A gentle soaking in Celtic mist

Tuesday Book: THE OXFORD BOOK OF IRELAND EDITED BY PATRICIA CRAIG, OUP, pounds 18.95

IN IRELAND, people discuss rain as others savour wine. They dwell on the subtle differences in its quality, the drama of its manifestations and, of course, the likelihood of its occurrence. Its persistence can make some think, as Heinrich Boll once noted, that Ireland is full of holes and we'll all be drowned.

But it is essential to character, and some of us simply love it. Rain is a way of connecting with nature. Only a dip in the sea can compete as a means for blurring the boundaries between self and the elements. I never walk down a grim London street during a miserable downpour without recalling the delight of being gently soaked in Celtic mist.

As the travel writer William Bulfin said at the turn of the century, Irish rain "is a kind of damp poem. It is humid fragrance, and it has a way of stealing into your life which disarms anger. It is soft, apologetic kind of rain, as a rule; and even in its wildest moods, it gives you the impression that it is treating you as well as it can under the circumstances."

Another enthusiast, Robert Lloyd Praeger, described the west coast as having "an atmosphere that recalls blue eyes with tears in them: the only conditions under which it can look simply unattractive is in dry weather ... better than that, honest rain sweeping in from the Atlantic, and the sea shouting on the rocks".

It is just such gems that make Patricia Craig's collection of writings about Ireland exciting and provocative rather than merely a recapitulation of oft-repeated perspectives. She even manages a quotation exploring how rain was the undoing of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Many survived the burnings of the civil war, but few could afford to mend the roof.

Once you have got to grips with the rain issue, you have to tackle other senses titillated by Irish experience. Smell, for example. John Betjeman saluted the "turf-scented air".

And sound. Lord Dunsany suggested that the manager of any theatre wishing to evoke an Irish atmosphere should "have the sound of the curlew calling occasionally in the distance and send into the auditorium a whiff from a smouldering sod of Irish turf".

Then there is colour: the infinite variety of greens captured in so many photographs but hinted at only in passing here. Nor is taste - the flavour of food and drink - much tackled. Nevertheless, it is a treat to see this book capture the elemental feel of Ireland that lies behind Seamus Heaney's verse: "And on Iona Colmcille sought ease/By wearing Irish mould next to his feet".

There is much else, besides, to amuse. Some sections are predictable, though interesting, on Dublin, emigration, famine, the West, rebellion, emblems of nationalism, and the disaster that struck Northern Ireland for the last quarter of the 20th century. I would have preferred less from books, more from the wealth of Irish journalism as well as song. There is, however, space for quirky humour - such as Percy French's parody of Queen Victoria making an after-dinner speech in Ireland, as if she were a working-class Dubliner. There are wonderful snippets from VS Pritchett's observations in Midnight Oil, not least of taking tea with WB Yeats as the distracted poet struggles for somewhere to cast the old Lapsang leaves.

Healthy and frequent doses of irreverence from Flann O'Brien and others prevent this collection from becoming precious. My favourites are O'Brien's lampooning of Irish politicians and their obsessive lip-service to Gaelic culture. There are also frequent allusions to tensions between the Irish bawdiness that can be found in Gaelic but, in Anglicised Ireland, is so often suppressed by Catholic chastity and Protestant puritanism.

As Brian Moore wrote, the Irish are "a nation of masturbators under priestly instruction". Sections translated from The Midnight Court, written in Gaelic in the 18th century, are thoroughly modern in their descriptions of sex.

The confusion of what it means to be Irish is ever present, starting with Louis MacNeice's observation that "It gives us a hold on the sentimental English/As members of a world that never was,/Baptised with fairy water".

Then there is Roy Foster's excellent description of Yeats's cultural duality, which pulled him back and forth between his Irish and English identities, caught "between provincial, rooted Ireland and the metropolitan temptations of England".

Patricia Craig is Belfast-born and so has full access to that frequently neglected powerhouse of Irish culture - Ulster, to which she devotes a chapter.

If there is a weakness, it is that an English-speaking reader can only glimpse (thanks to translators) through a barely-opened door at the riches that lie beyond, in the Irish language.

Jack O'Sullivan

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