Patricia A. Lynch
University of Limerick, Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2011 | Views:
ISSUE 6 | Pages: 156-189 | PDF | DOAJ |

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Reflections on Irish Writing in 2010

As incoming editor of the Irish Studies reviews for this prestigious journal, I am more than grateful to Rosa Gonzalez and the editorial committee of Estudios Irlandeses for entrusting me with the task.  It is with some trepidation that I take up in the footsteps of David Pierce, who in the previous issues fulfilled that role with distinction.  I am indeed grateful for the tips which he supplied to me to carry out the task, and for the examples given through the previous issues. 2010 has turned out to be a very interesting year for me, a retired faculty member in English Studies/Irish Studies from the University of Limerick, and one of the longest-serving members of IASIL (International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures). At times, this reviews editorship involved a learning curve, which I hope will benefit readers of subsequent issues.

Over the years, I have had the double pleasure of becoming friends with many Spanish academics via IASIL, and also by acting as Erasmus Exchange teacher at the University of Alcalá de Henares for short periods over five years. There they have a thriving Irish Studies section which is the area of research choice for many of their postgraduates.  There was also the invaluable experience of hosting Spanish academics on return Erasmus exchanges to the University of Limerick.  Both formally and informally I have had many animated discussions of various Irish authors and critics with Spanish professors. Over the years there has been cooperative work with academics in Spanish in my own former School, that of Languages, Literature, Culture and Communication, at my home university.  All of these combined gave me a huge respect for various approaches to Irish Literature in English emanating from Spain.  In particular, I have had very interesting conversations and correspondence with Dr. Marisol Morales Ladrón.  Secondly, I have been in touch with another Spanish academic, Carolina Amador Moreno, about our mutual work in Irish-English (Hiberno-English) and the use of this dialect in Irish literature. Both her Analysis of Hiberno-English in the Early Novels of Patrick McGill (2006) and her second book An Introduction to Irish English (2010) will prove invaluable to any researcher interested in the subject.  A reference to Dr. Amador’s work would not be complete without sending sympathy to her and other friends of the late Dr. Anne McCarthy, which occurred very recently.  Though I never had the pleasure of meeting her, it is clear that her death will be a great loss to Spanish research into Irish Studies.

The past year has seen devastating changes in Ireland’s political life, its economy, and in its concomitant loss of some sovereignty in money matters.  There were also other troubles such as volcanic ash preventing air flight, severe weather in December of both years, and massive emigration.  All make 2010 a year to forget, and to look forward to 2011.  However, not everything has been black.  In the matter of literature, there have been great achievements, as seen by the following examples.  Literary festivals have taken place and were adjudged as successful, for example, the Cúirt festival in Galway last April, which was opened by author Roddy Doyle. In spite of the aforesaid problems with flights due to volcanic ash, there were many great names in the world of books prepared to give readings from their works. Later in the same month, the sixth annual Heinrich Böll memorial weekend took place on his beloved Achill Island.   Journals of Irish Studies have appeared as usual. So many conferences in Irish Studies have been held, in Ireland, in various European countries and in places much further away that it is impossible to name all.  Books of original literature have won praise and awards.  These include Emma Donoghue’s Room, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, longlisted for the same award.  In my home city, I have had the experience of going to buy copies of both, hearing other customers making the same request, and finding that both books were sold out, awaiting new supplies.  In other fora, public readings by authors are as frequent as in previous years, and long may this continue.  Many works of literary and cultural criticism have also appeared, some of which will feature in the individual works reviewed below.  Postgraduate students in universities and colleges in Ireland and beyond are still applying in more than satisfactory numbers to research aspects of Irish Studies. These produce valuable informative books on a regular basis.

It is always difficult to decide on particular works to review, especially in a field so prolific as Irish Studies.  In the texts chosen for this issue, I have attempted to go for a broad sweep, of original works of fiction and poetry, of literary and also cultural criticism, and of life-writing in the form of the correspondence of writers. I tried also to use a mixture of reviewers from different countries, both male and female, of new reviewers, and some who have already had work published in this journal.  Another factor has been the willingness or the opposite of publishers to supply review copies.  The reviewers in this issue are owed gratitude for their willingness to undertake the task, their hard work and patience, and for returning the pieces on time.  Any errors in this section of the journal should be attributable to me.

Books I have especially enjoyed this year in fiction include Emma Donoghue’s Room, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, as mentioned above.  Inspired to some extent by the notorious Fritzl case in Austria, this begins nonetheless as a happy book because it is seen through the eyes of a five-year old boy.  With his mother he is imprisoned in a converted garden shed by a man referred to only as “Old Nick”.  She nonetheless provides the child with a very loving environment, shelters him from any contact whatsoever with their captor, and for him “makes one little room an everywhere”, as John Donne once said (“The Good-Morrow”).  In their room, their day is divided into time zones, and the child is taught literacy and numeracy to an advanced level.  “Ma” is extremely creative at using the very few resources at her command to teach Jack a variety of other subjects entirely through play.  To Jack, all of the objects which surround him seem an integral part of his life, so items such as Bed, Table, and even Room itself are referred to without a definite article, and seem to have a life of their own: “I stroke Table’s scratches to make them better; she’s a circle all white except gray in the scratches from chopping foods” (p. 7).  Pain, darkness and suspense appear when the boy’s developing mind and the captor’s threat to starve them prompt a change in the mother’s teaching.  Jack moves from protected child in an almost Oedipal relationship to one who must know about the dark side of his life.  Very quickly he is coached in preparation for a dangerous role, becoming his mother’s knight who will rescue them.  When they are eventually rescued, paradoxically some of their most unhappy experiences occur; the mother’s courage is at length eroded to the extent of taking an overdose.  Finally, with legal matters being carried out and a reunion with the extended family, Jack requests his mother to let him visit Room once more, but the happiness he experienced there is gone.  He summarises: “It’s not Room now” (p.400), and ceremonially says goodbye to every part of it.

Family recurs as thematic in this novel as in many Irish works of fiction, but it is unusual as the father is seen as no more than a forcible sperm donor, and the child is not aware that he has a second biological parent.  “Old Nick” is also responsible for the death of a previous child, and altogether is at the extreme of patriarchal cruelty.  Secondly, in the mother’s own family she was an adopted child, and her stepfather is kinder to her than her adoptive father.  There are parallels here with Claire Keegan’s short novel, Foster, much of which I had the pleasure of hearing the author read at the IASIL conference in Maynooth last July. The child protagonist’s parents are either neglectful or positively indifferent towards her, and the couple who take care of her for a couple of months give her a whole new perspective on life and family contentment.  In this novel, too, all is seen through the point of view of the child.  Just as Jack has to leave behind a time of happiness to face an uncertain future, the girl in Foster has to go back to her previous state, but now with a vision of a happy home lost.  She does not accept it with equanimity, as in the final part of the work she races to cling to the departing foster parents in a way that demonstrates her loss.  In both novels, the Eden of youth has to be left behind.  The name of the Keegan novel also provokes thought.  Could it be a verb, to take care temporarily of a child from another family, or in another sense to foster thoughts and feelings that were barely there before?

In a third novel which featured also on the Man Booker list, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, families are remote from most of the action.  At 655 pages it is rather long, and seems to divide into two sections.  In the first part, it is a comedic portrayal of fourteen-year-old boys in a fee-paying middle-class school, which has a high profile in social and educational circles.  These are counterparted by the similar girls’ school divided from the boys by a wall, a sort of St Trinians in duplicate.  (People who know south Dublin may possibly think of a location.)  The schools are mirror images of each other, and this is highlighted by the experience of three boys who break into the girls’ school in pursuit of a mythic ghost-ridden locked room: “Everywhere they look there are analogues of their own school – classrooms with cramped benches and scrawled blackboards, printouts on the notice boards, trophy cabinets and art-room posters – almost identical, but at the same time, somehow not, … as though they’ve entered a parallel universe ….” (p. 380).  The action and dialogue are often reminiscent of comic features such as “The Bash Street Kids”, or boys’ fiction, with incompetent abusive teachers who are there to be defeated by smart kids, stereotypes such as the nerd who also has resemblances to Billy Bunter, the bully and the bullied, the sports heroes and studs (in their own minds), nicknames and casual cruelty, midnight adventures, explosions, and hormonally charged encounters with girls in the other school.  The most hilarious episode is the happening at the Hallowe’en Hop of the second-years from both schools, when two supervising teachers take off for a tryst, and return to find a truly carnivalesque scene, rampant sexuality due to drug-poisoned punch.  Paralleled with this are the attempts of the school prodigy and his friends who experiment with trying to find a portal into an eleventh universe, using computers but also mythology and ghost stories, in an absurd combination of science and various beliefs.

The hinge of the action lies paradoxically in a prologue, in which the boy Skippy dies.  As readers still do not know the personages involved, the tragedy does not take full hold of their imagination, so the story then takes up with the events leading to this intrusion of horrific reality.  The second part of the novel is much darker, though still with some comedy.  Many of the young people are now forced to confront guilt and punishment, death and the meaning of life.   So do the teachers, as the complexity of causes and responsibility for the boy’s overdose have to be faced.

The type of mirroring mentioned above is a constant feature of the novel.  Deeds and misdeeds of the pupils are repeated by the teachers, many of whom are old boys who were in the same school class.  The situation of the triangle of lovers occurs in both. The teachers have a local pub, and the boys have “Ed’s Doughnut House”.  There is an ironic coincidence in that the song “Another brick in the wall”, which the acting principal and his group once sang at their school concert, is replicated by the present-day counterparts.  The latter part of the novel shows the school to be a microcosm of many institutions in Ireland which are self-perpetuating systems of the wealthy, and who all band together to protect themselves and hide their falsities and abuses.

In poetry, Seamus Heaney’s Human Circle lit up some of the dark days of the Christmas period for me.  Readers familiar with Heaney’s work will find many of the previous themes given a new perspective.  Just as in other collections, he uses older Irish customs redolent of Irish Catholicism such as wakes (“Death of a Painter”), crafts (“Eelworks”), placenames (“The Riverbank Field”), and images of children of his family flying kites (“A Kite for Aibhín”).  However there are more contemporary references, such as in the title poem “Human Chain”, in which he celebrates aid workers in a third world country passing sacks of food, but conversely sees this as reminiscent of farm harvest tasks of his youth (O’Riordan).    The route to Hades takes place through a Belfast Saturday shopping scene: “Then racks of suits and overcoats that swayed/ When one was tugged from its overcrowded frame/ Like their owners’ shades close-packed on Charon’s barge” (“Route 110”).

As ever, in many poems there is the closeness to Nature first evoked in the young child, though it has a more modern perspective.  Driving through the countryside of Co. Donegal, near Mt Errigal, he is not homesick as it is “

[a] grant-aided, renovated scene“ (“Loughanure”).  The passing of time for a septuagenarian sees him look back in perspective at the natural surroundings of his youth, his parents, and forward to his grandchildren.   There are many references to the world of his schooling in the local primary school, and at boarding school for second level education. Relationships with his family and his wife are often featured, and adapting a New Testament story, he shows his gratitude to his wife and those who took care of him in his illness (“Chanson d’Aventure” and “Miracle”). There are the inevitable references to the recent political history of Northern Ireland, but these are few when compared to his use of ancient Latin classics, new translations of old Irish poetry, and older writers in English whom he revered.

There is also in this collection a revival of a medieval type of poetry in his nineteen short poems contained in “A Herbal: after Guillevic’s ‘Herbier de Bretagne’”.  In view of my own interests in traditional healing, I approached it looking for the use of plants as medicine, but the only example was that of the dock-leaf to heal nettle-stings, as I remember doing in my childhood.  Instead, he shows other ways in which plants are important to humans. At first the relationship is not friendly.  The grass in the graveyard is always restless, the bracken is secretive, and nettles are “enemies … / Malignant things, letting on to be asleep” which cannot be understood by young humans, though they are aware of the remedy.  This relationship with plants is complex, however; sunshine sometimes tempts plants to trust, there are also refuges where one can confess private thoughts and feelings, the smell of crushed herbs can soothe, and finally the child’s connection with this world of growing things is natural: “I had my existence. I was there./ Me in place and the place in me”.  It is now “an elsewhere place” which in a Wordsworthian way the adult can no longer access.  Finally, plants are conventionally seen as natural goods to feed people or cure them, but in a paradoxical way the poet sees humans as nourishing and giving strength to them instead: in the cemetery the plants are “[s]inking their roots/ In all the dynasties/ Of the dead.”   A younger Heaney would be unlikely to have expressed this analogy.

In history I have read with great interest John O’Callaghan’s Revolutionary Limerick:The Republican Campaign for Independence in Limerick, 1913-1921.  It is a detailed exploration of the happenings in these years, backed up by an impressive range of sources, from books to witness accounts, contemporary newspapers, police and military reports, and recent dissertations.  The author states that his book is one of the first to use the work of the Bureau of Military History (p. 8).  There is a very rare photograph on the front cover, of local republicans in uniform standing in a semi-circle, while in front of them sit a group of Cumann na mBan; inside the book, names of everyone in the photograph are given in order.  It is throughout written in a cool and objective way, with occasional touches of humour: in one small town’s ballot, “there was extensive impersonation, and even some of the dead rose to vote for Hayes” (p.77).

The author provides a helpful summary of the events leading to 1913 to provide context.  In particular, it becomes clear that the tradition of revolution, especially that of the Fenians in the 1860s, local education, the handing-down of attitudes in families and in small local areas all provided the seeding ground for later events.  This account, while concentrating on Limerick city and county, often makes us aware of the general situation of contemporary Ireland, and how one area compared and contrasted with the rest.  The strongest impression is of the complexity of the situation, the British Army and British-regulated police being opposed in 1914 by “the Irish Republication Brotherhood (IRB), the Citizen Army, the Ulster Volunteers, the National Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers” (p.1).  These groups divide and sub-divide, and include also the Irish Parliament Party, the Sinn Féin party, which itself evolved from four different sources, as well as the IRA, with links with other organisations such as the Gaelic League, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), and even in the case of Limerick, the local rugby clubs.  Over the years, there were so many permutations and combinations between all these groups that it is almost defeats the memory of the reader trying to keep track of them all. As a non-historian, it was the first time that I fully realised that the Irish judicial and local authority systems evolved from the republican groups.

To those of us used to modern means of communication, such as radio, TV, internet, email, and Twitter it seems impossible for the groups to have maintained the degree of contact which they did.  The local newspaper, the Limerick Leader, played a prime role, as did networks such as local grapevines, the clergy, and despatches by train.  In the latter of these, the women’s arm of the movement, Cumann na mBan filled a prime role.  While the book is not a history of this group, many pages refer extensively to their essential back-up role, which in at least one case included partaking in combat.  The sisters of the Daly family, in particular, were heavily involved.  As to the clergy, their role varied, from being outspoken defenders as in the case of Bishop O’Dwyer, to differing degrees of support or condemnation by lesser clergy.  In the matter of sectarian attacks, the book shows that there were few or none in Limerick republican groups, in contrast to other counties in Ireland.

In the main part of the book, many of the incidents remind us of events which took place in more recent times in the North of Ireland, especially guerrilla activities, the use of violence, punishments for women who consorted with the British Crown forces, some “shoot to kill” decisions by the aforesaid forces, and the execution of spies and informers.  Women fared better in Limerick then than in the later twentieth-century North, in that female spies were not executed but ordered to leave the country, and punishments for dating British soldiers were confined to cutting off their hair.

Differences in social class appear.  The blue-collar workers and rural workers were the most active in service and often were members of hurling clubs, while the landlord and merchant class, the rugby club set, were less active in Limerick city.  In the matter of industrial relations, the book gives details of the nature and extent of what was called the “Limerick soviet”.  Famously, the Limerick battalions did not take part in the 1916 Rising, and one battalion voluntarily handed over their arms to the British authorities, but O’Callaghan’s book shows that the activists were far from being cowardly.  Here as in many other parts of Ireland, the general failure/contradictions in communications of that weekend had a strong role to play.

This book raises questions.  Towards the end of the book, O’Callaghan suggests grounds for another book of history which could evolve from a consideration of whether the IRA was the army of local areas and groups rather than the army of the Republic (p. 204).  He himself states in his brief biography that his next book, on the Civil War in Limerick, will take up from there the present leaves off.  In conclusion, this book is of interest not only to historians, and to people who live in Limerick, but provides some background to Kate O’Brien’s novels, which feature the landlord/merchant class of Limerick of those times, whose values are religious-based rather than nationalistic.  In her novel The Land of Spices (1941) based on her own childhood, Bishop O’Dwyer features in a less favourable light, in that his nationalism constricts the feminist and cosmopolitan attitudes of the French order of nuns who run the school.  Secondly, it sets some of the context for understanding Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), who came to live in the city two decades later than the period covered in O’Callaghan’s book, and may help readers to understand place and attitudes in this memoir.

In my own current research interest, Irish traditional healing, works are continuing to appear.  The one which impressed me most in recent times is a new book by Ronnie Moore and Stuart McClean (eds), Folk Healing and Health Care Practices in Britain and Ireland: Stethoscopes, Wands and Crystals.  Most of the books and journals which I have read concentrate on specific folk healing practices in countries across the world, or are more historically based.  This book focuses on England, Wales, and Ireland, but there are examples from at least six countries.  However, its great value for me is that it explores the theoretical aspects, the complex relationship between folk-healing, CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine), and scientific medicine, and differing views on the placebo effect.  In the editors’ own words: “[Folk medicine] is at once a familiar and shared socio-cultural phenomenon, but it also evokes something magical and other, distant and irrational … ” (p.1).  The authors show that folk-healing has a great deal of similarity to CAM, and that scientific medicine (which they refer to as “biomedicine”), has borrowed aspects of folk knowledge in its practice.   They all overlap in some ways, with biomedicine and CAM largely operated in similar fashion, each in their own regulated field, but folk medicine tends to be more personalised, more rooted in the individuality of the practitioner.

The different articles by the nine authors explore the revival of folk healing and herbal remedies, which were the original remedies used since antiquity all across the world, and are still prevalent in places.  They look at its place in a post-scientific world, its links with religion, magic and spirituality in different countries and cultures, where they differ (p.32) from the classic views of Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971).  Its relationship to CAM is examined.  Specific examples are shown of its use in Wales, Staffordshire, the North of England, and Ireland. They also explore the status of folk healing, where payment is not usual or is very small, in a world where medicine is commercially and academically rated, and finally its position with regard to law and regulation.  Most of the contributors give their own definitions of the term.  All pay attention to the way in which this knowledge is transmitted, seeing that there is no formal academy; it most often passes down through generations of the same families, and is sometimes learned from others through apprenticeship.  Many of the chapters describe how the skills descend through oral archives, where the secret aspects are passed on only to designated successors. Other topics are familiar from previous literature, for example its use of amulets, crystals, transference of illness to other items, and distance healing.  In the case of Northern Ireland, it explores its use in one traditionally Catholic area and one traditionally Protestant area.  In spite of the very large differences in culture, religion, history and politics, all share the use of methods referred to as “ ‘the cure’ or ‘the charm’” (p.111), which are ironically pre-Christian earth-goddess traditions (p.30) in origin (p.115).

Moore and McClean mention a topic of especial interest to me, in which the so-called placebo effect can be used to allow the body to repair itself in a way that is much stronger than the normal human capacity to self-heal (pp. 40, 120).  This ties in with the work of specialists such as Prof. Benedetti and others, for example an article inThe Lancet entitled “Biological, clinical, and ethical advances of placebo effects”, published in February 1910.  These authors all seek to rescue the placebo effect from implications of deception, and advocate the harnessing of its power to improve patient welfare.  If this type of study could be developed more, in my opinion folk-healing might then be able to take its place alongside CAM and scientific medicine.

Works Cited

Amador Moreno, Carolina P. 2006.  An Analysis of Hiberno-English in the Early Novels of Patrick MacGill: Bilingualism and Language Shift from Irish to English in County Donegal. Lampeter, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press.

_______.  2010.  An Introduction to Irish English. London: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Donne, John. 1985. “The Good Morrow” in The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Mack et al. (eds). Norton: New York. p. 1991.

Finniss, Damien G., Ted J. Kaptchuk, Franklin Miller, Fabrizio Benedetti.  2010. “Biological, clinical, and ethical advances of placebo effects”.  The Lancet. 20 February. 686-695.

Donoghue, Emma. 2010. Room. London: Picador.

Heaney, Seamus.  2010.  Human Chain. London: Faber and Faber.

Keegan, Claire. 2010. Foster. London: Faber and Faber.

McCourt, Frank. 1996. Angela’s Ashes. London: Harper Collins.

Moore, Ronnie and Stuart McClean (eds). 2010. Folk Healing and Health Care Practices in Britain and Ireland: Stethoscopes, Wands and Crystals. New York: Berghahn Books.

O’Brien, Kate.1982 (1941). The Land of Spices. Dublin: Arlen House.

O’Callaghan, John. 2010. Revolutionary Limerick: The Republican Campaign for Independence in Limerick, 1913-1921. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

O’ Riordan, Adam. 2010. “Human Chain by Seamus Heaney: review”. The Telegraph.  29 August.  Accessed Jan. 26, 2011. Heaney-review.html.

Thomas, Keith. 1971. Religion and the Decline of Magic. London: Penguin Books.