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Anáil an Bhéil Bheo: Orality and Modern Irish Culture
(Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2009) edited by Nessa Cronin, Seán Crosson and John Eastlake
ISBN: 9781443801522 274 pp. €43
Exploring the multifaceted ways in which, as the editors of the book point out, “modern Irish culture has navigated its way through the ‘surrounding seas of orality’” (4) this outstanding collection of essays embraces interdisciplinary approaches ranging from ethnography, literature, visual art, history, music, film, theatre and women’s studies and sets out to animate one of the most debated topics in the history of Irish society and culture, the interrelation between the oral and the textual and their role in the formation of modernity. The most challenging vehicle for this brave voyage through the impressive array of heterogeneous material is the application of the concept of orality informed by Walter Ong’s theoretical work to different intersecting cultural discourses. This invites various methodological approaches and paves the way for rejecting the oversimplified dichotomy between orality and textuality by which orality has traditionally been aligned with “the Irish language, the traditional and rurality, and print literacy with the English language, modernity and urbanity” (4), in order to point out at their co-existence in various forms of cultural production.
The nineteen essays included in the collection are the fruitful product of the conference organized by the Centre for Irish Studies, National University of Ireland, Galway in 2006, which gathered both emerging and established scholars in the field. The distinctiveness of this event, which is also reflected in the collection, is a choice given to speakers to present in one of the Ireland’s main languages, Irish and English, according to their own preferences and enabled by the simultaneous translation facilities, so that English speaking scholars could engage with the works of their Irish speaking colleagues. However, we can note with regret that only one essay in the collection is printed in Irish accompanied with its English translation. A personalized authorial voice resonates throughout the opening essay by Gearóid Ó Crualaoich and the closing essay by Henry Glassie, referred to in the contents as the ‘prologue’ and the ‘coda’ of the collection, which give a vivid account of their living and work in Cork and Ballymenone respectively and how various people and events informed their methodology and understanding of storytelling. Featuring also as authentic narratives about the rich fieldwork experience of these two leading figures in folklore research, their essays appropriately provide a compositional frame into which other essays are embedded and dynamically interrelated.
A diverse yet coherent nature of this collection is achieved by the division of essays into three sections. The first section Ballad, Song and Visual Culture, energizes the whole collection not only by exploring interesting relations between tradition, authenticity, orality and the visual but also by providing reassessment of some contentions long taken for granted and by inviting the possibility of new approaches. Thus, in the opening essay Lochlainn Ó Tuairisg proposes to re-examine the possibilities the folk tradition can offer for the study of the agrarian oath-bound secret societies of pre-Famine Ireland such as Whiteboys and other less known illegal, clandestine groupings arguing that “vernacular source materials, the great bulk of them oral and in the Irish language, have been more or less ignored” (27), although “they offer exceptional insight into the mindset of people and communities involved in agrarian protest” (27). He undertakes a microhistorical examination of one incident of agrarian protest showing how history, seanchas and memory work in the representation of “the battle of Cèim an Fhia» in County Cork and makes the point that «the worm’s eye view of popular protest has still to be written” (27). In similar vein Julie Henigan emphasizes the need to diverge from the most common use of the terms oral and orality among Irish folklorists and folksong scholars. Instead of restricting their reference only to the means of transmission and performance she proposes to consider them as a “phase of cultural and cognitive development” (41) providing interesting analysis of “folk” vs. “literary” in some eighteenth-century Irish songs.
The relevance of the widespread genre of ballad for Irish folklore tradition is undisputable, but the influence of the printed ballads, according to a ballad singer and collector John Moulder, seems to be overestimated. In his essay he discusses the functioning of printed ballads in nineteenth-century Ireland and suggests that from the early eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century there were two strains of printed balladry, popular and elite. As his research reveals, backed up with some excerpts from the editorials of The Nation, The United Irishman and Young Ireland Ballads were mostly elite products, and had less powerful influence than previously noted in the works by scholars such as Kevin Whealen and Seamus Deane because they mostly failed to move into a vernacular milieu among people whose verbal functioning was predominantly oral. As Moulder argues, “they were written for the eye rather than the ear, and consequently unintelligible and unsingable” (61). Their popularity went hand in hand with increasing literacy among the general public and reached its peak toward the end of the nineteenth century.
Equally revealing is Deirdre Ní Chonghaile’s essay dealing with traditional music of the Aran Islands, which shows how the collectors’ opinions of orality, their motivation, and inclination to the myth of Aran shaped the canon of Irish traditional music and our understanding of it. She makes interesting point that the unpublished elements in their collections reveal “some changes that were then occurring in the Aran musical milieu” (71) while the published elements are more “representations of an ideal than of actuality” (71). Shifting the thematic focus from music to the representation of orality in visual images, Jenny McCarthy’s essay on Jack B. Yeats’s A Broadside discusses the important role this periodical had in the preservation of the dying tradition of broadsheet ballads in Ireland and examines Yeats’s first and last illustrations of ballad singers contained therein. The relation between the oral and the visual is further explored in the essay by Sheila Dickinson. Although she does not fully answer the intriguing question mentioned at the beginning of her essay “why have there been no great Irish artists?” (99), referring in particular to the absence of leading women artists, her remarkable analysis of four performances and new media video and projection artworks by women artists convincingly shows how this form of artistic expression articulates the expressive needs of contemporary artists in a country that “continues to function with a residually oral culture” (100).
The essays in the second section Testimony, Identity, and Performance: Speaking the Selfmostly deal with oral testimony and memoir. These genres encapsulate the complex role of orality in the representation of identity, illustrate tensions between individual and collective identity formation and also enact the issue of gender identity. Ray Cashman’s essay, therefore, appropriately focuses on the construction of local identities through traditional, vernacular speech genres in Northern Ireland, in particular storytelling at wakes, the rare occasions for mixed Catholic-Protestant gatherings. Cashman argues that genres of folklore could serve to dismantle the conventional contentions about the construction of sectarian identities such as opposing Catholic and Protestant identities, the two predominant compound ethnic, political and religious identities, proving that they are not the only possible collective identities in Northern Ireland.
The ensuing two essays by Catherine O’Connor and Yvonne McKenna, perhaps less appealing to the general reading public than the previous one, but extremely well documented and without doubt of relevance to women’s studies, draw on the oral testimonies of two different social groups of Irish women in order to examine the interrelationships between gender, religious and social identity. The first essay deals extensively with the oral testimonies of Church of Ireland Women in Ferns in the time span between 1945 and 1965 arguing that “while women were essential to the preservation and survival of the religious identity of the Church of Ireland during these years, they also acted significantly in the reproduction of gender identity” (135). On the other hand, the second essay explores the construction of Ireland in the oral history narratives of Irish women religious by highlighting the pivotal images of Ireland in the stories of this particularly neglected group of Irish migrants.
Daniel Campbell’s memoir, one of the most fascinating narratives of pre-famine Ireland and also one of the few available accounts from a poor layman’s perspective, is the focus of Eugene Hynes’s essay which argues against straightforward reading of this and similar narratives embodying conventions commonly found in orally transmitted material. It shows that the underlying meaning of the stories is more important than their factual claims and that making sense of “mistakes” in them can give valuable insights since, according to Hynes, “‘mistakes’ in factual claims provide powerful evidence of what was most meaningful among storytellers and their audience” (156). The section concludes with Sarah O’Brien’s essay on narrative encounters with the Irish in Birmingham which demonstrates how oral narrative can “help us understand the events that reconfigured Irish immigrants identity in Britain” (169).
The third section Origins, Revivals, and Myths: Orality and Literary Production is in some respects complementary to the first one because it sets out to critically re-evaluate subjects that have already been extensively researched and written about, such as the works of Irish canonical writers Edmund Burke and James Joyce, and could perhaps be considered as the touchstone of the whole collection. By highlighting the interrelations between Irish literature and the realm of Irish oral tradition and by deepening our understanding of how some genres of oral tradition were mediated in literary production it provides remarkable new insights. Katherine O’Donnell convincingly traces the influence of the oral culture of eighteenth century Munster on Burke’s later philosophical and political work giving interesting insights how literary and debating clubs Burke founded while a student in Dublin and a politician in London share some patterns he encountered at poetic and social gatherings in his formative childhood years.
Various relations between music and the works on James Joyce have already been extensively explored in the works by e.g. Matthew J.C. Hodgart, Mabel Worthington, Ruth Bauerle, Zack Bowen and Timothy Martin but the two essays by Lillis Ó Laoire and Davide Benini dealing with Joyce’s “The Dead” provide interesting fresh readings of Joyce’s short story drawing primarily on the context of Irish oral tradition. Ó Laoire examines “the liminal context of festive performance through dominant symbols of dance, song and general entertainment” (199) in Joyce’s “The Dead” and Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s An tOileánach in a comparative analysis of the “rich, sonically keyed textures of their writing” (199). Bennini’s essay also seeks to rediscover the Irish oral tradition in “The Dead” attempting to read the story as the “allegory of Joyce’s discovery of a model of Irishness compatible with his own artistic self” (205) and convincingly explores the interpretative potentials of poetic genre ofaisling linked to the medieval tradition of vision poets, as he argues, encoded in the symbolic layers of the story as well as Joyce’s possible reference to “the old Irish tonality” (209) in the story as a manner of sean-nós singing tradition in Ireland which, as his essay interestingly reveals, might have been of more relevance to Joyce than it has previously been acknowledged in criticism.
The tension between orality and textuality is further explored in Mary O ‘Donoghue’s essay on Conor McPherson’s play The Weir and Ronan Noone’s play The Lepers of Baile Baiste both “propelled by male volubility and its discontents in the theatrical setting of the bar” (217) in which listeners “may be said to perform the most destabilising work” (226). Márín Nic Eoin’s essay, the only one in Irish, gives a comprehensive survey of the influence of oral genres on modern literature in Irish and the section concludes with John Eastlake’s remarkable and meticulously elaborated view of the origin of the Blasket Island autobiographies, one of the most unique and distinctive group of texts originally written in Irish. Eastlake is particularly focused on the intricacies of production in which the role of the native, the editor and the translator contribute to the formation and transmission of the text, and his essay is the only one in the collection that overtly addresses the issue of translation, which perhaps could have deserved more attention and could have opened new horizons to the vast sea of orality these essays graciously glide through.
Anáil an Bhéil Bheo provides an enlightening encounter with some of the defining genres and authors of modern Irish culture. It guides the reader through the discursive space between orality and textuality, present and past, at the junction of many disciplines in a time-span of the last two formative centuries underlying the interconnections and prevailing concerns in the ongoing process of modern Irish cultural production. It serves as a rich, well-documented source and a valuable reference for all the students and scholars of Irish studies.