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.”
The event’s popularity might partly stem from its embrace of aspects of Irish culture beyond literature. Wills is fond of saying that the proceedings are officiated by Messrs. Guinness and Harp, in reference to the beers that are practically Ireland’s national beverages.
“The earlier years were a little more raucous because we were younger,” Wills said.
Still, the St. Patrick’s Day party maintains its freewheeling atmosphere. It is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. and continue until it ends, Wills said.
“Later in the night, we like to read from a collection of Joyce’s letters to his wife,” Wills said. “They’re very entertaining and provocative. It usually requires a few beers before I get up and read those. They’re somewhat X-rated.”
Wills said the crowd ranges from college students to octogenarians who haven’t missed the event in 20 years. This year’s festivities will be dedicated to a regular who won’t be making it. Denis Callahan, a Southwestern College professor who was an expert on Irish literature and never missed the St. Patrick’s Day event. He died on the golf course earlier this year, just weeks before his 50th birthday.
Callahan was a New Yorker who attended Trinity College in Dublin,then went on to earn his Ph.D. at Notre Dame. After Callahan died, Wills purchased his entire personal library of a few thousand books.
“It’s very strong in literature,” Wills said. “One of the best personal collections I’ve ever seen.”
Many of the books are marked with Callahan’s own notes and highlights. Wills said he planned to donate many of the books to Southwestern College for Callahan’s colleagues and students. He said he would also distribute some of the books to Callahan’s close personal friends. The books that have no notes or markings will end up on the shelves at the bookstore.
“In that sense, he will live on here in the store,” Wills said.
Burke said Callahan’s knowledge of Irish material was such that his face was the map of Ireland.
“He was like family,” Burke said. “He was a very passionate person, not the retiring type. A great laugh and an Irish temper. He was brilliant and one of the most kind, helpful people I’ve ever known.”
Wills called Callahan a voracious reader whose knowledge of Irish literature was unsurpassed.
“He would re-read a lot of books,” Wills said. “He would change his mind about books. People would ask about some legendary work and he would say, ‘I did my duty.’ That was his way of saying that a lot of the works you were supposed to revere he allowed himself to change his mind about.”
D.G. Wills Books is at 7661 Girard Ave. Call (858) 456-1800 for more information.