David Pierce
York, England | Published: 15 March, 2009 | Views:
ISSUE 4 | Pages: 114-147 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2009-2601

Creative Commons 4.0 2009 by David Pierce | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

If anyone needed evidence that the Celtic Tiger was in terminal decline, 2008 was the year that proved conclusively that we are at the end of something — though, in truth, any year in the last five or so gave good indications. Yet, equally it is the case that we are at the start of something both inside and outside Ireland. In terms of banking and the economy 2008 was the end; the new beginning might be heralded by the election of the first African American to the White House. So, while the focus of the discussion here in this journal is quite properly ‘Ireland’, we find ourselves almost immediately talking this year about the global situation. How could it be otherwise when, as I write this in January 2009, the American computer company Dell, which is among the biggest employers in Ireland, has just announced the loss of 1900 jobs at its plant in Limerick?

At the cultural level, however, the downturn is being played out in ways that require patient observation and hard thinking, much of it outside the box. Writers and film-makers might feel compelled to jump in and give us the world as it is, but often contemporary reality eludes them. It is as if there needs to be a passage of time before a story can be adequately told or indeed discerned. Equally, critics in the field of cultural analysis will need to do more with the traditional concept of determination than simply suggesting that X caused Y or that in a time of recession people turn to fantasy to fill the void within or without. All around us, therefore, at every level there is a rewriting going on, and this makes for a certain excitement as new configurations or possibilities forge themselves.

In terms of the wider historical picture, among the first things to be distinguished are the overlaps from the preceding period and a sense of continuity therefore. In Irish culture, to take a recent example from the field of drama, the emptiness on display in Edna Walsh’s plays, such as The Walworth Farce (2007), and The New Electric Ballroom (2008), suddenly seems not so much prescient as immediate and descriptive of the world surrounding the theatre. At the beginning of The Walworth Farce, as we listen to a tape-recording of ‘An Irish Lullaby’ and ‘A Nation Once Again’, the message insists on itself: this is a play about post-romantic Ireland, where rituals serve as a distressing and unsentimental reminder of both what was lost and what cannot now be recuperated. ‘Shite’ says Dinny as, without more ado, he switches off the tape-recorder to begin the farce (p. 7). In history, as Thomas Davis’s unofficial anthem from the nineteenth century attests, there could once be heard the optimistic strains of a future, of a clear national identity, a nation once again as the rallying call of the song has it, but by the end of this play we cannot escape the conclusion that we have been witnessing not a farce but an excursion into a modern tragedy and an exploration, inside a council flat in South London where everything is ‘worn and colourless and stuck in the 1970s’ (p. 5), of the Irish dark.

With its echoes of William Trevor’s short story ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ (1972), Walsh’s next play, The New Electric Ballroom, evokes a different sense of loss. The play begins with talk and with the desultory observation that ‘

[b]y their nature people are talkers’ (p. 5), but it ends more dramatically with ‘Blackout. Silence. The End.’ (p 46). Hanging on a wall on the stage three sets of retro clothes stare out at us: a cashmere jumper and rara skirt, a 1950s red blouse and pleated skirt, and a glitzy show-business man’s suit. Punctuating the play are memories of possible romance enjoyed by the three sisters at the Electric Ballroom in rural Ireland and other dreams of unfulfilment. In this play, unlike Trevor’s story, we imagine at first that it is we who are looking on but in fact it is the other way round, for with its mixture of claustrophobia and dreadful provincialism this is a cruel world that stares at us. On the other hand, with 2008 in mind, another complicating thought prompts itself, and it has to do as much with the power of context in our reading and re-reading as with any sense of the discontinuous present. For while the credit crunch across the globe has ironically thrown us all together, Walsh reminds us not only of personal alienation but also of a particular Irish history which seems destined at this juncture to play itself out inside a wider recessionary context.

Loss and struggle, as I explore elsewhere in my own work, have accompanied modern Irish history since its inception, and perhaps it is for this reason that an Irish writer living largely in the diaspora should give us one of the most engaging and intelligent novels about American loss after 9/11. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill has received widespread acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. The novel supplies its own contexts, both fictional and documentary: the (once Dutch) city of New York after 9/11, a childhood in The Netherlands, an epigraph from Walt Whitman (and the theme of male friendship therefore), perhaps echoes from the Great American Novel such as Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) (as in the figure of Mehmet Taspinar, the Turkish angel, in one and Ras the Exhorter in the other), and so on. But, even as we find ourselves having to supply such a context (and we might now add to the list the credit crunch, for it is more than a post-9/11 novel as it was initially marketed), O’Neill’s Irishness shouldn’t be overlooked. For this is a novel about loss and struggle, loss of a friend, loss of the past, loss of direction, a marriage in dissolution, and then the struggle for meaning, for a narrative that would make sense beyond simply the world of gangsterism and intrigue, a novel about the struggle for family life amid separation, above all a struggle for friendship. Like the pervasive imagery of water in a novel about submersion, loss and struggle go hand in hand suggesting that the exiled writer was being driven by even stronger currents or by a more inclusive and older structure of feeling.

At one point in the novel, Hans, the protagonist, explains he is ‘given to self-estrangement’ (p. 46). It is a slightly old-fashioned way of putting it, as if he was in the same creative writing class as the young boy in Joyce’s first story ‘The Sisters’. He’s thinking about the game of cricket and how his new-found team-mates from the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent have no difficulty adapting themselves to the new environment and to a less than hospitable field on Staten Island that they claim for cricket. Chuck Ramkissoon, the Gatsby figure, has dreams of creating a New York Cricket Club and making lots of money in the process. As the novel constantly reminds us, it is an impossible dream, and yet, as O’Neill also reminds us, there is something in it. Cricket after all was widely played in nineteenth-century North America and, with the huge numbers of immigrants from countries where the game is pre-eminent, it could be revived again. Hans even insists, at least to himself, that cricket is a civilising game  —  and this in spite of disputes about umpiring decisions, one of which comes to overshadow the novel as it unfolds.

The idea of using cricket as a structuring device in the novel is such a daring move on O’Neill’s part. Indeed, although he is, like his character, given to self-estrangement, O’Neill still manages to get inside American culture through this alien corridor. With some justification, we might see it as Netherland’s answer to Underworld (1997) and a riposte therefore to Don DeLillo’s trumpeting of baseball in the famous opening to that novel. As if he were consciously writing back, there is something playful about O’Neill getting one of his characters to spend time surveying New York’s boroughs for a piece of land to purchase and build post-colonial dreams on. I am reminded of American readers’ objections to my chapter on Joyce and cricket in Light, Freedom and Song (2005) when it was still being considered by Yale University Press, and how, if it wasn’t taken out, the book would never produce any sales in the States. My response was to add a long footnote (see p. 289) detailing the nineteenth-century American interest in the game and quoting from Jones Wister’s A ‘Bawl’ for American Cricket (1893), an early account explaining why the game of ‘base ball’, played by professionals, won out over the ‘amateur’ game of cricket. O’Neill, whose Irish grandfather, as we learn from his investigations in Blood Dark Track (2000), was imprisoned in the Curragh during the Second World War for IRA activities, is more daring and confrontational for, while I was interested in ‘beyond a boundary’ and the colonial encounter between Britain and Ireland, his focus is inside the boundary and how cricket abroad serves as a home for exiles, a place of longing, and even ‘an environment of justice’ (p. 116).

Sebastian Barry’s new novel, The Secret Scripture (2008), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and which won the Costa Prize in 2009, returns us more surely to an Irish context. The territory is familiar to those who know Barry’s work, only now it is fiction and not drama that is the form. The setting is a mental hospital in County Roscommon where Roseanne McNulty (née Clear), a patient perhaps nearing her centenary, has a series of meetings with her psychiatrist Dr Grene, himself grieving over the death of his wife. Roseanne recalls, not always accurately, growing up in Sligo, memories of her own family and relationships. The narrative or course of her life, we surmise early on, is shaped, overshadowed or silenced by trauma. Throughout, the mood music of loss is heard in the two alternating centres of consciousness, where monologues never quite manage to become dialogues.

As in his earlier plays such as The Steward of Christendom (1995) and Our Lady of Sligo (1998), there is an often exquisite lyricism in Barry’s writing about loss and, for those who have not encountered his previous work, The Secret Scripture must be a genuine pleasure. The achievement, though, is perhaps less impressive on second reading. You never know with Barry if he is giving us his point of view or that of his characters. For example I assume this sequence of reflections expressed by Dr Grene is related to the overall theme of the novel: ‘The fact is, we are missing so many threads in our story that the tapestry of Irish life cannot but fall apart. There is nothing to hold it together. The first breath of wind, the next huge war that touches us, will blow us to the Azores’ (p. 183). Barry’s long-standing, self-appointed task has been to recuperate voices of those who lost out in the emergence of modern Ireland, such as those like the protagonist in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998) who had fought for the Crown and who had worked for the Royal Irish Constabulary before Independence in the 1920s, or those who, for most of the duration of the new State, had been locked away in asylums as happened to Eneas’s sister-in-law Roseanne in this novel. But, to broaden the discussion away from the issue of families in this particular novel and their hidden skeletons, I am not sure if this is the secret scripture that contemporary Ireland has lost. The Yeatsian vocabulary and imagery that Dr Grene deploys, especially evident in phrases from his poem ‘The Second Coming’, has its power, but whether it persuades is another matter.

The sympathetic imagination works differently with me. Some things cannot be retrieved without doing injustice to other struggles in history, and, even if they could be recuperated, we would still have other losses to prick our consciences. Ruins of the Big House are today dotted all over the Irish countryside; 40 years after Ireland’s entry into the European Union, the creamery as an institution has virtually disappeared. So to live in the present is to live with a sense of loss, some of which is worth lamenting, some not. In spite of Barry’s at times searing indictment of Roseanne’s treatment by Church and State in the new Ireland that emerged after Independence, the point is worth making: all those hidden from history in Ireland share something of the history of loss but the missing-from-history idea can take us only so far. In this regard there is something telling about one of Roseanne’s last entries in her jotter: ‘I once lived among humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold’ (p. 268). The note is not so much plangent as tinny or slightly false, either on Roseanne’s part or on Barry’s, and the effect is to distance the reader from her plight and diminish her representative or tragic status.

The Secret Scripture, then, constitutes a study not only in alienation but also in the relationship between politics and style, a relationship which seems to me more rewarding to investigate than the frequently noticed twist at the end of the novel. Also central to the novel is an exploration of the Irish dark, which to Barry is close to mystery or silence or deceit or concealment or ‘something deep in the water’ as the black-listed Sligoman Eneas McNulty affirms on discovering his brother Tom and his wife Roseanne have separated (The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. 187). However, although families may indeed conceal their histories from themselves and others, I do not believe the Irish dark is irrational or that dark. What holds the tapestry of Irish life together is the complex interlocking of loss and struggle, a necessary tension or over-layering and, at the same time, a refusal to buy into Yeats’s Second Coming in 1919 or end-of-world despair in 2008. Barry’s beautifully crafted prose invites assent, but somehow my mind continues to resist the secret scripture it embodies and I find myself, almost perversely, searching for the light.

Among the critics there have been several ambitious attempts at reconfiguring conventional ideas about the course of Irish letters. Let me touch on two here. John Kerrrigan’s Archipelagic English: Literature, History and Politics 1603-1707 (2008) is part of a wider devolutionary concern to detach Eng.Lit. from its more conventional Anglo-centric moorings. His title derives from the phrase ‘the Atlantic archipelago’, which appeared in an article written by J.A.G. Pocock in 1974 and entitled ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’. Kerrigan’s focus is Anglophone literature written in Britain and Ireland between the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603 and the 1707 Anglo-Scottish Treaty of 1707. His concern is to ‘recover the ethnic affiliations, the pride in ancient institutions…and the growing confidence in vernacular literary achievements that contributed to the configuration of early modern Englishness’ (p. 12).

Archipelagic English is an ambitious project and in its own way constitutes a plea for a new subject. His discussion of Irish authors is limited but everywhere the presence of Ireland can be felt. In a chapter on the ‘Derry School of Drama’, he considers such plays as John Michelburne’s Ireland Preserv’d: Or the Siege of London-Derry (1705) and William Philips’sHibernia Freed: A Tragedy (1722), and Kerrigan writes well about ‘the dynamic ambiguity of patriot drama’ (p. 323). All this is the necessary work of adjustment, which we might see as ‘clearing work’ to create a space for others. In systematically attending to the suffix ‘ness’ that we attach to words such as Scottish, Irish, British, or English, and in tackling issues of nationality head-on, the study is more sophisticated than many efforts made in the past. Not for nothing did the word ‘hybrid’ as applied to affiliation and a person’s identity come into the language in the period covered by Kerrigan’s study. I suspect, however, that the awkward phrase ‘archipelagic English’ will never appear on an undergraduate list as the title of a course.

John Wilson Foster’s Irish Novels 1890-1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction (2008) affords ‘a portrait of Ireland in fiction [which] departs from the story we have told ourselves under the auspices of the Irish Literary Revival’ (p. 4). Katharine Tynan, George A. Birmingham, Shan F. Bullock, Kathleen Coyle are the names of some of Foster’s chosen novelists, while his organising topics include religion, family and marriage, science and the supernatural, the New Woman, the Big House, and the Great War. Q.D. Leavis in Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) took her cue from what people were reading; in the same year, in New Bearings in English Poetry(1932), her husband, F.R. Leavis, outlined what he saw as the significant changes in the modern movement of verse from Gerard Manley Hopkins to T.S. Eliot. In spite of its Leavisite title, Foster is concerned not with significance per se but with the variety and scope of popular fiction and with the omissions, therefore, from the conventional highbrow story of Irish writing. His reading is formidable so that by the end of the book we feel inclined to be persuaded or at least hear him out when he insists that popular fiction embodies Irish conversation in history.

In an appendix, Foster includes a piece on Joyce and popular fiction. It is perhaps a little too short to do justice to the topic but let me just correct a small detail. When discussing what Bloom and Molly read, Foster writes: ‘Bloom reads Tit-Bits and picks up soft pornographic romances for his wife Molly, on this occasion The Sweets of Sin’ (p. 494). It is one of the few occasions in this valuable study where Foster slips up, for he must have been thinking about the more salacious, modern-day version of Titbits. When Bloom would have been reading it in 1904, Tit-Bits was not in the least pornographic. It was simply a collection of short pieces about everything under the sun including short stories by P. Beaufoy, and it was read in the 1880s and 1890s by the Joyce household in Dublin and Virginia Woolf’s family in London, families that is whose offspring, a generation later, went on to give us some of the best highbrow modernist fiction. There are occasions, we might add, when too much can be made of the gulf between the popular and the highbrow imagination.

Speaking of errors and with glass houses in mind, I must correct something that appears in two of my own books. In Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader (2001), I inadvertently inserted Derek Mahon’s poem ‘A Disused Shed in Co Wexford’ into the decade of the 1960s (under Night Crossing, 1968). It should be in the 1970s for the poem is from Mahon’s collection The Snow Party (1975); it appeared in The Listener in 1973.Light, Freedom and Song (2005) perpetuates the error and in a footnote I take Tom Paulin to task for reading the poem in the light of the Troubles (p. 318). I stand by my general remarks about the poem, that it should be read in broader terms than the Troubles, but I readily admit my double error. What drew my attention to all this was reading Hugh Haughton’s The Poetry of Derek Mahon (2007), a careful and authoritative study which follows the course of the poet’s publishing career volume by volume.

Haughton’s study ends fittingly on home, home being the location around which Mahon’s poetry has characteristically circled. As Haughton indicates, Mahon and Peter Fallon in their introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1990) identify ‘home’ as the word most frequently dwelt on in their selection, ‘as if an uncertainty existed as to where that actually is’ (cited on p. 368). Mahon is in this sense a typical Irish poet, one who shares a home with other Irish poets, a home to dwell in and to dwell on, as Haughton neatly puts it. Just how big is the size of Mahon’s achievement as a poet is still not clear, but I was slightly taken aback reading Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (2008) to see Heaney in the 1960s bristling when told that Mahon was the better poet (p. 77).

Which brings us to Heaney himself and the page-turner that Dennis O’Driscoll has compiled of interviews with Ireland’s leading poet. Setting your house in order before you retire from the scene is no bad thing and there is no-one better at doing this than Heaney. I recall a public spat I had with him at the Lancaster Literature Festival in the late 1970s. The altercation seemed to be about the terms in which critics should describe Irish experience. I cannot remember the details, but I think he took umbrage when I began referring to Georg Lukács and talking about class consciousness. On reflection I am sure he was right about the sui generis nature of Irish experience and yet I suspected at the time something else lay behind it such as the protection of homeland against theory and comer-inners like myself. Anyway, I didn’t concede defeat and the following day, as if nothing had happened, I drove him to the airport in Manchester to catch his plane back to Dublin.

Protectiveness is no bad quality and I felt something similar towards him when Sean O’Hagan, in reviewing Stepping Stones in the Observer on 16 November 2008, zeroed in on Heaney’s politics and on his effectively saying nothing. According to O’Hagan, ‘What Heaney did not do, of course, was take sides, either as a poet, or, as his fame increased, a reluctant statesman.’ I’ve no brief to speak on Heaney’s behalf but such a statement or charge, which is frequently made, is to my mind debatable. ‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing’, to take a pointed example, was first published in The Listener in October 1971, two months after the introduction of Internment, and it was accompanied by a photo of Catholics fleeing their burnt-out homes in Belfast (reproduced in Light, Freedom and Song, p. 245). So, in one important respect, Heaney is not saying what the poem’s title says. The side the utopian Heaney has characteristically sought is ‘the far side of revenge’, a position which is beyond but not above the sectarian politics of his native province. However, we should be in no doubt of his nationalist sympathies, nor indeed that he is himself, as he once wrote about John Hume in 1969 before the Troubles began in earnest, like a ‘questing compass-needle of another hidden Ireland’ (cited on p. 766 of my Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader). At the time of the Hunger Strikes in 1981, Heaney’s own mantra, as he reveals in Stepping Stones, was a remark by Czeslaw Milosz that he quotes in ‘Away From It All’: ‘I was stretched between contemplation of a motionless point and the command to participate actively in history’ (p. 260). Such a position we may well agree might be precious, but it should not be confused with not taking sides. [For more on this book of interviews, see http://www.dannymorrison.com/index.php?s=heaney]

Reading this collection of interviews reminds us of a poet on a journey south through his native province and how he came to shake himself free of the nets which might have held him back. Heaney is a child of his time and, as the list of names in the Index suggests, he seems incapable of escaping a male-dominated world, but for all that the collection is as I say a page-turner and will enhance his reputation. Whether it will enhance his achievement as a poet is another matter. That distinction, between reputation and achievement, is one that is drawn by Heaney in remarks about Yeats. ‘There will always be attacks on the reputation, but the achievement is rock-sure’ (p. 466). Heaney, the fine critic that he is, must have also been thinking about his own achievement when making such an observation, but I cannot help wondering what his one-time rivals in the Belfast Group such as Derek Mahon or Michael Longley would make of such a comment. Or, indeed, what history will make of Heaney’s reputation and achievement.

2008 was, then, a memorable year. It also saw the passing of Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008), one of the outstanding Irish intellectuals of the last century, who, among other things, made us all think very seriously about Yeats’s pro-fascist tendencies, about states of Ireland and Northern republicanism, and indeed about the nature of intellectuals in Ireland. On a lighter note, in reviews of the year published on 29 November 2008, the Irish Times carried this from the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, about his daughter: ‘I make no apologies for saying the best work of fiction I read this year is The Gift, by Cecelia Ahern (Harper Collins, £14.99). It has a seasonal theme and is a very clever story from a brilliant young writer.’  I make no apologies for offering no comment.

Let me end on a browsing note. I particularly enjoyed perusing the ‘Printed Books, Manuscripts and Artwork from the Collections of Cecil & Desmond Harmsworth’, which came up for auction in London in December 2008 [see http://www.bloomsburyauctions.com/auction/672]. What caught my eye were a number of items about the ‘daintical pair’, as they are called on page 295 of Finnegans Wake (1939), of Yeats and Joyce. One was a letter Yeats sent to Cecil Harmsworth in June 1927 in which he sought help in furthering a union between Southern and Northern Ireland, ‘for Ireland will never be a perfectly cordial partner in the British Commonwealth while North & South are playing up to one another’. In the accompanying photocopied manuscript, ‘cordial’ is spelt ‘cordeal’ by the would-be statesman Yeats! Another item contained a moving tribute to Yeats by his sisters after his death, a death which came as a shock to them, for they had always ‘trusted to his fine vitality that had triumphed so often’. Elsewhere, in a letter by Desmond to Cecil Harmsworth in June 1934, we learn that Joyce wanted to include material about the Harmsworth family in what was to become Finnegans Wake (1939). Joyce expressed interest in other Dublin notables such as the Guinness family, Dunlop, and ‘the man who started the tramways’. After accompanying Harmsworth to the Russian ballet in Paris and after two carafes of wine in an adjourning café, Joyce was in convivial mood and performed his own daintical ballet steps on the pavement outside. And as you might expect, a copy of Harmsworth’s famous sketch of Joyce kicking was also in the collection. Needless to say this browser could not afford any of the items.

Below are the reviews I have commissioned for this issue. As in previous years, they are by established and by less-well-known critics and they cover a wide range of material including fiction, poetry, and criticism. They will, I hope, interest a similarly wide range of people across the world who are interested in the continuing development of Irish Studies. This is my opportunity to thank all the reviewers for their contribution to fostering that development and for giving of their services so generously.


Works Cited

Barry, Sebastian. 1995. The Steward of Christendom. London: Methuen.

_______. 1998. Our Lady of Sligo. London: Methuen.

_______. 1998. The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty. London: Picador

_______. 2008. The Secret Scripture. London: Faber and Faber. DeLillo, Don. 1997. Underworld. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Ellison, Ralph. 1952. Invisible Man. New York: Random House.

Fallon, Peter and Derek Mahon eds. 1990. The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. 1925. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Foster, John Wilson. 2008. Irish Novels 1890-1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haughton, Hugh. 2007. The Poetry of Derek Mahon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Joyce, James. 1939. Finnegans Wake. London: Faber.

Kerrrigan, John. 2008. Archipelagic English: Literature, History and Politics 1603-1707. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leavis, F.R. 1932. New Bearings in English Poetry. London: Chatto and Windus.

Leavis, Q.D. 1932. Fiction and the Reading Public. London: Chatto and Windus.

Mahon, Derek. 1968. Night Crossing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

_______. 1975. The Snow Party. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Driscoll, Dennis. 2008. Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. London: Faber and Faber.

O’Neill, Joseph. 2000. Blood Dark Track. London: Granta.

_______. 2008. Netherland. London: Fourth Estate.

Pierce, David. 2001. Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader.Cork: Cork University Press.

_______. 2005. Light, Freedom and Song: A Cultural History of Modern Irish Writing. London and New Haven: Yale University Press.

Pocock, J.A.G. 1974. ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’ in New Zealand Historical Journal 8.

Trevor, William. 1972. The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories. London: Bodley Head.

Walsh, Edna. 2007. The Walworth Farce. London: Nick Hern Books.

_______. 2008. The New Electric Ballroom. London: Nick Hern Books.

Wister, Jones. 1893. A ‘Bawl’ for American Cricket. Philadelphia.