Google+

BBC Culture

Startling facts about Ireland’s most famous writers

(Fran Caffrey/AFP/Getty Images)

(Getty)

Who would the author of Ulysses hide behind in a fight? For St Patrick’s Day, BBC Culture unearths six weird and wonderful facts about Irish writers.

James Joyce used Ernest Hemingway as a bodyguard

The author of Ulysses met Hemingway in Paris during the 1920s. Both renowned heavy drinkers, they began to frequent cafes and bars together. While Joyce was unathletic and had failing eyesight, his drinking companion was tall, strapping and prone to violent outbursts. If Joyce picked a fight, he would hide behind Hemingway. According to the voiceover on this clip: “When in the course of their drinking, he ran into any sort of belligerence, he would jump behind his powerful friend and shout: ‘Deal with him, Hemingway. Deal with him.’”

Bram Stoker based Dracula on an Irish myth

While many believe Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel was inspired by the medieval Transylvanian prince known as Vlad the Impaler, others have a more homegrown theory. A myth centred on the town of Slaghtaverty in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, has been credited with influencing the Irish writer. Describing an evil ruler called Abhartach who rose from the dead and demanded a sacrifice of blood from the wrists of his subjects, it has parallels in Stoker’s tale. Published in the 1634 book A General History of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating, and Patrick Weston Joyce’s A History of Ireland in 1880, it was widely known. Two of the earliest and most influential vampire novels were written by Irishmen – Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, as well as Stoker’s classic – suggesting that local legend may have shaped the story as much as European myths and Gothic literature.

Flann O’Brien anticipated thermodynamics and atomic theory

Hailed as a postmodernist literary genius, and said to influence Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino, Brian O’Nolan had another side. His 1940 book The Third Policeman – written under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien and only published after his death in 1966 – featured a policemen becoming more bicycle than man, and portrayed night as an accumulation of black sooty substances in the atmosphere and travel as an illusion. Professor Dermot Diamond from the School of Chemical Sciences at Dublin City University believes O’Nolan was a scientific prophet. In a lecture given at the centenary of O’Nolan’s birth, Diamond suggested the writer anticipated some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th Century, setting recent experiments in the fields of thermodynamics, quaternion theory and atomic theory against excerpts from his books.

(Getty)

Oscar Wilde was the editor of a women’s fashion magazine

Known for his acerbic wit, the playwright and aesthete had a lesser-known career between 1887 and 1889. Shortly before publishing his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde took over a Victorian magazine called The Lady’s World, which featured on its cover a female figure on a pedestal, holding a book in her left hand while gazing at her own image in a mirror. Renaming it The Woman’s World, the new editor removed the front-page goddess and elevated gossip columns with the feature Wilde’s Literary Notes. While his editorial assistant Arthur Fish revealed that Wilde found the pressures of office work hard, his regular contribution falling off after the fourth issue, he did introduce a format that treated women as equals. In a letter to the publisher outlining his plans, Wilde wrote: “[I]t seems to me that the field of the mundus muliebris, the field of millinery and trimmings, is to some extent already occupied by such papers as the Queen and the Lady’s Pictorial, and that we should take a wider range, as well as a high standpoint, and deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel.”

Samuel Beckett wrote a piece for a Broadway musical

The Dublin-born playwright and novelist − who won the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature for writing which “in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation” – is not an obvious choice for a Broadway musical. After penning sparse numbers like Waiting for Godot and Endgame, Beckett contributed a piece for Kenneth Tynan’s Oh, Calcutta! – a 1969 avant-garde revue whose revival was one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history. While Beckett later withdrew permission for the use of his sketch, it was used as a prologue in the original staging. Called Breath, and lasting 25 seconds according to the instructions in Beckett’s script, it consists of a birth cry followed by an amplified recording of a long inhalation and exhalation. The artist Damien Hirst filmed a version in 2001, with the actor Keith Allen providing the breath.

Seamus Heaney was scared of frogs

Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney – who grew up on a farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland – betrayed an unusual fear in an interview with Brick Magazine. The land around him featured throughout his work – yet despite admitting he had an Arcadian childhood, there were rural anxieties. “Actually any fear I had was on the whole elemental fear,” Heaney told Brick. “Wordsworth was afraid in the mountains, I was scared by frogs and rats . . . and frogs spawning, which went into my first poem, Death of a Naturalist.” Both the sight and the sound triggered his response: “They were croaking, and it was a very kind of sinister croak, a kind of chorus of croaking, and it just was scaresome to me... the sense of the gross, physical frogginess of them all and the sound they made.”

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.