Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall started tweeting Yeats to celebrate the poet’s 150th birthday in 2015, and the Twittersphere begged him to keep it going.
Hannah Gaber Saletan, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall have at least one thing in common: They like to start the day with a tweet.
But while the U.S. president’s online missives are often meant to punch and provoke, Mulhall’s tweets are designed to elevate and enchant. And, Mulhall says, to improve U.S.-Irish relations.
Mulhall’s Twitter feed is full of poetry – Irish poetry to be precise – which is his diplomatic tool of choice. It’s one that will land the 63-year-old globe-trotting Irishman on stage at the Lincoln Center this spring.
On Thursday, after a visit with Trump in the Oval Office, the Irish ambassador is sharing a different stage , Mulhall’s heading to Capitol Hill for the annual St. Patrick’s Day luncheon with Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, and members of Congress. The event dates back to 1983 and is a treasured ritual among lawmakers, whether they have Irish ancestry or not.
Mulhall says his poetry proclivities supplement his more traditional diplomatic duties.
“My job in this country as I see it is to tell Ireland’s story – and to listen to America’s story – and to connect the two stories,” Mulhall said. “Our story is very multifaceted, but I’ve found that telling our story through history and literature is a great door opener for Ireland.”
Enter William Butler Yeats, the famed Irish poet and playwright who used Ireland’s lush landscapes and rich folklore to become one of 20th century’s greatest poets. Mulhall said he realized Yeats had global resonance – and was a brand-name boon for Ireland – when he was stationed in India 40 years ago.
At a dinner hosted by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit – a politician, diplomat, and the sister of India’s first prime minister – all the guests began reciting one of Yeats’ poems from memory as soon as they realized an Irishman was in their midst: “When you’re old and gray and full of sleep …,” they started in unison.
Mulhall was stunned. “I thought, ‘Hey, this is the most prominent Indian family of the 20th Century and here they’re all reciting … (the poetry of a) tiny country of 4 million people thousands of miles away.”
As he moved from one diplomatic post to the next – Malaysia, Vienna, Laos – Mulhall folded his own love of Irish literature into his foreign service work. He started giving lectures on Yeats, along with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and other Irish literary heavyweights, at universities in his host countries.
But he didn’t turn to Twitter until 2015, when he was stationed in England. Ireland was going wild with celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Yeats’ birth. Mulhall decided to get in on the action from London.
“I started doing a daily tweet of Yeats’ poetry,” he recounted. “At the end of the year, I was about to stop and then people starting saying ‘I hope you’re going to keep this going … You have to keep it going’.” Many told him they found his Twitter feed to be “a zone of tranquility” in a sea of social-media vitriol.
He acquiesced. “And now I can’t stop doing it because if people have any response to my Twitter account, it’s always about the poetry,” he said. “There’s nothing else that I do that attracts the same kind of attention.”
Mulhall has moved well beyond Yeats at this point – tweeting a panoply of Irish writers, from Jonathan Swift, the 17th century satirist, to Caoilinn Hughes, an up-and-coming novelist and poet. As Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S., Mulhall also tweets American poets on special occasions, such as on the 4th of July and Thanksgiving
“Every night, I have a big collection of poetry at home, and I go through it and find something that’s tweetable,” he said. “It’s not always easy … Sometimes you need a whole poem to make sense of it.”
Mulhall’s passions have earned him an invitation to participate in the Lincoln Center’s 16th annual poetry celebration on April 24, billed as a “star-studded line-up of luminaries presenting readings from poetry’s most significant voices.”
Mulhall says he’s thrilled to walk through another door opened by Irish literature.
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