José Francisco Fernández-Sánchez
University of Almería, Spain

Creative Commons 4.0 by José Francisco Fernández-Sánchez. 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.

The Irish Knot

Carrera, María José, Anunciación Carrera, Enrique Cámara and Celsa Dapía (eds.).

2008. Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid.

ISBN: 978-84-8448-455-4.

No less than 37 articles, plus an introduction on the conceptual image of the Celtic Knot, are presented in this book of proceedings of the VI International AEDEI Conference, which took place at the University of Valladolid in May 2006. It was a fruitful academic gathering and naturally it was bound to produce a complete and exhaustive volume which, in many ways, is a state-of-the-art book on Irish studies today. The editors have taken pains to include a wide selection of papers presented at Valladolid and as is common in any AEDEI conference, the reader will find articles on the Irish economy, politics, history, film, media, etc. as well as a significant number of articles on literary criticism.

The Irish Knot is comprised of seven sections, but instead of classifying the papers according to their discipline (linguistics, history, literature, etc.) the editors have gathered the different groups of articles around an idea expressed in the heading, so that in each chapter we can find articles on various topics but subtly joined together. It is a daring approach and the editors must be credited for the original distribution of the contents. The arrangement may give the initial impression of disorder, but as they make clear in the introduction, the editors want to reflect on the influence of the Celtic Knot, that evocative symbol of interwoven lines whose meanings are part of an ever-evolving flux. The arrangement of the essays is made “in imitation of Irish plaitwork, of its tying and untying, to allow for the freest and most abundant associations” (19). The titles of the headings, taken from the lexical field of manuscript culture, are also an indication of the editors’ intention not to get trapped by rigid systems of thought, to liberate ideas and to give pre-eminence to the imagination in their view of Irish culture. “Historiated Capitals”, “Illuminations”, “Palimpsests”, “Matrix Lingua” are some of the headings of the different sections. Under the title of “Variance” (Chapter 5), for example, we can find an article on the influence on recent literature due to the influx of immigrants into Ireland, an analysis on the dichotomy rural Gaeltacht/urban Ireland in Éilís Ní Dhuibnne’s The Dancers Dancing, a Lacanian approach to James Joyce’s “The Dead” and two articles on the Ulster-Scots contribution to cultural hybridity in Northern Ireland. “Variance” refers to the multiplicity of variations of a normally absent original, as in medieval manuscripts. It therefore becomes an appropriate title for a section dealing with multiple identities in Irish society.

All the articles collected in this publication really deserve a comment: in the first piece we find a survey of Irish economy in the 20th century by an economist, John Bradley, who is sympathetic to the workings of the imagination. It is worth reading. His reader-friendly approach to economic matters is really welcome. Bradley explains that both failures and successes in Irish economy depend on long-term policies made by those in positions of influence, and insists on the importance of conceptual frameworks that underpin policy actions.

Alfred Markey deals with the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, which had taken place in 2006, a short time before the conference. At the beginning of that year the President, Mary McAleese, had delivered a speech which provoked a heated debate in Irish cultural circles on the nature of the celebration itself. Each anniversary of the Rising in recent decades had been somewhat of an assessment of the current thinking which prevailed at the time, and in 2006 the demonstrative and effusive celebrations in the streets of Dublin indicated that the Revisionists’ discourse was at a low ebb. Alfred Markey gives voice to everyone in the debate and exposes each point of view with ironic detachment. He also points out the most striking paradox related to the celebrations: the more those inspired by 1916 move away from its example, the more the Rising is honoured.

David Clark writes wisely on a much neglected genre, the Irish historical novel, and examines the problems raised by its relation to “true”, historical events. He takes up James Cahalan’s argument that Irish historical narrative should deal with political events that the authors themselves did not personally experience, and the problems that this definition conveys.

Rod Stoneman, who was Chief Executive of the Irish Film Board in the 1990s, in an interesting article, tells of his period as the head of this institution, as well as the successes and failures of Irish cinema. He believes that the Irish Film Board had to promote those projects which represented the diversity of Irish society. It was a period of dynamic change in the economy and it triggered a renegotiation of both gender and class structures. In his opinion, the policies of the Board had to move away from inauthentic and stereotyped images of Ireland and to support initiatives which grew from contemporary experience. Although plenty of work is being done nowadays in this direction, his general view is pessimistic: “But overall film work that demands a more active spectator is currently confined to the thin cultural margins of society” (95), he writes.

Rosa González Casademont writes on contemporary Irish cinema too, and focuses her contribution on a number of documentary and feature films which take up painful events and personal stories from Ireland’s recent past. González Casademont explores the revisionist impulse in contemporary Irish cinema, including a series of films from Northern Ireland which have revisited the Troubles as a first step towards reconciliation. She reveals the shortcomings of contemporary Irish cinema, how financial or health scandals have not found an echo on the big screen, or how recent films on traumatic events related to the Catholic Church have not made a proper analysis of the conditions that allowed those events to take place. For Rosa González, a documentary such as The Rocky Road to Dublin (1968) provides much more serious criticism on the dark aspects of Irish society than many more recent films.

With the passing of time, more and more articles in recent volumes of Irish Studies examine the consequences of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. The two contributions in The Irish Knot dealing with post-agreement Northern Ireland do so in a competent and efficient way. Chris Gilligan writes on the use of images of children in the photographic portrayals of the peace process. At the outset Gilligan notes that images of children are used in newspaper articles and front covers of books to transmit the concepts of hope, innocence and vulnerability. These are certainly adequate and well-accepted ideas that reflect the hopes and fears that many people feel regarding the Peace Process. Gilligan goes further in his interpretation of the pictures and reveals that in many cases there is an essential fiction in the production of images: these photographs of children are seldom natural, nor are they the product of a casual glance. There is normally a preconceived intention behind them as well as the work in setting up the shot before the photos are taken. Gilligan insists on analysing the “interpretative framework” that surrounds the images, including the ideological position of the viewer, and urges us to be critical and alert to any attempt towards manipulation. Meaning is not inherent in the images, but arises from our relationship with them.

Laura Filardo, on her part, applies tools from the area of Cognitive Linguistics to interpret the words of the main political leaders of Northern Ireland after the signing of the Belfast Agreement. She draws heavily on the Critical Metaphor Analysis (CMA), devised by Jonathan Charteris-Black, to unearth the conceptual metaphors behind the speeches of political leaders Gerry Adams (SF), John Hume (SDLP), David Trimble (UUP) and Ian Paisley (DUP). The article provides an exercise in searching for clarity behind the muddled political discourse. Laura Filardo sheds light on the ambiguity used by politicians and the way they employ a metaphor-loaded language to legitimise their position and delegitimise that of their adversaries’. It is revealing to learn who makes more use of metaphors in their speeches.

In a book on Irish culture such as this, it is not surprising that a number of authors receive special attention, and in The Irish Knot there are some relevant contributions on Seamus Heaney, W.B. Yeats and Flann O’Brien, but I would like to make a final comment on an erudite piece on Samuel Beckett by David Pattie, from the University of Chester. Pattie starts off with a reflection on the inner voice heard by many Beckettian characters, a voice that does not help to clarify anything in the narrative. The characters usually end up mirroring the ramblings of the voice while they confront the ruins of a broken world. It is no wonder that the search for silence becomes a constant longing in all Beckettian texts: “Quietism has always exercised a compelling hold over the Beckett protagonist from Belacqua on” (162). Beckett’s reaction to a ruined world is compared by Pattie to Walter Benjamin’s writings which deal with a new paradigm for art after the 1st World War. Benjamin famously defined modern urban life as a series of shock experiences and he theorised on the need of the artist to develop a protective coating that could filter out the impact of city life. Pattie conducts a comparative analysis of Benjamin’s critical writings in order to explore how Beckett delved even further, presenting a world in which the individual is so shocked by experience that he only envisages complete decay, which would explain the dream-like quality of many of his texts. With articles like this, The Irish Knot pays readers the compliment of some fine interpretations of the work of relevant writers.