Colin Graham
NUI Maynooth

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Ireland Beyond Boundaries: Mapping Irish Studies in the Twenty-First Century

ed. by Liam Harte and Yvonne Whelan (London: Pluto, 2007)

288 pp.

ISBN 0-7453-2185-2

When I was a first year undergraduate I took a course in anthropology which had the title ‘What is Anthropology?’ Twenty-four lectures later I knew more about Papua New Guinea than I did at the start of the year, but I was no nearer being able to answer the question of what anthropology was. And my lecturers seemed quite happy to go on asking the question in perpetuity. It took a long time to realise that this kind of meta-critical, disciplinary self-reflection is healthy, maybe even necessary to the humanities, rather than a symptom of a ponderous hesitancy. Liam Harte begins his ‘Introduction’ to Ireland Beyond Boundaries by suggesting that the book is an attempt at ‘meta-discursive reflection’, and he notes that it is some time now since any such institutionally-conscious, multi-disciplinary summary of Irish Studies has appeared (the 1988 book Irish Studies: A General Introduction, edited by Bartlett, Curtin, O’Dwyer and Ó Tuathaigh). 

It  is  hardly  the  case, of  course, that  the  critical discourses by which Irish Studies functions have been blithely unexamined in that period  its major disciplinary components, literary studies and history, have both been intense in their ideological self-examinations in the intervening period. Harte’s argument is more that the nature of what Irish studies is, and, subsequently, its institutional and intellectual future, are currently open questions.

The contributors to Ireland Beyond Boundaries each have their own notions of what falls under the rubric of Irish studies and hence what could or should be done with it. To the editors’ credit they have collected contributions which examine the teaching and practice of Irish Studies in the US, Canada, Australia, Britain and Ireland. It might have been interesting too to get a perspective from north, south or east continental Europe, where various concentrations of Irish studies have developed, or even South America, and in particular Brazil. The inadvertent Anglophone skewing of the academic distribution of Irish studies, which is implied by focusing on these geographical regions, is a little unfortunate. Each case study of the development of Irish Studies (Christina Hunt Mahony on the US, Michael Kenneally on Canada, Elizabeth Malcolm on Australia, Shaun Richards on Britain and Michael Brown on Ireland) sees similar patterns repeated  each note an initial flurry of activity which then begins to become reliant on the dedication of individual teachers and scholars, particularly where large endowment funding is absent. Christina Hunt Mahony’s account of Irish studies in the States is thoughtful and thought-provoking. She details the ways in which donations have flowed into a kind of ‘nostalgia gap’ in Irish-America, producing some very well-funded programmes (Boston and Notre Dame), while others have risen and then tottered with the passing of those individuals who kept them going. However, Christina Hunt Mahony’s most pressing point is the identification of a pressure in North American universities to collapse Irish studies into a more generic, global ‘diaspora studies’, a kind of minority studies-plus-mobility, and she suggests that, while such a move makes financial sense (in terms of the economies of scale) for US institutions, this would be an intellectual mistake. Certainly it would seem to have the potential effect of further re-orientating the research and teaching of Irish Studies in the US towards something more likely to be properly labelled Irish-American Studies. Elizabeth Malcolm’s account of nascent Irish Studies in Australia echoes with Michael Kenneally’s discussion of the longer-established position in Canada, and both seem to parallel to an extent what Hunt Mahony sees happening in the US. In the essays by both Malcolm and Kenneally it is clear that the real vibrancy within Irish Studies in Australia and in Canada respectively has been exactly in a localised, Irish-inflected version of diaspora or migration history. While this makes sense for the institutions and scholars involved, it opens a gap between the research and teaching that is discussed in the first section of this book and the more manifesto-like essays of the second half, most of which assume a model of Irish Studies which is centred on what has and is happening on the island itself. The two parts of this book might suggest that making contemporary Ireland relevant to the diaspora and making the diaspora reconnect with contemporary Ireland will be a difficulty in the future development of Irish Studies, whatever that future may be.

A subtext to the essays in Part One, those which discuss the ‘rise’ of Irish Studies, is the sudden burgeoning of the discipline during the 1980s and 1990s. While in the US and Canada Irish Studies was already existent in various forms, it is not surprising, in retrospect, that interest, academic structures and finance began to appear, after a time-lag, from the beginning of the Troubles  the real time-lag was a projection forward to the end of the Troubles. It may be that in years to come it will be possible to chart a clearer line of progression which sees some of the efforts at reconciliation, or at least accommodation, in Northern Ireland as being directed, through governments and philanthropy, at the persuasive abilities of universities. Explaining the expansion of Irish Studies in the UK in the 1980s, Shaun Richards notes how slow the British academic left was to engage with the ‘revolution’ within their own jurisdiction, and his title, ‘Our Revels Now are Ended’, referring to the recent decline in Irish Studies in British universities, suggests that it may be that, in some ways, the work of Irish Studies in the UK is largely done. The announcement in June 2007 by the British government that they were to give extra funding to Islamic studies in the UK replicates the situation which Richards describes in the 1980s and 1990s in Britain. [The British government in particular wants the money to be used to train Immams in the UK rather than, for example, Pakistan, in a twenty-first century replaying of the controversy over the Maynooth Grant in  the 1840s – see].

If the ‘end’ of the Troubles, in a circuitous and unquantifiable way, might be a shadow over the future direction of Irish Studies within the structure of university programmes across the globe, it is also surely the historical moment which will question how the subject is conceived in the future. It is a common enough gesture to attribute the hoary old revisionism/nationalism debates, and their post-colonial off-shoots, to the Troubles and, from there, to arguments that taper back through history, but if these certainties are fading, what defines the future conceptual directions of Irish Studies? In his essay Conor McCarthy retraces one aspect of these critical debates, suggesting that the ‘pervasive idealism’ of literary and cultural criticism in Irish Studies leads to our unhappy present moment at which ‘intellectual production has become more imbricated with capital than ever’. McCarthy’s essay ends with a series of questions intended to redirect cultural criticism towards a new materialist critique which pays attention to economy, filiation and affiliation, and which redefines the postcolonial on these grounds. McCarthy’s essay is typical of those in the second part of Ireland Beyond Boundaries, in that they share a general belief in the tiredness of the concepts and methods which Irish Studies has developed up to the present – naturally, the contributors offer diverse means out of this potential stasis. So Mary E. Daly offers the ‘multidisciplinary’, perhaps wisely eschewing the more difficult interdisciplinary, though Louise Ryan’s very specific essay on ‘Women, Migration and Unwanted Pregnancy’ offers itself as a model for such research. Other contributors make the case for disciplines which are under-represented in Irish Studies, yet all of which would arguably put Irish Studies more in touch with the fabric of lived society in Ireland, past and present – Mike Cronin makes a even-handed and intelligent argument for the role of sport in Irish society, never overstating its importance; Tom Inglis’s essay on religion in Irish society deals with a black hole in Irish Studies, which, to its embarrassment, and particularly in its cultural criticism, has rarely understood religious identity, or indeed religious faith,  as anything more than a ‘theme’ or marker of cultural background. Lance Pettitt’s essay on ‘mediascapes’ moves towards a global sense of Ireland in a media marketplace, surely an inevitable development in the future of Irish Studies, given the directions which Ireland, North and South, are currently heading in. Gerry Smyth’s essay on music, with its reliance on Jacques Attali’s propethic belief that the world is primarily audible rather than legible, could be said to overstate its case a little. A fine model of true inter-disciplinarity is found in the editors’ own essay which interweaves geography, cultural history, literary criticism and material culture in discussing landscapes of memory in Ireland and the diaspora.

Ireland Beyond Boundaries suggests that, whatever Irish Studies is, it will soon not be that. What it will become will depend partly on the institutions in which it flourishes or declines, and the testing of the waters which is carried out in these essays does not entirely augur well for the relative status Irish Studies in the global university system. If that is the case, and Irish Studies has lost its sheen, then the essays here will provide useful, intelligent and lasting provocations for the new versions of Irish Studies which will emerge in the post-Troubles, post-Tiger Ireland, in which a new, sometimes enforced internationalism will also mean a renegotiation of old diasporic relationships.