Being Irish, I have an abiding sense of tragedy that sustains me through temporary periods of joy. I wish I could claim those words as my own but I can’t. They are why I fell in love with WB Yeats – Irish Nobel laureate, poet, playwright, politician, and romantic. They are also why the Internet me calls herself ‘stolen child’ after the most beautiful of all his poems, one that speaks to the Irish worry that a child’s mind might be stolen by the fairies. I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m often away with the fairies – a poetic way of saying that my grip on reality can be tenuous at times.
That my love of Yeats might be shared by half of Ireland is no surprise. That my love of Yeats might be shared by a tranche of people in Hungary, though, is quite remarkable. I came across the newly formed Hungarian Yeats Society recently, an enterprise conceived by a young student, Melinda Szűts, who was so enchanted by Yeats’s poetry, drama, and literature that she wanted to bring his work to the attention of other Hungarians. They have big plans for next year, when the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth will see events in Debrecen, Pecs, Győr, and Budapest.
Damien Brennan, President of the Yeats Society of Sligo, the mothership of the Magyar Yeats Társaság, was in Budapest last weekend to give a talk at the Irish Ambassador’s residence on the life of Yeats. Hosted by HE Kevin Dowling, the early evening soirée gathered about 40 enthusiasts in search of something more than the usual dry biography such evenings often entail. Damien didn’t disappoint. He brought the man to life, sharing with us the details of his work that for many (ok, maybe just me!) had heretofore gone unremarked.
I was enthralled. I didn’t know that when Yeats first laid eyes on Maud Gonne, a woman he would love for nigh on 30 years, he remembered the moment as when ‘the troubling’ of his life began, for Maud would never love him back. In fact, she didn’t want to love him because she ‘could never love him enough’. They did get together once, in Paris, in 1908, when, as another love put it, ‘the long years of fidelity were rewarded at last’. Yet it was not to be.
But it is more than a love of Yeats that connects Ireland and Hungary. About 1000 Irish live here, the majority in Budapest. The Irish Hungarian Business Circle, with its legendary First Fridays, a social gathering that takes place in the city’s only Irish pub – Jack Doyle’s – on the first Friday of every month, attracts not just Irish and Hungarians but a host of other nationalities, too.
The annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations see thousands take to the streets wearing the green. While Szombathely, the home place of Leopold Bloom’s father, celebrates Bloomsday every year, Budapest has a Belated Bloomsday coinciding with Museums’ Night, when Joycean devotees gather to celebrate the life and work of another great Irish writer. And the Leopold Bloom Award, a contemporary art award established by an Irish logistics business with a Budapest presence, is given biannually to a young Hungarian artist.
Our most recent Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, was commemorated in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences earlier this year when Irish poet Medbh McGuckian came from Belfast to read his poems. And over in Győr, Irish pilgrims visit the Basilica to admire the famous weeping Madonna painting, donated by Bishop Walsh, from Ireland, who was given refuge there in the late seventeenth century.
Author James Michener once described Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. Is it any wonder that I feel so at home here?
First published in the Budapest Times 14 November 2014