Thursday, 11 October 2012

'Fi Li or Why Irish Writers Win so Many Nobel Prizes for Literature (and should have won more)'

I hope my Irish friends will forgive me for writing about something quintessentially Irish; but it is something that has fascinated me since coming to Ireland – the fi li.
In ancient times the fi li were the exalted fraternity of professional poets and narrators in Ireland.
The fi li’s main activity was the composition of verse celebrating his patrons and detailing the genealogy and lore of families and tribes.
However the tradition allowed plenty of room for improvisation and personal expression, especially in regard to creative hyperbole and clever kenning. (Eleanor Hull: Textbook of Irish Literature). And the fi li were also expected to be skilled in the oral transmission and performance of traditional prose tales - “the poetic profession”.
Early Irish literature
The ancient Irish word scél is ambiguous in that it can mean ‘news’ on the one hand and ‘tale’ on the other. The skill of the fi li in taking advantage of this ambiguity has been referenced in the literature. A favourite story of mine which illustrates this is to be found in an article by Joseph Falaky Nagy (Oral Tradition 1/2 (1986): 272-301; Orality in Medieval Irish Narrative: An Overview).
In this example, a notable storyteller’s household is raided by the kinsmen of the king Domnall mac Muircertaigh, the angered poet goes to the royal residence, where he is greeted by Domnall and asked to tell his news (“iarmifocht in righ scéla dosum iar tairisiem,” Byrne 1908:42). The storyteller, careful not to accuse directly the relatives of his powerful host, takes advantage of the semantic ambiguity of scél and interprets the king’s polite question as a request for information concerning the storyteller’s repertoire of tales and traditional lore. What the storyteller eloquently then presents to Domnall is a remarkable catalogue of traditional tales. At the very end of his list of titles the fi li refers obliquely to the story of his own misfortune, and the king, unfamiliar with the title, asks the storyteller to tell the unknown story. He does so enthusiastically, and after the telling of the thinly veiled composition, the informed monarch sees to it that justice is done.
This is not quite satire but it does resemble the writer’s and orator’s technique of shining a light on the ills and excesses of society, in particular those attributable to the governing classes and social convention, by way of storytelling. Of course this has been and is still done no better than by the wonderful writers and orators Ireland has produced over the years. For a small country, under five million today, down from over eight million before the potato famine and successive waves of migration depleted numbers, Ireland has produced four Nobel Laureates in literature – and arguably at least another two should have been so honoured.
There are various theories about why the Irish ‘punch well above their weight’ when it comes to literature – is it the ‘craic’, is it the family, is it the pubs? For me the answer is that it is the legacy of the fi li.
In looking for a connection between the fi li’s role and healthcare I was reminded of ‘whistleblowers’.
In another place I am the ‘Protected Disclosures Officer’. This means that anyone in the organization in which I hold this post can report to me any practices or incidents they believe are illegal or inappropriate in the knowledge there can be no legal or management reprisals or repercussions (such as an action in defamation or inhibition to career advancement). So they can ‘shine a light’ where they may otherwise have been deterred from doing so. There have been a number of instances in healthcare where this has resulted in unsafe or inferior quality activities being exposed. Caution is needed however lest this protection be used in a cavalier or vexatious manner.
There is also now qualified privilege that is enjoyed by healthcare workers in some countries. The idea being that healthcare workers can frankly discuss outcomes in a peer review setting in the quest to improve practice without fear of legal action based on what is disclosed in such meetings (unless what has been done is illegal).
I would like to give credit to the fi li for the emergence of these initiatives too but that would be drawing too long a bow.

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