Teresa Caneda
University of Vigo, Spain | Views:

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Re-mapping Exile: Realities and Metaphors in Irish Literature and History

ed. by Michael Böss, Irene Gilsen Nordin and Britta Olinder.

(Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus UP, 2005) 256 pp.

For a long time now, the theme of exile has loomed over the Irish literary imagination.  The mythic self-imposed expatriation of writers like James Joyce, whose Stephen Dedalus defends in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that estrangement from Ireland, together with silence and cunning, is a mandate for the artist appropriately speaks for the «exilic condition» of Irish (artistic) experience.  The idea that exile has played a fundamental role in the construction of Irishness lies at the heart of this collection of eleven essays by a group of scholars from universities of Denmark and Sweden who, the editors explain, offer a reading of Irish literature, history and culture with the aim of reflecting on some of  the historical, sociological, psychological and philosophical dimensions of exile in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.Following closely  the  work of  Kerby Miller (Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, 1985) and Patrick Ward (Exile, Emigration and Irish Writing, 2002) among others, the contributors explore the intricacies of Irish narratives of exile through a variety of theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches, ultimately suggesting the heterogeneity of a concept which cannot be accounted for through narrow and rigid definitions.

Michael Böss’s essay «Theorising Exile», the first and longest in the collection, appropriately provides a theoretical framework for the rest of the contributions.  Böss is keen to distinguish a number of categories in analysing exile, including the political, religious, social, economic, and inner. The critic is primarily concerned with the way in which some of the already existing perspectives on exile may become relevant for the present discussion. Thus, he revises the works of a diverse group of authors including Edward Said, Miller, Ward, as well as other specialists in the field such as the American Hispanist Paul Ilie and Andrew Gurr, the author of «the first systematic investigation of the theme of exile in modern literature» (29). Among the questions Böss addresses are the connections between emigration, exile and nationalism. In reference to the latter he observes that as a consequence of the institutionalization of a Catholic-Gaelic notion of Irishness, after the establishment of the Free State, a new form of exilic experience found its expression in the work of disenchanted and alienated writers eager to represent «the visions and identities of those who felt excluded –or socially and culturally ‘exiled’ from the nationalist project» (29). The section on «Exilic Writing» relies perhaps too heavily on Ilie’s seminal book Literature and Inner Exile: Authoritarian Spain, 1939-1975which, as the title eloquently indicates, is mainly a study of Spanish exilic writing during Franco’s dictatorship. Böss underlines the existence of significant links between Ilie’s thesis and the observations of Irish scholars, specifically in reference to the discourse of exile and the «subversion of hegemonic discourses of identity» (33).  Of particular interest is Böss’s survey, towards the end of the chapter, of the new meanings of exile which have emerged in the context of a late-twentieth century characterized by the embrace of the local and the global, as discussed by Richard Kearney and others.

Böss is also the author of another essay in the collection which explores the challenges faced by Irish Catholics immigrants to Canada.  Through an exhaustive examination of the biography and political trajectory of the revolutionary Thomas D’Arcy McGee (1825-1868) and of the writer Mary Anne Sadlier (1820-1903), who wrote a narrative of the life of McGee, Böss sets out to demonstrate how the two Irish figures illustrate the typical process of negotiation that takes place when, as a result of migration, a particular ethnic community must forge a new social order.  Although the author surveys a great deal of territory, including discussions of McGee’s numerous contributions to several journals, and although he places a great deal of emphasis on explaining that both McGee and Sadlier were «ethnic leaders» who contributed to the acculturation of Irish Catholics in Canada, his conclusion remains somehow weakened by his ambivalent treatment of ‘ethnicity’, both seen as a stigma or «a thing of the past» (86) and yet presented as essential in a process of acculturation developed «through ethnic leadership» (86).

Billy Gray’s essay focuses on examining the work of the Anglo-Irish essayist Hubert Butler (1900-1991) who, the author claims, was for many years «read through a veil of resentment» due to his position «as a member of the Irish landed gentry, and an agnostic, liberal protestant in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation» (47).  Thus, Gray proposes to re-examine Butler through the exile theories of Joseph Wittlin and Jan Vladeslav (whose name is absent from the list of references) in order to probe the author’s argument that after the Act of Union «the Protestant Aristocracy, who had been the original progenitors of Irish Nationalism, came to view themselves as exiles within their own country» (47). Gray begins his essay with a helpful historical overview of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and, although he spends much time quoting and interpreting Butler’s arguments, ultimately he does succeed in opening new possibilities for a discussion of alternative meanings of exile in the Irish context.

In «From Reformer to Sufferer: The Returning Exile in Rosa Mulholland’s Fiction», Heidi Hansson suggests that «the dream of a return is a central element in most stories of exile» (91). Her focus is on the novels A Fair Emigrant (1886) and The Return of Mary O’Murrough(1908), and she makes the point that «the woman exile foregrounds the exile’s status as a hybrid [. . .] both inside and outside the limitations placed on her gender» (92). According to Hansson, the «hybrid position» of Mulholland’s female protagonists enables the author «to introduce social problems and feminist ideas into the conventional format of the romantic novel» (93).  The problem is that, more often than not, Hansson’s thesis overtakes her material. It is not clear, for example, what feminist theory lies behind her somewhat excessive claim that «by making a woman the protagonist of a traditionally masculine story» Mulholland is offering a «powerful feminist gesture» (104), particularly after we are told about the «conventionally romantic endings» and the «non-existent» (104) power of a woman to effect real change in some of the novels. On the other hand, through her plot descriptions Hansson provides ample evidence of the interest of Mulholland’s fiction for the proposed analysis. Readers, therefore, may be disappointed in the absence of a clear discussion of the fascinating connections between feminist critical thought and theories of exile. In the same vein, Britta Olinder, the author of another contribution on the tension between home and exile in the poetry of John Hewitt, writes about the exile motif in contemporary poetry by women. She focuses on ten poems from the section on «Contemporary Poetry» in the fifth volume of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. This essay is more descriptive than exhaustive, and as in the previous case, the author is clearly not interested in inscribing her readings within the discourse of contemporary Irish feminist thought or feminist scholarship in general.  Yet, as the sketchy analysis of Eavan Boland’s poetry reveals, much can be gained from feminist approaches which discuss women poets as subjects-in-exile in the context of a debate on gender and exile in Ireland.

One of the most sophisticated and intriguing essays in the collection is the contribution by Irene Gilsenan Nordin, who focuses on an examination of the exilic subject in the poems of The Second Voyage by the woman poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.  Gilsenan Nordin argues that the central theme here is an experience of «existential exile and estrangement which is often associated with transformational moments of perception» (192).  Throughout her consistent analysis of Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetics (mainly the juxtaposition of images of fixity and flux), Nordin convincingly demonstrates that the in-betweenness of the speaking (exilic) subject affords a «place where the infinite possibilities of language exist as a liberating and empowering force» (192).  Ida Klitgard’s essay «(Dis)location and its (Dis)contents: Translation as Exile in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegans Wake» focuses on exile as an experience of linguistic displacement. However, Klitgard’s main analogy — «when translating a work of literature [. . .] that literary work is sent to exile» (110) — remains unclear throughout the discussion mainly because the invocations of deconstructionist thought, as when she quotes J. Hillis Miller’s notion that «translation is the wandering existence of a text in perpetual exile» (111), seem to be de-contextualized, or at least out of tune with the general style of the rest of the essay. Despite it being a slightly uncooked piece of work which draws on too many names and disparate ideas, the essay touches on some of the most fascinating aspects of Joyces’s work. I specifically regret that some of her intriguing statements about Joyce’s linguistic and cultural hybridity had been insufficiently explained and developed as they would deserve.

The realm of contemporary fiction is represented in the volume by Hedda Friberg’s essay on John Banville’s Shroud and Åke Persson’s discussion of internal exile in Roddy Doyle’s The Barrytown Trilogy. According to Friberg, Banville’s postmodern novel exemplifies exile in the domain of simulacrum. Thus, drawing mainly from  Baudrillard’s early Simulacra and Simulation, she argues that the deceptive shape-changing quality of the protagonist Axel Vander shows the traits of a variety of inner exile typical of espionage fiction which speaks also for the decentred subject of postmodernism. Picking up on the notion of inner exile, Persson, for his part, discusses Doyle’s novels as representative of «the systematic socioeconomic exclusion» (198) of  the urban working classes in the context of a mythical Irish identity which is characterized as Gaelic, Catholic and rural.  Interestingly, the critic demonstrates that, far from being simply comic texts «outside of Irish public history», the novels contest hegemonic versions of Irishness (much in the style of the political uses of humour by other contemporary Irish writers).  The volume includes also an excellent discussion of the representation of diaspora identity in three 1980s albums by the songwriter Van Morrison. Through such a wide-ranging and lucid analysis, the author, Bent Sørensen, provides an engaging examination of Morrison’s notions of Celtic brotherhood, «a hybrid between American New Age philosophies and Irish identity positions» (159), as he gradually and effectively reveals the intricacies underlying Morrison’s own diasporic position.

Re-mapping Exile: Realities and Metaphors in Irish Literature and History is an interesting work which succeeds in offering an enlightening exploration of the issue of  exile within a variety of academic fields and from plural perspectives. This collection  maps out the extremely complex and controversial uses of the concept, ultimately revealing that what is at stake in the debate over exile in Ireland is the idea of a conflicting relationship with the Irish homeland. In this respect, the volume makes a valuable attempt to incorporate alternative notions of exile within the contemporary critical debate on the topic, thus making an important contribution to the current state of Irish Studies.