his feet and ready to pontificate. ‘As I was saying to Sean before you came in Brendan, this is a bad state of affairs we’re in. You might not like that man….’

Behan, oblivious to the usual deference paid to the elderly poet, would not be silenced. ‘Like him? If he was the only one in the nick with me, you couldn’t pay me to shag him. He’s a tosser!’ 

Caught between enjoying Behan’s mad antics and Yeats’s discomfort, Sean tried to reinstate some civility. ‘Gentlemen, sit down. Let’s not make fools of ourselves.’ As if on cue, the soccer fans began to leave, and the pub grew quiet. The lack of ambient noise had an obvious effect on the writers. Brendan, still mawkish in his praise, was less ebullient. 

I was thinking of heading home when Greta Thunberg’s image appeared on the TV screen. On seeing the young spirited environmentalist, Brendan’s waning enthusiasm fired up again. 

‘There’s your new Maude Gonne. Forget all that Mise Eire shite! It’s the planet we should be thinking about, and not this speck in the universe we call Ireland. Look at us, some of the best Irish writers. You’d think we could do something more like her.’

Sobering up, Behan’s mood was reflective. I half expected Yeats to use the opportunity to make a speedy exit, but he didn’t. I equally expected O’Casey to offer to escort the maudlin Brendan home, but he didn’t. 

Instead, Yeats spoke about the need to preserve the soul of the planet and immortalize the zeitgeist of environmentalism in words that would galvanize the hearts of humankind towards responsible stewardship. O’Casey, adding to these ideas, spoke about how the impending universal calamity transcends parochial nationalism. It was the job of the writer, he said, to fight against the forces of those dragging us towards the abyss.

I was dumbfounded. What I was witnessing was hard to believe. Under a Swedish star, three Irish wise men, meandering in their ways, all following her light. I left the pub that night believing there was hope for us all

Terry Boyle

Terry Boyle

*Terry is a retired professor now living in Southern California. Terry is originally from Derry, Northern Ireland, and in 2004 he took up a position at Loyola University, Chicago where he taught courses on Irish and British literature. Apart from teaching, Terry has had a number of plays produced and has recently been included in The Best New British and Irish Poets 2019 - 2021 (published by The Black Spring Press). He can be reached at: [email protected]

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