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Irish poetry and prose celebrated at D.G. Wills Books

The smell of baked potatoes, the burn of whiskey on the tongue, the voices of legendary poets hanging in the air - this is Saint Patrick’s Day at D.G. Wills Books.

One of the greatest holiday traditions in La Jolla will be renewed this Saturday, March 17, as the bookstore celebrates its 28th Annual Reading of Irish Poetry and Prose. Each year, proprietor Dennis Wills welcomes the public into his store to read selections from legendary Irish writers such as James Joyce and William Butler Yeats while enjoying some of the more beloved food and drink in Irish culture.

As it does every year, the event will begin at 7 p.m. and continue “until it ends,” Wills said.

Members of the public can step to the microphone and read any piece of Irish writing, with some of the most popular selections often coming from Joyce, Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Edmund Burke and Sean O’Casey.

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Some readers choose to stray from the traditional heavyweights. Wills said some people choose to simply tell an Irish joke and are done in 30 seconds. One regular at the event recites the complete “Win One for the Gipper” speech by Knute Rockne, head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Sometimes small groups will act out scenes from plays by Beckett or O’Casey or will perform Irish music.

The only rule at the microphone is that the material must be related to Ireland and should last no longer than five to seven minutes.

In addition to the speakers, Wills also traditionally plays a tape recording of Joyce reading “Finnegan’s Wake” and of Yeats reading some of his poetry.

“Once it gets going, there is a chemistry and an electricity in the air,” Wills said, “just from hearing James Joyce’s voice. And Yeats, he sounds like a mystic when he reads.”

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Wills also plans to play a videotape of Denis Callahan, a Southwestern College professor who was an expert on Irish literature and never missed the Saint Patrick’s Day event before his death early last year. Last year’s event was dedicated to Callahan and his passion for and knowledge of Irish literature.

“He is always so educational to listen to,” Wills said. “I’ll probably play one of the tapes of him as a tribute to my buddy.”

Last year’s event fell on a rainy Friday night, so dozens of people squeezed into the narrow aisles of the store.

“We were crammed in like sardines in a can,” Wills said.

Several others endured the pouring rain to listen from outside. The event draws newcomers every year in addition to the several regulars.

“Some people will come every year for some years, then they’ll stay away, then show up again two years later,” Wills said. “That’s okay. But if you show up, you have to have a drink.”

Wills is fond of saying that the proceedings are officiated by Messrs. Guiness and Harp, in reference to the beers that are practically Ireland’s national beverages.

Other Irish food and drink are also usually available in abundance, including corned beef and baked potatoes that Wills likes to eat the old-fashioned way, with his bare hands.

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“And there may be a few drops of Irish whiskey,” Wills said.

Not surprisingly, the tone of the event tends to shift as the evening wears on. Wills typically breaks the readings into three sets with short intermissions between, and the third set is when Wills steals the show by reading some of Joyce’s “x-rated” love letters to his wife.

“That’s after the polite people in the audience who might be offended have gone home for the evening,” Wills said. “After we’re a little lubricated it’s fun to read the graphic letters to his wife.”

After 28 years, the Saint Patrick’s Day event is bigger than ever.

“I started getting e-mail queries as far as a couple months back, because I hadn’t put (the event) on the Web site,” Wills said. “It’s become self-generating.”

D.G. Wills Books is at 7461 Girard Ave. For more information, call (858) 456-1800.