Voices from the past – The Spoken Word; Irish Poets and Writers

By Mattie Lennon

“The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.” (Tennyson.)

  When listening to The Lake Isle of Innisfree or reading The Great Hunger have you ever wondered what the authors’ voices sounded like? Wonder no more. The British Library has brought out a 3CD set, The Spoken Word; Irish Poets and Writers. It consists of 24 recordings; almost three and a half hours of listening.

It covers more than sixty years from a recording of James Joyce, reading from Ulysses, in 1927 to Eavan Boland in 1988.

In an extract from a recording made in 1963 Frank O Connor tells of how he became a writer. He illustrates his development with readings from his books including his short-story Guests of the Nation.

There are 38 minutes of W.B. Yeats (6 tracks.)  One track In the Poet’s Pub runs to almost 20 minutes.

It is from a BBC broadcast of 1937.  Yeats  convinced the BBC to present English poetry readings on radio as if in a pub atmosphere. I find this surprising since it is widely believed that W.B. was only in a Dublin pub once in his lifetime. Listening to his voice recorded so long ago I couldn’t help thinking of the opening line of one of his poems,

Speech after long silence; it is right.”

  On this track his poems are read by actor, V.C. Clinton-Baddeley and Yeats himself can be heard singing in the choruses.

That other master of the English language George Bernard Shaw gives us, Spoken English and Broken English and Address at the British Drama League Conference. In the former he spoke about how the gramophone could distort the human voice. This was one of the earliest commercial spoken word recordings in English by any literary figure and it is a pleasant irony that now, 86 years later, we can listen to this amazing digital restoration of Mr Shaw and others. And it would be hard to agree with Oscar Wilde who said, “Bernard Shaw has no enemies but is intensely disliked by his friends.”

There are only two recordings of James Joyce’s voice in the world and they are both in this collection. He is heard reading a extract from Ulyssesin 1924 and an eight-and-a-half minute piece fromFinnegans Wake which he recorded in 1929. Another track features Sylvia Beach discussing the recordings of Joyce in which she relates that Joyce picked theAeolus section from Ulysses, to record, because, he claimed it was , “The only passage that was defamatory and therefore suitable for recital.”




Another track has Frank O Connor with Portrait of James Joycin which he speaks of the only time he met Joyce in Paris. According to O’Connor Joyce, at the time was surfing from,” . . . a slight persecution mania ...” and, what O’ Connor calls, “association mania.” He also refers to Joyce’s obsession with, not Dublin, but Cork, the home of his father.

Tracks which were recorded in the 1960s include Sean O’ Casey, Elizabeth Bowen (who said, “Ireland gives one a sort of terrain of imagination”), Mary Lavin, Patrick Kavanagh and Sean O Faoláin. (There is also an earlier track of O’Faolain recorded in 1949.)

Brendan Behan introduces and sings The Auld Triangle. The track is taken from a private disc donated to the British Library by the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. No date is given for the recording but I’m fairly sure it was madin 1961 the year of his trip to the USA and Canada. (On his return when asked what the thought of Canada he replied,”It’ll be nice when it’s finished.”)

I would, at times, like to think that I know a thing or two about Patrick Kavanagh but to hear him baring his soul to Peter Duval Smith in a BBC interview, in 1964, was a revelation.

The man who accused Monaghan of burgling his “. . .bank of youth” and clogging ( . . .the feet of my boyhood,” confessed in this interview that leaving his home place was a mistake and that he had “lived in a fog” and because of a “fantastic inferiority complex” had always seen himself as a failure. This interview was recorded about the time he wrote Song at Fifty. which begins,

It came as a pleasant surprise

To find experience

Where I had feared that I

Had no such currency,

Had idled to a void

Without a wife or child . . .


   Almost every Irish person has read, or at least heard of, The Valley of the Squinting Windows (I couldn’t ever understand why it wasn’t made into a film) and the controversy surrounding its publication but how many know what the author Brinsley McNamara sounded like. He’s heard here along with four other literary luminaries, discussing Yeats and other poet.

Anybody who has any interest in our Irish poets and writers owes a big thank you to the British Library for rescuing those voices from the jaws of obscurity.

The 3CD set is available from the British Library Shop

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