The Twelve Wild Geese is an old Irish myth from the oral tradition. It has been told and retold in many different voices. This is my memory of it:
In Ireland, long ago, there was a queen who had twelve fine sons but regretted the lack of a daughter. One careless morning she spoke a whim out loud. “I’d give my twelve sons for a raven-haired blue-eyed daughter.” Immediately, her belly was filled. But as the girl was born, the sons were turned into wild geese. Years passed, and the girl heard of her brothers’ curse. She made an oath to an old witch that she would be silent for five years so that her brothers could be freed. She suffered all manner of joy, hardship, and sorrow in those five years, but she never spoke once. On the first morning of the sixth year, the wild geese flew towards her. As they landed, they turned into handsome men, and all of the ills the girl had suffered were put to rights.
The Irish tradition, as it is usually told on the world stage, centers around “the gift of the gab,” drinking, partying, and “the craic.” That narrative is not false, but it is theater. It sells well. At times, and in small doses, I love it, but it is the peaceful, quiet earthiness of Irish tradition, which grounds me.
I remember an Irish teacher in school smiling knowingly when I said that I loved the Romantics. She had something more in store for me. It was her mission, I think, to turn me from a fanciful teenager to a solid woman, and she did so with old Irish poetry.
She was also the catalyst who made me see what my mother had been nurturing me with for years. At home, we were taught to love all kinds of literature. John Irving and John Updike references were regularly thrown into ordinary everyday chat. But it was with the gentle, wise quiet of Irish mythology and of our writers—John McGahern and Mary Lavin; Molly Keane and Frank O’Connor; Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, and Yeats—that we were cradled.
It does not pay in Irish legends to be “boastful or careless in your words.” Loudmouths are considered fools or, like the queen in the Twelve Wild Geese, dangerous. In the Táin Bó Cúailgne, an epic from early Irish mythology, the spontaneous, arrogant pillow-talk of Queen Medb and her husband Ailill brings years of war to Ireland. In another episode of the Táin, “The Birth Pangs of Ulster,” Ulster’s safety is jeopardized for nine years when, as punishment for boasting about their women, the men of Ulster are cursed with nine months of birth-pains at every moment of adversity. The heroes of Irish mythology think, seek guidance, and are slow to speak: the great king Conchobar “never gave a judgment until it was ripe, for fear it might be wrong.”
In the 5th and 6th centuries, our monks spread quiet reflection, education, harmony, and prayer across a dark, tortured, tumultuous Europe. Irish writers seem to work their craft to the same end: disempower cruel, angry, divisive isolation and honor gentle, liberating quiet and the steadiness of the relationships that grow in it.
Quiet in Irish literature is honored, but the dark side of Irish silence is not whitewashed. It can be brutal and threatening: the “punishing silence” of John McGahern’s father in his black moods; the guilty isolation of the Protestant upper class, symbolized by Bram Stoker’s Dracula; the cruelty of novelist’s Patrick McCabe’s small-minded towns. In the poem “Limbo,” Seamus Heaney shames the deadly silence of an oppressive church. Poet Patrick Kavanagh will not allow solitude to be romanticized uncritically. In the poem “Inniskeen Road: July Evening,” he writes, “I have what every poet hates in spite of all the solemn talk of contemplation.”
Quiet in the Irish literary tradition is nurturing, maternal.
Mary Lavin starts a short story with, “Mother had a lot to say. This does not mean she was always talking but that we children felt the wells she drew upon were deep, deep, deep.”
John McGahern walks the lanes of Leitrim with his mother, briefly freed from the too frequent episodes of violence he experienced as a little boy.
Seamus Heaney quietly peels potatoes with his mother, not a word exchanged between them, feeling “never closer the whole rest of our lives.”
Quiet is observant. It watches. It notices. It thinks.
Joyce—inside the minds of Dublin people always watching, always thinking, always existing more in their own chaotic and unclear minds than in the world around them—reassures me that my thoughts need not always be ordered or pretty and that I am not the only one wandering through the day in a private world.
Quiet is a tool to protect a delicate and precious wonder.
In Austin Clarke’s poem, “The Planter’s Daughter,” grace and beauty are measured by the quiet used to honor it: “The men who had seen her drank deep and were silent.”
Quiet is a luxury.
These writers recognize that quiet is often not understood till it is lost. When the freedom the city promised him proves only to be noise, confusion, and “binibshaoirse” (barbed-freedom), poet Séan Ó Ríordáin aches for the quiet relief of his remote rural home. Christy Moore, the ballad-maker, rejects the constant “remote-control” stimulation that leaves no room for imagination: “I’m going away for ten years, I’m going to wander among the Wicklow hills.”
They know quiet is elusive. It is a fleeting, hard-won luxury. Yeats writes:
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
I am grateful they crave the elusive quiet—these writers, these poets. Because they thirst for it, they create it. They gift it to us through their words. Their words are my quiet home, my rising sun. My oasis.