The late, great Seamus Heaney understood the sadness of the Irish landscape. He was a poet of bogs, reeds, wells, dripping things, and “mossy places.” He deliberately contrasted his native environment with more fiery regions: “We have no prairies / To slice a big sun at evening.” Instead, in the bog, “The wet centre is bottomless.”
For those whose knowledge of Irish culture is based on Bing Crosby songs, casting such a “grey eye” on Ireland might seem excessively morose. What happened to the carefree little characters of the Emerald Isle and their smiling eyes?
Heaney’s work is a truer expression of the atmosphere of the island and people of Ireland. Yes, there are glorious exceptions to the sorrowful mysteries of the Irish landscape—bright fuchsia in a dark green hedge, shocking white bog-cotton on a dirty bed of turf—but these are exceptions to the rule of lachrymosity.
And all this despite the fact that the Irish people are (or have been) a Christian people. For 1500 years, the saving events of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection have been central to the Irish story, so why is our mood so dark? Are our tearful tendencies simply unredeemed? Is our Christianity just a patina of orthodoxy on a solid mass of fatalistic paganism?
I certainly don’t think so: Irish Christianity has always been solidly orthodox in belief, but it can’t be denied that, emotionally, it leans more toward Good Friday than Easter Sunday.