Maureen O’Connor
University College Cork, Ireland | Published: 17 March, 2021 | Views:
ISSUE 16 | Pages: 238-283 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2021 by Maureen O’Connor | 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.

The vivacity and resilience of Irish culture have been both challenged and proven by the year 2020, smack in the middle of which I was asked to take over the role of annual international Irish Studies chronicler. The resilience of hard-pressed academics thrown into unprecedented circumstances was also admirable, and I am extremely grateful to those kind souls who agreed to review a sample of some recent publications in Irish Studies for this issue, a sample size I hope to expand the next time around when it is greatly to be hoped we will no longer be working under emergency conditions.

The global coronavirus pandemic, which necessitated national lockdowns beginning in March and has now killed more than two million people worldwide, meant that several annual conferences, usually held in the spring and summer, were cancelled or postponed, including our own AEDEI. A year without AEDEI seems like a year best forgotten, even passed over in silence, but there were some truly fascinating, innovative developments in the virtual exchange of ideas and celebration of culture, as we will see. Other large, international Irish Studies conferences that cancelled or postponed their annual meetings included ACIS (American Conference for Irish Studies), IASIL (International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures), EFACIS (European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies), SSNCI (Society for the Study of Nineteenth-Century Ireland), and SOFEIR (French Society for Irish Studies); only BAIS (British Association of Irish Studies) managed the enormous task of transforming a physical Irish Studies conference, on the subject of “Global Irish”, into a virtual meeting, mid-stride, as it were, holding their annual conference online in May of 2020. The organisers used the unusual circumstances to extend the sessions, keynotes, and launches – including the launch of the six-volume series, Irish Literature in Transition, the momentously important publication from Cambridge University Press – over most of the month, rather than concentrating events in a few days. This flexible and open structure made last-minute contributions and worldwide participation possible in an unprecedented way, signalling one vision of the future for the academic conference. As disappointing, if not devastating, as these mass cancellations appeared at first, a lively online series of symposia, lecture series, webinars, and book launches, as well as podcasts, began to offer significant compensation for our losses (though nothing can take the place of the hugs, gossip, and laughs of an in-person gathering). To name just a few of the academic series that provided food for thought, inspiration, and even a form of camaraderie: EFACIS broadcast a podcast series, the “Irish Itinerary”; SOFEIR ran a webinar series, as did Irish College Leuven; Queens University Belfast Irish Studies held a virtual seminar series online, as did the New York City consortium of Irish Studies Scholars, Students and Artists, as well as Boston College’s Irish Institute, part of the college’s “Irish Influence” initiative. This last series features not only academics and writers, but also actors, journalists, filmmakers, musicians, and dancers, and it continues every Friday into 2021.

The Trinity Long Hub and Glucksman House New York continued to host events and talks online, as has the Moore Institute at National University of Ireland, Galway. In January of last year, Galway was preparing to fulfil its role as the 2020 European Capital of Culture, featuring a programme of activities to which the university was poised to contribute significantly. The February opening ceremonies were cancelled due to severe weather conditions, an augury of much more dire circumstances that would mean the cancellation of nearly all plans for the year-long celebration, though there were art installations around the city in addition to some online performances. The Moore Institute carried on as well, and hosted a number of events and talks as well as their own webinar series that discussed the COVID-19 crisis from numerous disciplinary approaches. They also supported and hosted other events, conferences, and projects, such as the most recent presentations for the “Aging Masculinities in Irish Literature and Culture” project.

The memorable year 2020 is, of course, part of the decade of commemorations, which continued to be observed in virtual form by, for example, the Collins Barracks Museum in Dublin, and an interdisciplinary online conference at University College Cork in October marking the “Centenary of Terence MacSwiney and the Cork Men’s Gaol Hunger Strike”. The Century Ireland website, as always, features podcasts, virtual museum tours, video talks, and selected archival material. This online resource became an especially valuable one during lockdown. The ongoing commemoration of the Great Hunger of over 150 years ago has been carried on by the Strokestown Park and Famine Museum, which in 2020 conducted virtual Famine Walks and offered a virtual series of “Famine Voices”. Museums around Ireland made the switch to online access, when museums, galleries, libraries, and cinemas were initially closed to the public. The National Gallery site hosts websites and projects, in addition to making their exhibits accessible online. The National Gallery hosts the ESB Centre for the Study of Irish, a public archive of the arts in Ireland, which most recently promoted its oral history project, specifically its recordings of conversations with Irish artists. The Glucksman Gallery in University College Cork has maintained an online art-project-a-day challenge with #CreativityAtHome throughout the rolling lockdowns. The National College of Art and Design hosted an exhibit specifically designed for virtual engagement, “Tongue the Sun”, by artist Jonah King. According to the website, “The exhibition includes a streamed video artwork, an interactive digital sculpture, and a text piece aligned with a series of live-streamed discussions”. Belfast Exposed, a photography organisation, hosted an exhibit of two series by Tristan Poyser, “Street View” and “The Invisible In-Between”. The Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) screened an online series featuring film and video work from their archive, while the National Library has mounted an online exhibit on the life and work of William Butler Yeats. Around the world, celebrations of Irish culture continued regardless of physical limitations, from Russia to Poland and Mexico. The Ireland Canada University Foundation, with the support of the Irish Department of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, for the first time, offered free, online Irish-language classes, an offer taken up by over 400 Canadians during the pandemic.

The seasons kept rolling forward, heedless of humanity’s struggles, and inventive ways of marking those changes emerged as we attempted to adjust to what was increasingly referred to as the “new normal”. Even before such celebrations moved online, the Irish embassy in Great Britain hosted a week-long virtual St Brigid’s festival celebrating the “creativity and talent” of Irish women. St Brigid’s Day, or Lá Fhéile Bríde, falls on the first of February, the first day of spring in the Irish calendar, also known as Imbolg. St Patrick’s Day was a fraught affair around the world, as various jurisdictions debated whether or not to have parades or other celebrations, as the pandemic began to take hold. In Ireland, bars and restaurants closed and parades were cancelled. The Bealtaine Festival of May, marking the beginning of summer, was observed in various online spaces, including the lighting of the Bealtaine Fire celebration, traditionally carried out on the Hill of Uisneach in Westmeath. “In ancient times, a great assembly would gather on the Hill to witness the fire being lit by the High King of Ireland”, the event’s website reports. In 2020, the lighting and burning of the Bealtaine Fire was livestreamed around the world.

Another seasonal tradition in Ireland is the summer school, most of which were cancelled or postponed in 2020. One notable exception was the Cork Midsummer Festival, the theme of which was the “Day of the Straws”, referring to the cholera epidemic of 1832. The online festival drew together familiar works by Margaret Clarke, Seán Keating, John Lavery, Daniel Maclise, Norah McGuinness, Edith Somerville, Mary Swanzy, and Jack B. Yeats, as well as lesser-known works. One annual summer event that managed to be robustly celebrated around the world was Bloomsday. The official virtual Dublin Bloomsday hosted presentations and contributions from Trieste, Paris, and Toronto, including performances, exhibitions, workshops, and even a virtual breakfast. The Oxford Bloomsday event, which has been running for twenty-five years, moved online for the first time, featuring music and readings, both from Ulysses and from new work by living writers. Other sites of annual celebration that went online included the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, but virtual celebrations were conducted across the US, from New York to Seattle, and around the world, from China to Bulgaria. Back in Ireland, the national broadcaster, RTÉ, ran a thirty-hour reading of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Music and performance are, of course, central to Bloomsday celebrations, while the cultural workers hit hardest by the pandemic have been those in theatre and music, both of which crucially require in-person attendance. Even when cinemas opened over the summer, live theatre spaces and music venues have remained closed in Ireland since March. Theatres offered a mix of limited live productions and recordings from their archives. Previous recordings made available online included The Irish National Opera’s 2019 production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Druid Theatre’s 2005 ground-breaking cycle of all of J.M. Synge’s plays. The Abbey Theatre staged a number of innovative and inclusive works under their “Engine Room” programme. Over the summer, The Great Hunger, a dramatization of the Patrick Kavanagh poem, was performed to small audiences in the IMMA garden, while other projects like 14 Voices from the Bloodied Field and Dear Ireland were livestreamed. Songs from an Empty Room was broadcast by RTÉ in July, a fundraising performance by Irish musicians and artists, for Irish musicians and artists. The National Opera House in Wexford maintained an impressively full schedule of online performances, but the most elaborate and ambitious cultural programme of the year was RTÉ’s Illuminations, an “online digital gallery”, part of which included a televised concert. Thirty artists were commissioned to create an archive of works to capture the experience of COVID-19. Visual art, photography, film, music, poetry, essays, and spoken word pieces, by established and emerging artists, are all represented. The work aimed “to capture how people are feeling during the pandemic and to help foster solidarity and build resilience”. An especially striking element of the project is the diverse range of artists now confidently identifying as Irish. A more inclusive Ireland is slowly, painfully emerging. The “Black and Irish” podcast that began in 2020 is one sign of this, as is the LGBT History Club and the LGBT Heritage Project, which is run in collaboration with the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. Established in 2019, in 2020 the project featured a presentation by Sara Phillips on trans visibility in Ireland.

The “new” Ireland is still a shock to some, which brings me to THE cultural event of the lockdown in Ireland: the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, Normal People. Last April, this series was all anyone was talking about in Ireland, including outraged viewers who called into daytime radio programmes to object to the sex scenes, of which there were plenty. Other Irish pop culture news from 2020 includes: Saoirse Ronan’s nomination for an Academy Award for her role in Little Women (she did not win); Sinead O’Connor’s inclusion in Time magazine’s 200 women of the year in March; Paul Mescal being nominated for an Emmy for his role in Normal People; the Irish-poetry-loving, Irish-American Joe Biden winning the US presidency; Julien Temple’s release of the documentary, A Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane McGowan; and the release of Wild Mountain Thyme, a Hollywood film set in Ireland, in which the accents are so laughable that the movie spawned hundreds of memes (and thousands of groans). All of this also potentially provides material for future Irish Studies conference papers and publications, as does the bumper crop of new Irish fiction produced in 2020, much of it written by women, both established and upcoming authors, including Actress, by Anne Enright; After the Silence, by Louise O’Neill; The Searcher, by Tana French; Strange Hotel, by Eimear Mc Bride; Big Girl, Small Town, by Michelle Gallen; Oona, by Alice Lyons; The Pull of the Stars, by Emma Donoghue; The Wild Laughter, by Caoilinn Hughes; A Ghost in the Throat, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa; The Tainted, by Cauvery Madhavan; Little Cruelties, by Liz Nugent; As You Were, by Elaine Feeney; Exciting Times, by Naoise Dolan; and the short story collection edited by Sinead Gleeson, The Art of the Glimpse.

The difficult year closed with an event viewed around the world, the winter solstice sunrise, livestreamed from within the chamber of the Neolithic passage tomb in Newgrange. This alignment of the celestial and the human marks the lengthening of days for six months, a moment of hope and inspiration, which reached and united a much larger international audience in 2020 than ever before possible. The work that Irish Studies scholars do is also hopeful and forward looking, while at the same time preserving the beauties and lessons of the past. The authors and reviewers included here are part of that optimistic and generous effort, and in closing, I thank them once again.