Ciaran Carson’s constellations of ideas: theories on traditional culture from within

Davide Benini


Ever since the dawn of folklore studies, Ireland has been identified as one of the richest stores of traditional lore and music in the world. In the twentieth century, the focus shifted from folklore studies to anthropology, which provided scholars with new tools, and inaugurated a new approach to Irish traditional culture. Both the folkloric and the anthropological approaches have their shortcomings: if the study of the Irish traditional society as a tribe could lead us to forget its positioning
in the history of the West, the emphasis on folklore often dilutes itself into a quest for “local colour”. Moreover, the task of describing a different culture is complicated by the invasiveness of our epistemological approach; confronting traditional culture with the filters of literacy might lead us to perceive it as banal and simple. Ciaran Carson is a poet, a traditional musician, and the son of an accomplished storyteller. Carson approaches traditional culture as an insider: his description of traditional music and cooking are not travelogues, nor they resemble the detached
structuralist approach of anthropologists. Carson does not treat Irish traditional culture as a sample, nor as a fragile item to be kept isolated: his poetic discourse is in constant dialogue with world literature, from Japanese Haiku to the philosophy of Walter Benjamin; like James Joyce, Carson makes Ireland the centre of the world by turning to the outside.
Ciaran Carson’s perspective on Irish traditional culture is very articulated and could indeed be described as a theory, as long as we accept a theory that is not formulated in the language of criticism. Carson often describes traditional culture as a web of motifs, a constellation of narratives; the descriptive paradigm he adopts could also be described as a constellation, a web of ideas that, as in McLuhan’s mosaic technique, are juxtaposed and accumulated, in order to avoid the snares of literacy.


Ciaran Carson; Irish traditional culture; Philosophy.

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