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Mark Bennett B-Sides

November 4, 2010

B-SIDES: Hoosier Folklore Conference explores creative influences of Irish artists

TERRE HAUTE — It’s possible that, today, a few people are angry about having to listen to so much anger.

(Would those two competing forces of anger, inside one person, cancel each other out, kind of like a double-negative or offsetting penalties? Just trying to comprehend that internal competition is angering.)

Whether your ears have absorbed enough political venting to last a lifetime or you’re merely resting your vocal cords for the next protest rally, one reality is universally understood — 2010 has been the year of tension. Tuesday’s election reflected widespread unrest as moderate candidates got swept out of Congress in favor of anti-government, no-compromise newcomers.

They’re mad about President Obama, mad about his health-care reform act, mad about the federal deficit and mad about the slow, jobless recovery from the economic recession.

It’s a mad, mad, mad world.

That heated atmosphere could produce an unexpected byproduct — creativity.

In a similar way, turmoil made possible the Irish influences behind this week’s Hoosier Folklore Conference, hosted by Indiana State University. Its lineup for today and Friday features Ireland’s foremost poet and playwright, Vincent Woods, Irish musician and scholar Mick Moloney, and Indiana University professor emeritus of folklore Henry Glassie. Folklore — which encompasses legends, music, stories, poems and “the art of everyday life,” as conference organizer Nan McEntire put it — brews perpetually in Ireland. The tiny island nation with a population the size of Philadelphia generated, arguably, the 20th century’s greatest poet (William Butler Yeats), novelist (James Joyce) and playwright (Samuel Beckett). The Irish cultural spigot continues to flow from venerable rockers U2 (with a record 22 Grammy Awards) to Celtic performers popular around America.

Why are the Irish so prolifically creative?

“I honestly think it’s the tension,” Glassie said Wednesday by telephone from his home in Bloomington.

Ireland has dealt with political tensions for far longer than America. Its turmoil over British colonial rule began centuries ago, including a war over independence in the 1920s. Joyce published his landmark novel “Ulysses” in 1922. Yeats won the Nobel Prize in 1923. Beckett published his first essay in 1929.

“It’s because their world was complicated,” Glassie explained.

“In Ireland, there’s always a sense of limitation of power,” he added. “Irish people very much think, ‘Will we continue to be Irish, or will we have to, on the one hand, become English, or on the other hand, American?’”

In 21st-century Ireland, the works of Vincent Woods — who will speak at 2 p.m. today in ISU’s Root Hall — embody the lingering anxieties of the Irish, Glassie said.

“Those things have made Vincent Woods’ poetry and plays fantastically important,” he said. “Those tensions all people feel are maybe the oldest in Ireland.”

While the circumstances have, historically, been rough, the folklore emanating from Ireland often exudes hope and joy.

McEntire has witnessed the culture’s bright spirit firsthand. The associate professor of folklore at ISU has visited and studied Ireland, including a six-month stay there last spring on a Fulbright scholarship. She researched traditional Irish music at the University of Limerick. She discovered a “slower, more relaxed pace” of life, and people “who really would take time to just talk.”

In those moments, folklore happened … through stories, songs and gestures.

She encourages students in her folklore classes to seek out those instances “face to face.” Not surprisingly, when she utters that term, the students presume she’s referring to Facebook. Social media, the Internet and electronic devices can become, in their own way, a forum for folklore. But those virtual outlets also can distract people from cultural beauty in the real world.

Americans “have to look a little bit harder here to find [folklore],” McEntire said. “We’re too focused on our cellphones.”

It’s out there, though, especially in Terre Haute — home of famed graveyard cat Stiffy Green, and a pioneer of political unrest, Eugene V. Debs. Folklore, McEntire explained, occurs in Proverbs, speeches, urban legends, stories about eccentric uncles, superstitions, weather predictors, whether farmers plant crops in daylight or moonlight, and family recipes.

Folklore is the way humans inject creativity into their routine daily grind, Glassie said, no matter how tense. Folklore, for example, flourished in the United States during the Great Depression. Post-recession America, with its anger and tight times, could become the stuff of legends, stories, poems and songs, too.

“There’s no reason not to hope,” Glassie said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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    March 12, 2010