Straightaway, Paul Fagan, John Greaney, and Tamara Radak make the bold and astute claim that the theorization of Irish Modernism remains “caught up with the politics, ideologies, and ethics of canon formation and narrow definitions of ‘Irishness’ and ‘the nation’” (3-4) They suggest that Ezra Pound’s defence of Joyce, a 1915 article in the New Age titled “The Non-Existence of Ireland,” severed Ireland and Modernism, and Irish critics have been quarrelling with Pound ever since.
Pound wrote, “a nation’s claim to a man depends not upon the locality of his birth, but upon their ability to receive him,” and Irish hospitality up to this point, the editors show, has been found wanting. Rewriting the rules of engagement, this book goes back to first principles: What is Irish Modernism? What was Irish Modernism? When, where, and whose was it? The contributors turn the critical frameworks on themselves, asking whether Irish Modernism has colonized adjacent literatures, disciplines, writers, and subjects. Eoin Byrne’s essay “The Languages of Irish Modernism” considers the coloniality of Irish criticism that marginalizes – when it does not entirely exclude – Irish-language literature and the sophistication of discourses that occur within criticism written in Irish. Elsewhere in the book, we see this idea applied practically in Catherine Flynn’s essay on Flann O’Brien, where she offers a means of redressing this omission in her inclusion of the original Irish as well as a translation of Myles na gCopalleen’s writing. Byrne uses Beckett’s corpus to show the multi-lingualism of Irish modernism, allowing us to see where Beckett’s Francophone work and reception have been so much more readily received than his Irish-language contemporaries, indicting the biases of critics that have propagated the exclusion.
The book plays with Pound’s idea of nationality throughout, showing that Irish Modernism’s connections to Europe are real, textual, and imaginary. Ellke D’Hoker’s essay “A Forgotten Irish Modernist” quotes Ford Madox Ford, in an echo of Pound, describing Ethel Colburn Mayne and George Moore as “trained by the French.” We can recognize these as aesthetic claims, but they are also rhetorical political bypasses, moving across the Irish Sea and north Atlantic without traversing England—a route that is perhaps even more perceptible in our own post-Brexit conceptions of Europe. D’Hoker shows how Irish Modernism itself can be an evasion in order to claim writers like Mayne in a way that makes them relevant to Irish Modernisms’s discourses but in the process of co-opting them excludes important aspects of their work that don’t fit the paradigm. Cleo Hanaway Oakley’s essay on Joyce and Beckett’s vision (and this essay is full of wonderful riffs on that concept) brings these capital Modernists down off their pedestals and into closer proximity to not only popular culture but their contemporary “intermediary” modernists like Thomas MacGreevy. In doing so, Hanaway Oakley’s essay forges an important link of continuity in literary history that we see expanded in other essays, such as Daniel Curran’s “The Funeral of One’s Past” where MacGreevy is not just a Modernist arising out of the First World War but is a poet deeply connected to Imagist aesthetics.
In “Irish Skin: The Epidermiology of Modernism,” Barry Sheils issues a stern and necessary reprimand: “The word ‘Irish’ in ‘Irish modernism’ might be considered as more than simply descriptive but may also designate a self-referential enactment that moves to collapse historical discourse into the material and affective realities of the present” (99) So, how useful is Irish Modernism as a term? The essays in this book are concerned with identifying the multiplicities and dynamism of Irish Modernism as a mode of critical inquiry in a way that is unrestrictive. What I loved about this book is that these are not competing but overlaying frames, giving us what Hanaway Oakley describes as, borrowing from Joyce, “a collideorscape” (162) where we have intellectual atomic fusion rather than the mushroom clouds that have too often obscured collaborative thinking in the field.
The book’s first section, “Testing Limits”, shows in incontrovertible terms how a central task of current scholarship is to diversify the canon, not only in terms of gender and sexuality but also aesthetics, language, social class, and social milieu – key distinctions in challenging the limits of Irish hospitality. John Brannigan’s “Explaining Ourselves” shows how Irish Modernism has functioned in a proprietorial way that is coterminous with acts of exclusion, and how the redress of exclusion and the expansion of the theoretical category runs the equally problematic risk of appropriation. He gives this specific resonance through a study of Hannah Berman’s work. Berman, an Irish Jew, was dually excluded from Irish cultural and Jewish diasporic identities.
How can we move beyond the “always” re-discovering mode of critical inquiry, which reinforces categories of marginality? Lucy Collins shows us one possibility in “Melancholy Modernism,” an analysis of how modernist Irish women poets addressed the dissolution of women’s subjectivity through their choice of subject and form. Rather than thinking about acts of erasure, Collins shows how these poems can be read as deliberate critiques of public opinion about women’s visibility and audibility in the public sphere.
“Corporeal Texts, Discursive Bodies: Biopolitical Irish Modernisms,” the book’s second section, moves more deeply into this self-interrogation, asking “whether the potential for true innovation in Irish modernist studies lies less with reframing and refining perennial questions of the nation state and the individual…than with a concern for the productive tension between the corporeal text and discursive body” (81), where modernist attention is focused on material processes, embodied emotions, and bodily functions. The latter we know is a preoccupation of some of modernism’s most favoured writers, but Maureen O’Connor pushes the boundary further. In “Death and the Nonhuman in Elizabeth Bowen’s Fiction” she reveals how new materialist attention to Bowen calls into question Irish Modernism’s own reliance on “anthropocentric historiography.”
The editors and contributors are to be commended on the nuances of the volume and the individual essays, where nothing is taken for granted. Seán Hewitt’s chapter exemplifies how to read “queer modernism” beyond writers’ sexualities, illuminating an Irish queerness that is antagonistic to nationalism. Reading this book, it is invigorating to think about how the nationalisms that were drivers in the discipline of Irish Studies are now being overturned from within. Lloyd Maedbh Houston writes about the “gendered rhetoric of health rooted in degeneration theory” (119) that was espoused by Irish Ireland. The arguments of their chapter “Survival of the Unfittest” indicates an important move away from critical representations of Irish Ireland as centrist and separate to the fascism that we see spring up in the 1930s. Katherine Ebury’s chapter “Rhetorics of Sacrifice” about the death penalty poses an important challenge to the historical record in its discussion of anxieties about female sexuality and state-sanctioned archives. Laura Lovejoy in “The Ranks of Respectability” shows how Liam O’Flaherty uses the figure of the prostitute not only to critique the culture of censorship and social hygiene, but also as a challenge to the social stratification of the city. Lovejoy’s methodology draws from new theories from the history of art where political commitment is no longer a marker of exclusion from the aesthetic avant-garde.
Intermedial and transmedial methodologies are the focus of the essays in “Minor/Major Modes,” the book’s final section. Exciting work from Maedbh Long reads letters as modernists texts in “Letters and Weak Theory.” There is thrilling genre-bending in Jack Fennell’s “The Machine in the (Holy) Ghost,” a reappraisal of science fiction’s cultural and formal entanglements. Michael Connerty’s “Mechanical Animals, Flying Men and Educated Monkeys” presents a fascinating inversion of the modernist aesthetic in Jack Yeats’s plays; where so much is invisible or abstract in the playtexts, Connerty’s reading of Yeats’s comic strips gives us an unmistakeable “popular modernism.”
The cumulative effect of this book’s nuanced organization and careful framing in the interchapters is a major intervention in Irish Modernism that will drive further self-critique in Modernist Studies more widely.