Gabrielle Kathleen Machnik-Kekesi
University of Galway | Views:

Creative Commons 4.0 by Gabrielle Kathleen Machnik-Kekesi. 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.

Borrowing for its title Desmond Ryan’s words that “the deepest wounds of the Civil War were spiritual wounds,” Síobhra Aiken’s monograph study contemplates “how disparate literary and non-fictional narratives by veterans of the Irish [R]evolution can be read as testimony” (4, 13).  An exercise in reading against the grain of a history cultivated by the “architects of official memory,” Spiritual Wounds sets out to create an “alternative archive” of Civil War experience by carving out space for those who bore witness to their own experiences, as well as those of others (1, 2). Aiken is quick to state, however, that her work does not “dispute the many children and grandchildren of revolutionaries who can testify to the reticence of the revolutionary generation” (18). While challenging the notion of silence surrounding the Civil War, Aiken also maps silences through her examination of myth construction, canon formation, censorship, self-censorship and excommunication (18).  The implications of this book’s release in 2022—in conversation with scholars including Guy Beiner, Gavin Foster, Ailbhe McDaid, and Linda Connolly— at the tail end of the Decade of Commemorations/Centenaries, will not be lost on much of this book’s readership.

With respect to method and sources, Aiken compiled “a list of writings by civil war veterans produced in the decades immediately after the conflict.  Over time, the list expanded into a catalogue of accounts and books, many of which were published before there was any talk of setting up the Bureau of Military History in 1947” (1). Varied as these texts are, they share the trait of being widely overlooked in historical scholarship. These texts all also employ “self-protective strategies” while navigating the “simultaneous desire to forget and the inability to stop remembering” (19). Aiken suggests that previous scholarly neglect of these sources may be related to “scepticism towards popular ‘mythology’ long associated with the ‘scientific’ approach in modern Irish historiography” as well as the “‘history wars’ between nationalist and revisionist approaches to Irish history” (4).

The text is organized into five chapters (and an afterword) that are thematic and roughly chronological, and that are dedicated to different “silence-breaking projects” (16).  Chapter One interrogates contemporary psychoanalytical ideas/approaches regarding “the therapeutic benefits of reading and writing testimony,” further exploring the “subterfuge of fiction[’s]” testimonial potential (16). Aiken argues that the “therapeutic aims” that motivated testimonies written by Peadar O’Donnell, Francis Carty, and Patrick Mulloy were “self-acknowledged” (21). She supports this argument through her analysis of modes including, but not limited to, modernist/avant-garde forms (27), intertextual dialogue (34), black humour (35), the generative nature of love triangle (48), and the myriad possibilities offered by the perceived distance between text and author in the fictional novel form.

Chapter Two “uncodes” the default of testimony as a male act and “addresses the particular challenges faced by female revolutionaries in writing, producing[,] and sharing testimony in commemorative culture that privileged men’s stories” (16). Crucially, the “liminal space between fiction and non-fiction” became the fertile creative place in which women could negotiate both their wartime experience and the “dismissal, objectification[,] and even commercialisation of women’s pain,” the latter often used as a device, a proxy, for male-centred narrative developments (70-71). Aiken hones in on the literary production of authors including Annie M.P. Smithson, Dorothy Macardle, and Máiréad Ní Ghráda. Of special interest in this chapter is Aiken’s textured commentary on women who were receiving treatment for the affliction of “nerves”; not only were women’s experiences of trauma understood through the perceived limitations of their feminine sensibilities (with the obvious exception of the “Furies” or “unsexed Amazons” (137) who were subject to different, but by no means better, patriarchal violence), but also the routine treatment of “rest cure” for trauma facilitated their removal from public life and thus political debates.

Chapter Three explores testimonies of “sexual relations,” which encompasses both “consensual and non-consensual intimacy” and covers topics ranging from homosexuality and prostitution to sexual violence against both men and women (17). Aiken argues that previously articulated contentions surrounding silences with respect to sexual violence occludes “earlier underappreciated material,” including texts by Eithne Coyle, Jim Phelan, and Seán Óg Ó Caomhánaigh (117). Although this thematic, organizational choice is somewhat awkward (“non consensual intimacy” is not anchored in a specific definition which, thus, introduces questions about the possibility of intimacy without consent), the chapter’s analysis culminates in a key question: does narrative “also perpetuate a culture of sexual violence and, through graphic depiction, even enact a further (sexual) violation” (118)?  I would argue that this is not just pertinent to Aiken’s selected authors but that it is also worth considering by those engaging with violations of consent, and trauma more broadly, in their own scholarship.

Chapter Four nuances the range of ways that veterans experienced exile, particularly the “spiritual” or “inner” exile of those disillusioned by the “new political order,” with particular focus on the writings of Pádraig O’Horan, Eily Dolan, and Kathleen Hoagland (17, 159). Aiken provides essential insight into how gender informed these experiences, pointing out that the “exile [trope]” so often deployed by male authors is much more complicated for women, to whom “emigration offered an escape and an alternative to inner exile,” the latter term referring to “social isolation, containment[,] or institutionalisation” (17, 182). Aiken also unpacks the testimonial potential of the “returned exile.”

Lastly, Chapter Five covers the much-understudied topic of “perpetrator testimonies,” and challenges “the idea that veterans were silent regarding their role in committing violence during the revolution and particularly during the civil war” (17); Aiken cautions readers against conflating trauma with victimhood (195). In her analysis of Frank O’Connor, George Lennon, and Anthony’s O’Connor’s work, Aiken identifies two “distinct features” of perpetrator testimonies: “excessive telling about violence and the foregrounding of empathy between foes” (196).

Aiken points to a few examples of authors engaging with drafts of their own work, as with Mulloy’s never-to-be-published preface to Jackets Green (55). Consequently, how self-editorializing, or co-editing, for a broader readership impacts on testimony is a topic which Aiken does address, but it remains open for future research that can only serve to build on Spiritual Wounds’ contributions, particularly since Aiken so eloquently points to the “difficulties for combat veterans in negotiating their wartime experience with the social expectations of civilian life” (64). Additionally, by way of understanding any cultural transfer between authors and readers, further insights on text reception would have been welcome, especially considering Aiken’s words about IRA veteran Mike Quill, for whom “reading the accounts of other may have functioned as a means to remember his own revolutionary days vicariously” (236). In other words, do we have any sense whether readers’ bearing witness to the events described in testimonial writing influenced how authors in turn conceptualized their own testimonies? Did it impact on later text-based articulations of events that authors were both desperate to remember and anxious to forget? Lastly, “alternative archive” is a term that is often used in the humanities without an engagement with debates in archival studies as separate (but indelibly tied to) the concept hegemonic state memory. There is a vibrant field of scholarship dedicated to theorising and activating the alternative archive and the “anarchival” – again, in relation to, but still distinct from, memory studies and other related fields – that could have illuminated additional discussions about intertextual relationships, the materiality of testimonial documents, and “archives of feelings” (per Ann Cvetkovich’s work on trauma) in Aiken’s selected corpus.

Of central importance in Aiken’s text are questions related to the cultural and gendered availability of vocabularies, modes, and genres in testimonial writing. What struck me most upon completing Spiritual Wounds was how Aiken generously offers up her own lexicon and approaches to Irish Studies as an interdisciplinary field more broadly. Her study provides a bilingual model for researchers, at any stage of their career, to query truisms, destabilise silos, and infuse a deep ethic of care towards both the practices that create, and the subjects of, academic investigation. Are the “silences” in your field of study really just “unlistened-to stor[ies]” (229)? Finally, and appropriately for a monograph that delves into analyses of paratext, Aiken’s afterword and acknowledgements are essential reading. She confronts readers with the possibility that she, too, is an active witness in her capacity as a researcher (237). Aiken provides her own testimony to personal notes in the National Library in writing this lockdown, “pandemic book,” and details her own “affective investment” in the subject of her book through family and community connections, as the great-granddaughter of forme Tánaiste and Minister of External Affairs Frank Aiken (240, 333). Finally, as an extension of her self-aware relationship to the realities of scholarly production, the placement of Aiken’s acknowledgments at the end of her book is consistent with her observations on the feminist impulses in testimony; the acknowledgments’ placement and register allow us to bear witness to the countless people and institutions that cumulatively supported Aiken in her creation of this transformative text.