For the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, his pen was the spade wielded by his ancestors in the potato drills and peat bogs. It was the tool he used to dig into history and know the generations of laborers that came before him.
"The Irish have a particular genius for addressing their own history," said Ted Burke, literary buyer for D.G. Wills Books. "They know the history verbally, and they've grown up with it."
This understanding of the past and its connections to the present is part of the particular magic of Irish literature, which will be celebrated at the 27th annual St. Patrick's Day gathering Friday, March 17, at D.G. Wills Books.
Everyone is invited to step to the microphone and read from their favorite selections by James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Edmund Burke, Sean O'Casey and others.
"We generally stick to the heavyweights," store owner Dennis Wills said. "But as long as it's Irish, it qualifies. Some people will come up and tell an Irish joke and be done in 30 seconds. We've had people go up and read U2 lyrics."
Wills said one regular at the event recites the complete "Win One For the Gipper" speech given by Knute Rockne, head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Small groups will often act out scenes from plays by Beckett or O'Casey. Recent regular Kathleen Hartshorne sings in various Irish dialects. The only rule at the microphone is that the material must be related to Ireland and should last no longer than seven minutes.
Despite being a small nation with a current population of a little more than 4 million people, Ireland has produced as much quality poetry and prose as any country in the world. The masters who hail from the country share a literary voice that is shaped by their history, Burke said.
"The Irish had their own language. They were conquered and English was imposed on them," Burke said. "One of the things that happens when people have a language forced on them is they will adapt that language to their own cadences and rhythms, creating a language not duplicated anywhere else in the world. The amount of talent that has come from there is just unsurpassed."
Though rooted in a specific history, the great works of Ireland appeal to people everywhere.
"The great ones - Synge, O'Casey, Maude Gonne - their work was about passion," Burke said. "And not just rage or anger. They found a voice for that passion and people relate to it across the board."
The St. Patrick's Day event at D.G. Wills has amassed quite a history of its own. The event began at the store's original location on La Jolla Boulevard when poet Joan Lindgren suggested the idea to Wills in 1979.
"She suggested we get together and have a reading of Irish poetry," Wills said. "I thought we would stop after the 25th. Then the 26th was coming along and so many people were calling saying, 'Are you going to do it?‚' I thought, 'OK.' Now we're on number 27 and I guess we'll try to make it to 30."