HELTENHAM, England — "My God!" Seamus Heaney said recently in comic astonishment. "Ireland is chic!"
Indeed, "Angela's Ashes" has come out of nowhere to win the Pulitzer Prize. "Riverdance" has helped public TV across America to pay the rent. The new Irish cinema has given us "My Left Foot," "The Crying Game," "In the Name of the Father." Not to mention Heaney himself, being given the Nobel Prize in literature.
Last week, the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, the most revered annual gathering of writers in Britain, decided to find out what the fuss is about. The first two days of its nine-day conference in this splendid Cotswold town were devoted to Irish writing.
"The Irish Weekend," it was called. Serious thoughts about Ireland past and present were aired; questions about identity, religion, guilt and family were asked and answered. But also, inevitably, thankfully, there was a generous amount of carrying on, and the bizarre was never far away.
Late-night incantations were performed. A case of stigmata was reported. But the essential element was time spent with people enchanted by and in awe of words, the simplest but most mysterious of things. Words in conversation, words in song, words on the page.
The Everyman Theatre, Saturday, 11:30 a.m.: Rain buckets down on this city of cream-colored Regency and Victorian architecture. Meet John Walsh, columnist for the London daily Independent and this year's festival director. His full head of hair is a bit wild, his eyes sensitive to light. "God," he says, "I've got a two-day hangover after only one night."
But he's cheerful. Disregarding the season, he is dressed for dinner at a beach resort--white linen jacket and a pink shirt. He introduces a discussion concerned with the church's role in Ireland today. But the three participants--Mary Kenny, Colm Toibin and Clare Boylan--happily dispense with any mind-paralyzing sociology and tell stories.
"It's not been recorded in Rome, but my cousin Margaret Shannon killed the devil," Boylan says. "Oh, absolutely. When we were bad girls, Sister would put us in a chair facing a picture of himself, all green flames and horns on his head. Made us sit and look at him, scaring us. But Margaret, after a time, got up, tore the picture off the wall and ripped it to pieces.
"So we knew, because Margaret was not struck immediately dead, the devil didn't exist."
"It's surely a post-Catholic Ireland now," says Kenny. "We've moved from the era of the family rosary to the age of the strawberry-flavored condom."
Toibin is the comer in Irish writing these days, just 42 but already that rare professional--the man of letters who is practicing journalism, fiction and nonfiction with equal skill. He brings to mind pictures of Jean Genet, with the bald, perfectly formed head, the blunt, handsome face. But Toibin smiles often, a thing Genet would not have been caught dead doing.
Town Hall, Saturday, 1 p.m.: Paul Durcan, one figure in a spotlight, recites to a full house and holds it rapt. He's not considered the best poet in Ireland but he is the most beloved, because of his humor and his connection to his readers and listeners.
He leaves the stage after waves of applause, the greatest reaction of the festival. Beloved, but something more, something that has come down to Celtic culture from long ago. As Robert Graves has written, " . . . in ancient Wales and Ireland a poet was not merely a professional verse writer; he was acknowledged to exercise extraordinary spiritual power. His person was sacrosanct. . . . "
Backstage, Saturday, 5 p.m.: I bail from a discussion of Yeats that I thought would turn my frontal lobe to tapioca. Much better to be here, with Deirdre Cunningham and her band as they prepare to perform as part of a midnight collection of poetry, dancing, music and drinks. A blowout. A hooley. Deirdre's band is described in the program as "lethal Celtic world beat fusion." And what is that, Deirdre? "Haven't a clue. Will you have a drink?" I will.
Town Hall, Saturday, 7 p.m.: John Walsh, now in a chartreuse jacket, talks with Edna O'Brien in front of a sellout crowd. She is the last of the banned writers in Ireland (for "The Country Girls," more than 30 years ago) and still is storming castles of repression and ignorance.
Her new novel, "Down By the River," is a harrowing tale of incest, rape and the destruction of a child, set in the rural West, a place that is O'Brien's country like Faulkner owns Mississippi.
She is nervous, constantly staring at her hands, but she speaks in a strong, lovely voice. She holds the audience with such bons mots as "When I was a child I thought words were alive. Really. Like other children thought dolls were alive." Walsh speaks little, mesmerized as everyone else.