Dublin City University
by Róisín Á Costello. 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.
This edited volume commences with a prologue or “proem” by Julie Morrissey in which the poet erases portions of section 18 of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 to create a vision of law’s de facto impacts when its words are pared back. While section 18, read in full, prohibits the State from restraining a woman’s freedom to travel outside the country to seek a termination of her pregnancy, Morrissey’s selective erasure subverts this meaning and exposes the result of the section for the women it is directed towards. The proem thus announces, “the State shall make miscellaneous person travel to another state during pregnancy to obtain information of services … the State shall by law restrict any person limit freedom during pregnancy …” (xiii).
The opening is apt, highlighting literature’s capacity to expose and interrogate the inconsistency between the restrictions imposed by law’s form, as words on a page, and its function as a practical force ordering individual lives, beyond the page. It is a theme that runs through this volume which is concerned not only with locating “the specificities of Irish writing within … the interdisciplinary field known as Law and Literature” (2), but also with bringing these “foundational fabrics upon which we make, and re-make, our political, social and ethical existence” into dialogue with each other in a specifically Irish setting (2).
The introduction offers an incisive, if concise, literature review which offers a jumping off point for those less familiar with the field of law and literature, and is complemented by the “Opening Argument” authored by Tom Hickey and David Kenny who unpack the connections between literary and legal interpretation and the main schools (and scholars) that have competed to offer the defining articulation of how meaning is made, by who, and to what end, in these fields.
This opening contribution is as close as the volume comes to engaging with “law as literature” in a collection which is otherwise concerned with depictions and uses of law and courtrooms in literature, and to a lesser extent the power of legal experience to shape literary style. Part One “Alternative Jurisdictions” begins with Adam Geary’s chapter “Saying Unsaid: Law Transformed in Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s Bloodroot (2017).” Geary’s contribution reads the poetry of Ní Churreáin as a commentary on female disappearance and disappearing in Irish history and the complicity of the law in this process – if only through its silence. Geary presents Ní Churreáin’s work as a meditation on the potential for this silence to provoke transformation (45), re-imagining an alternative future for the law, and its subjects, by leaning on the concealed possibilities of the law and allowing the said to echo off the unsaid (46).
The alternative figures Ní Churreáin imagines presiding over the alternative jurisdictions of her work (55) appear throughout Irish literature which has, often, superimposed an alternative adjudicator on dilemmas to articulate in literature a model of justice which the law cannot, or will not, provide in life. This is a theme which Heather Laird examines in her chapter “Writing Law(lessness): Legal Pluralism and Narrative Structure in Hurrish (1886).” Laird examines Hurrish, as both a realist account of the Land Wars in nineteenth-century Ireland, and as an effort to expose the failures of the law, and lawlessness, to resolve the iniquities at the heart of the disputes. Laird’s analysis is contextualized by the idea of legal pluralism as part of which Hurrish not only demonstrates the extent to which official law and “unwritten law” compete to define the norms of the novel’s community but also exposes the failures of both systems to exert an order, highlighting the failure of law, whether official or unofficial, when uncoupled from legitimacy.
In the following chapter, “Laughter before the Law: Censorship, Caricature and Hunger Strike in Modern Irish Literature and Art,” Barry Sheils charts the power of laughter as an act of performative resistance to the law, which requires a compliant body through and over which to exercise its power. In Sheils’s account, laughter and satire trouble this relationship by making the body a place of tension, and a space resistant to the authority of law. In contrast to Sheils, Adam Hanna’s contribution, “Citizenship and Connection in Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s Clasp (2015),” examines how law’s power is internalized rather than shaken loose. Hanna is concerned with the images of webs and threads that appear and reappear in Ní Ghríofa’s work and which, he argues, are suggestive of an imagination that seeks to connect Ní Ghríofa’s readers to hidden or forgotten histories. Unlike Sheils’s depiction of law’s power as displaced, Ní Ghríofa’s poems are mediations on experiences contained, and erased by law, events officially erased which can nevertheless be traced through lines of connection which “not only cross over but pull against one another” (82). In many ways the picture of law which emerges from Hanna’s analysis of Ní Ghríofa’s work is of an institution which presents a coherent façade even as it trembles from the tension of containing its own contradictory and competing histories.
Two of the chapters in Part Two, “The Writer in Court,” both Noreen Doody’s “Imagination v. The Law: Oscar Wilde” and Gearóid O’Flaherty’s “Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum – Revisiting the Wildes on Trial” are concerned with the experiences of the Wilde family as defendants. O’Flaherty’s examination of Speranza’s, and later William Wilde’s, experiences are informative in as much as they offer a tempting insight into a family that cultivated “an aura of unverifiable legend” (127) and, to some extent, wove narratives which could be neither contained – nor condemned – by law. Doody’s chapter is more engaged with the impacts of appearing as a defendant on the literature of Oscar. In particular, she argues that Oscar rejected the rule of law (in its strictest sense) in favour of a state of pure imagination where facts and rules were subsumed by narrative force. When this hierarchy of value failed, and the law was brought to bear upon Wilde; the result, Doody argues, was that Wilde’s faith in pure, creative imagination was shaken and his work assumed an edge of realism which sat uncomfortably with its author’s own tastes and talents, but which he seemed unable to ignore.
Wilde’s position as an Irishman is touched on only briefly by Doody, while the interaction of citizenship and loyalty to English law is unpacked further by Katherine Ebury whose contribution explores the legal charges of treason and treachery as inflected through the trial of William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) in “World War II Treason Trials and the Legacy of Irish Rebellion in Rebeca West’s The Meaning of Treason (1947).” Drawing on West’s 1947 study, Ebury contends that West’s focus on Joyce’s Irishness and her foregrounding of the trial of Roger Casement in her work act as devices that at once humanize and other Joyce and allow her to query the intersections of Irish experience and the colonial and postcolonial legal order.
This tension between law and the identity of colonial subjects also rises to the fore in Colum Kenny’s “Legible Letters: The Cases of Patrick Pearse and the ‘English’ Alphabet,” which examines Pearse’s appearance as a barrister in the case of McBride v McGovern. The case concerned the capacity of English law to recognise the Irish language (and its script) as “legible” for the purposes of complying with certain statutory requirements (169-170). Long before he became a revolutionary, Kenny shows Pearse as a writer and lawyer, attuned to the performative nature of the courtroom and to the law’s function as an ideological stage in which resistance is acted out.
The disjuncture between English lauding of the common law as a source of justice and right and the reality of the common law as dismissive of Irish experience is unpicked by James Kelly in his contribution to Part Three, “Pleading My Cause: Literature and the Law in Irish Romanticism.” In examining the fractured politics of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Ireland’s legal system, Kelly argues that shifts towards a more sceptical, and censorial literary style in the work of Irish authors during the period were the inevitable result of the gulf between the English promotion of the common law tradition as zenith of justice and right and the experience of legislation in Ireland. Max Barrett’s “Through a Legal Looking-Glass: Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800)” touches on the same unhappy divergence, examining the uses and abuses to which the law is put by the Rackrent baronets as part of a text which unpicks the alignment of law, class, and power in a novel replete with ideas of who was entitled to appeal to the law as a source of succour or self-advancement (183).
In Chapter Ten, “Rape Narratives, Women’s Testimony, and Irish Law in Asking for It and Dark Chapter,” Rebecca Anne Barr relates two novels about sexual assault, and the law’s apportionment of guilt and responsibility for sexual offences, to a high-profile rape trial which took place in Belfast in 2018. Barr argues that both novels reflect sceptically on the adequacy of both legal proceedings and fiction as forms of accountability for rape while noting that, if legal trials tend towards a devolution into adversarial processes and exclusive truths, literature at least offers a means of recomplicating the narratives the law presents (215).
In the penultimate chapter of the volume, “The Judge and the Human Hansard in Brian Friel’s Theatre,” Virgine Roche-Tiengo examines how Friel seeks to revive and preserve transcendent standards of truth and justice by positioning the courtroom and the judge as theatrical devices which can be examined and tested for adequacy. What is striking in Roche-Tiengo’s analysis is the way Friel exposes the potential for sanctioned violence which rests, dormant, in the framing of law as the imposition of order (in particular in The Freedom of the City) and Friel’s capacity both to recognise this, and to refuse to yield to it. This internal struggle between law’s poetic ideal, and the prosaic reality of its deployment are given full flight in the volume’s final chapter. In “Moral Legibility: Dion Boucicault and the Melodramatic Legal Scene” Eugene McNulty examines how law’s failure to connect with a moral universe is crucial to understanding Boucicault’s work – and his capacity to court and please British-Irish audiences. It is a fitting note on which to end the volume and one which speaks to the uneasy relationship between law, identity, and justice that successive generations of Irish authors have documented, and which the field of law and literature, in the Irish case, is tasked with interrogating.