University of Almería, Spain
by José Francisco Fernández-Sánchez. 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.
Humour and Tragedy in Ireland
Málaga: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad.
Since the first conference in Burgos in 2001, every AEDEI academic gathering has had a presiding theme. On that first occasion, it was the perspectives for Irish Studies in the new millennium, followed by the representation of Ireland/s in the conference in Barcelona in 2002, while Irish landscapes was the chosen topic when the conference moved to Almería in 2003. The apparently contradictory terms of humour and tragedy related to Irish culture were the focus for the papers at the 2004 conference in Málaga, collected in this volume.
As the editors write in the foreword, humour and tragedy are not so far-removed as might first be thought: “This book looks at both aspects ‘humour’ and ‘tragedy’ both independently and together because, as in many other instances, extremes meet and the fact is that ‘humour’ and ‘tragedy’ are inextricably linked as they are emotions which are complementary and therefore difficult to separate” (9). Irish literature, the editors state, was influential in introducing humour as it is understood today in culture at large, and they mention writers such as Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith as initiators of this tradition. After reading the collection of articles in this volume one certainly gets the impression that humour is hardly ever an innocent pursuit, and that in the case of literature, complex motives surround the comic presentation of characters and situations. In the dense history of Ireland too, humour is often tinged with satire, irony or resentment, and it has often been the means to escape from dark realities.
The volume is divided into six parts, each dealing with the twin phenomena of humour and tragedy in relation to a particular field of expression: language, fiction, theatre, films, poetry and social sciences. It would be impossible to summarise the contents of all thirty five articles in such a short review; I hope these brief comments on a few of them can give an idea of the wide scope of this remarkable book.
The volume opens with an article by Loreto Todd, from the University of Ulster, who tells a personal account of her mother tongue, Hiberno-English, or a “grafted English” as she puts it, because in her community English was incorporated into an Irish substratum. Todd provides a historical account of the evolution of Gaelic in Ireland as well as a linguistic description of the version of Hiberno-English spoken in Tyrone, her county of origin. She believes that Hiberno-English is developing today towards the international, neutral version of English that can be found everywhere.
David M. Clark is the author of a paper on the literary accounts of the 1916 Easter Rising. In his opinion, most accounts of the events belong to the tragic-comedy genre, and he focuses on Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (1926) as an iconoclastic work of fiction which presents the protagonists of the struggle impelled by personal motives rather than by ideals of liberation for their country. According to Clark, other authors at the end of the 20th century have rekindled the debate on the Rising initiated by O’Casey, and he refers to the novels A Star Called Henry (1999), by Roddy Doyle, and At Swim Two Boys (2001), by Jamie O’Neill.
In a revealing article Constanza del Río Álvaro offers an alternative reading of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). This narrative, traditionally interpreted in terms of Bakhtin’s carnavalesque disruption of literary genres, seems indeed the ideal model for an anti-dogmatic theory of the novel, because of its humour and its mixing of styles and languages. However, Constanza del Río argues, the figure of the author himself, a narcissistic joker, hides behind a game that is based on exclusion.
Marisol Morales Ladrón’s article discusses Julia O’Faolain’s No Country for Young Men (1980), a novel in which the evaluation of the past is a major theme. Morales Ladrón emphasizes the blend of tragic and comic narrative elements, which somehow softens the violent backdrop of the action. One of the novel’s main topics is the cyclic course of history, involving women who cannot escape the image Irish society has imposed on them.
In an erudite article, Aída Díaz Bild deals with different theorists who have insisted on the redeeming function of comedy and its power to make human beings accept the awkwardness of life. Conrad Hyers, John Morreall, Marcel Gutwirth, Eric Bentley, Edward Galligan, Wylie Sypher and, of course, Mikhail Bakhtin, are discussed in this paper. Díaz Bild makes use of a concept by the Russian thinker, humour as a liberating complement of tragedy, to explain Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry.
Asier Altuna-García de Salazar chooses one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre, Lady Gregory, as the focus of his article. Lady Gregory always showed a great interest in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and in her play Sancho’s Master (1927) she pays homage to this literary masterpiece. In the opinion of Asier Altuna, this play draws parallelisms between the Sancho/Quixote symbols and the Irish character and history.
Maite Padrós is one of the scholars who writes about the use of humour and tragedy in films, and she focuses on the images offered by contemporary portrayals of Northern Ireland. In her opinion, film audiences have got an image of Northern Ireland restricted to violence, where the conflict, in most cases, has been oversimplified. Maite Padrós believes that the situation has changed since the creation of the Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission in 1997, a board which encourages the production of films which move away from stereotypical images of the region.