Ireland, Revolution and the English Modernist Imagination, by Eve Patten, Oxford University Press, 228 pp, £65, ISBN: 978-0198869160
When Karl Marx looked to the militancy of the Fenian movement, and the émigré Irish in industrial centres, to awaken the English labour movement from its political slumbers, he could hardly have foreseen the parodic turn this would take in Ethel Mannin’s novel Comrade, O Comrade (1947), a satire on primitivist leanings in English left-wing circles in the 1930s.
On holidays in the west of Ireland, a Communist Party ideologue, Peter Isinglass, persuades a Connemara native, Larry Lanaghan, to accompany him back to London, where he is introduced as a son of the soil to lend authenticity to the engineering of the soul under Stalinism. The only problem is that to see the project through Larry has to be politically educated into the finer points of dialectical materialism and the cultural avant garde, a bridge which proves too far for a left-wing Man of Aran. It is not that Larry is unwilling to become modern: on his introduction to the comrades in London he discards his bawneens and wears a modern suit to present himself in his Sunday best, to the dismay of his metropolitan handlers.
Ethel Mannin is one of the many writers discussed at length by Eve Patten in her acutely observed study of a topic long overdue critical treatment, English literary responses to the Irish revolution and cultural revival. Written with stylistic brio and drawing on extensive research in primary, secondary, and archival sources, the discussion ranges from DH Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene to relatively neglected figures such as Mannin, Rebecca West, George Thomson and TH White. Patten notes at the outset the overriding paradox in bringing the two cultures together: Ireland is at once ‘so familiar and so foreign’ (in Joyce’s words), both inside and outside English letters. While there is enough similarity that lessons learned in one culture could be applied to the other, Ireland clearly is not more of the same; the very need to cross the Irish sea to draw on cultural energies outside the English ‘great tradition’ suggests there were substantial differences between imperial centre and Western periphery.
Ireland’s precarious position both outside and inside modernity presented, to conservative sensibilities, the appeal of a pastoral retreat from the modern world, but to more progressive minds it was a means of re-imagining the modern itself, retrieving it from the catastrophes of two world wars. The application of the term ‘revolution’ to events in Ireland following the Easter Rising is often questioned (even in the wake of the monumental Atlas of the Irish Revolution ) but as Patten suggests, the alarm bells sounded in English circles indicated this was not just a sideshow but an ominous portent of crises to come, not just in Britain but thoughout the empire. Patten quotes the sentiments of the socialist RM Fox in his memoir Smoky Crusade (1938) that ‘We in north London hailed the Irish rising as the first crack in the as yet undisputed rule of the imperialists’, and the perception that the effects of turbulence in Ireland extended far beyond its own shores is a presiding theme in responses across the Irish sea.
So far from affording a backward look, Ireland provided glimpses of possible menacing futures to many English observers, presaging the disintegration of the post-imperial polity and a need to re-invent Englishness itself. In Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God (1930), the Easter Rising, and the presence on English streets of characters like the Irish rebel Dan Boleyn in the novel, give rise to fears that social unrest closer to home, such as the General Strike of 1926, might be transformed into open insurrection against government – in Patten’s words, writers’ ‘sideways glances to the neighbouring island registering their preoccupations with a domestic landcape that often threatened to mirror revolutionary Ireland’s social disturbances’.
Patten shows how Irish republican dissidents drift through the pages of English fiction in the inter-war period, most notably in the work of Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis –and assuming the unlikely form of the ghost of Parnell in Virginia Woolf. The Irish heroine of Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent (1926), Kate Leslie, is connected to the political ferment in Mexico of the period through her marriage to the Irish revolutionary James Joachim Leslie. The character Jim Bricknell in Lawrence’s earlier Aaron’s Rod (1922) is based on Captain Jack White, co-founder with James Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army in 1913, whose fractious relationship with Lawrence followed their first meeting at a London party in 1917 given by John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield. The combustible nature of Irish characters in Lawrence is not surprising given his alarm at the Easter Rising and its implications for Brittania’s ruling the waves: ‘I must say the Irish rebellion shocked me – another rent in the old ship’s bottom,’ he wrote on hearing of events in Dublin. (His response may have been influenced by the fact that among the highest casualties in British forces during the Rising were the Nottingham-based Sherwood Foresters, mowed down on Northumberland Road as they marched from Dun Laoghaire into the city.) Bricknell, in Aaron’s Rod, conveys the anxieties of many English writers that Ireland’s troubles might trigger off a domino effect world-wide: ‘“There’s something big coming,” said Jim. “Where from?” “Watch Ireland, and watch Japan – they’re the two poles of the world,” said Jim … “I’ve had a vision of it, Ireland on this side and Japan on the other – they’ll settle it.”’
The prospect, in Patten’s words, ‘that the fading [English] nation must endure a subtle humiliation at the hands of the Celts’ prevails in Lawrence’s Australian-based novel Kangaroo (1923), a sense of decline exacerbated by Ireland’s nebulous claim to statehood: Ireland, for Lawrence, ‘is a country which doesn’t really exist and doesn’t assert its non-existence violently any more …. Geographically nowhere, as you say’. This lesson was apparently lost on Irish educational circles when, as Patten points out in one of many engaging asides, Lawrence’s school textbook Movements in European History (1921), written for money under a pseudonym for Oxford University Press, was republished under his name by the Educational Company of Ireland in Dublin in 1926, ‘specially prepared for Irish schools’ with substantial edits and supplementary material.
Lawrence was soon to work on Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), in which an amorous Irish playwright, Michaelis, provides Connie with a foretaste of the release she later shares with the gamekeeper Mellors in the woods. In a striking twist to Lawrence’s suspicions of Celtic whimsy, he wrote at this time to his close Irish friend Gordon Campbell (soon to be Lord Glenavy), making inquiries about buying a house and settling in Ireland, but, as might be expected, this was not acted on. Lawrence sent his friend a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and it is worth surmising what Campbell made of it, given his rise to eminence in the meantime as secretary of the Department of Industry and Commerce in the Free State government. In this role, he was a key adviser in the Executive Council’s decision not to proceed with the donation of a magnificent window by Harry Clarke to the International Labour Organisation’s headquarters in Geneva. The window, featuring a display of nudity in a panel depicting a scene in a brothel in Liam O’Flaherty’s novel Mr Gilhooley, provoked the displeasure of WT Cosgrave, and Campbell explained with masterly understatement that the writings of O’Flaherty (and those of James Joyce) did not lend themselves to state gifts to international organizations.
Lawrence’s allergies to things Irish pale by comparison with Wyndham Lewis’s Hibernophobia, governed by a fraught sense of Englishness but more particularly by an intense rivalry with the achievements of WB Yeats, and his love-hate relationship with James Joyce. Patten cites Lewis’s perplexity in watching the massive crowds turning out for Terence MacSwiney’s funeral cortege in London that one could not tell Celts and Saxons from faces alone, and it is in this manner that ‘sameness’ poses as much of a threat as ‘difference’ to perceived relations between the islands. This possibility, ventilated in The Apes of God, is given greater currency in the later novel The Revenge for Love (1937), in which an Irish revolutionary, Sean O’Hara, passes himself off as British, down to dress, demeanour and accent: ‘Only in occasional words and pronunciations does “an echo of the submerged Erse peep out”.’ Tones betray in more ways than one, a theme echoed in Tom Kilroy’s more recent play Double Cross (1986) which contrasts the fortunes of two Irish ‘impersonators’ in wartime Britain – Brendan Bracken (one of Churchill’s closest advisers and son of a Fenian co-founder of the GAA), and William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, hanged after the war for his taunting pro-Nazi broadcasts from Berlin.
Patten devotes attention to William Joyce in the light of Lewis’s fears of the ‘enemy within’, an issue that is framed in turn by a wider question that recurs throughout the book: if similarity is as pronounced as difference between the two cultures, is it possible that a heightened awareness of Irish nationalism prompted a resurgence of Englishness in the face of a declining empire and an endangered Union? This tendency was already apparent one hundred years earlier when the shift in Irish politics from religion (Catholic emancipation) to the national question (the Repeal movement) accelerated the growth under Disraeli of ‘Young England’, the ‘Return to Camelot’, and other national fantasies. Coming from a ‘fading nation’ in which culture amounted to little more than ‘grace after meals’ (in Raymond Williams’s pithy phrase), English writers looking at the Irish Revival could only express a measure of wistfulness for a culture in which literature played a major role on the political stage.
As Patten recounts, for Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason (1947), Ireland itself corresponded to a form of betrayal, borne out by her diligent attendance at the trial of William Joyce for Nazi collaboration, and compounded by the difficulty of pinning down his precise nationality. Though born in New York as an American citizen, Joyce’s claim of Galway birth to obtain an erroneously granted British passport swung it in more ways than one to seal his fate. ‘There had been rumours that Joyce was Irish’, wrote West, ‘but they had never been officially confirmed, and his accent was difficult to identify. But there was no doubt about it when one saw him in the dock. He had the real Donnybrook air … there were as clear traces of Irish origins in the followers of Joyce, who watched the trial … They were on the whole rather darker than one would expect in subscribers to the Aryan theory’. William Joyce is one of the many recurrent or overlapping characters in the dramatis personae of Patten’s book, also appearing as the subject – and more sympathetic figure – in Ethel Mannin’s novel Every Man a Stranger (1949), where his Irish back-story is filled in at greater length.
The mirroring of nation-building in the two islands also had implications for the redistribution of violence in the system. Patten describes how on a visit to Belfast in 1912 on the eve of the Ulster crisis, EM Forster picked up on a mood that led him to question whether violence was coming from without or within the system: ‘as I listened to their civil educated voices and drank their tea, I thought of the savagery in each of us’. It is a mark of the sophistication of Patten’s analysis that she shows how similarities can end up accentuating differences and conflict. Intensifications of English nationalism in response to the Troubles in Ireland led to concerted attempts to suppress Irish struggles for independence and prevent the kind of humiliation Lawrence observed at the hands of the Celts – a disquiet that led in Wyndham Lewis’s case to a ‘consistent internal xenophobia against the Scots, Irish and Welsh, in parallel with the more familiar Bloomsbury paranoia about the Jews and the working classes’.
Bloomsbury came to Ireland in the form of John Maynard Keynes’s public Finlay Lecture at University College Dublin in 1933, a visit succeeded by Virginia Woolf’s tour in early 1934, hosted by her novelist friend Elizabeth Bowen. As Patten shows, Ireland had already ‘peeped’ up in many ways in Woolf’s writing, particularly during the War of Independence and (like Lewis) in response to Terence MacSwiney’s funeral, but as dark clouds gathering over Europe intensified her already fatalistic outlook, her diary ‘reveals its author’s deflection through Ireland of anxieties about the English democratic state in the 1930s’. Though levity is not readily associated with Woolf, Patten brings a note of humour to the proceedings in noting her constant exasperation at Irish indulgence in small talk and garrulousness, as if Thady from Castle Rackrent was to be met at every corner. Bowen’s stately Bowenscourt was dismissed by Woolf as ‘pompous and pretentious and imitative and ruined – a great barrack of grey stone’, and dining at the Shelbourne, a ‘drab meal with boiled potatoes’, did not offer much improvement. As related in a later chapter, the verbosity that annoyed Woolf was bound up with a more general round of ‘Revival bashing’ in the inter-war years, the linguistic and imaginative excesses of ‘Celtic Twilightery’ proving too much for refined English taste.
The shadow of Parnell falls across the pages of The Years (1937), Woolf’s interest in the leader’s fall from grace long predating the constitutional crises of the mid-1930s, but on its publication, the fate of post-Parnellite Ireland threw into relief the political fall-out of King Edward VIII’s liaison with an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, and his eventual abdication. In this context, Patten cites Woolf’s editor, Anna Snaith’s, observation that ‘Ireland is the key to the different versions of national identity which run up against one another, even within a marriage’. In addition to a low levity threshold, Woolf was not noted for her communist sympathies, and it is all the more surprising she ended her Irish tour by making the journey to University College, Galway, to visit the Marxist professor of classics and distinguished Irish language scholar, George Thomson (Seoirse Mac Tomáis).
One might have expected left-leaning sympathies towards Ireland to be directed at the Easter Rising and its aftermath, at least with regard to radical challenges to the state, but in one of the most absorbing chapters in the book, Patten shows how the so-called primitivism of the west of Ireland vied with more ‘advanced’ revolutionary sectors in providing pointers towards alternative futures. Central to this was the reconfiguration of time and space under modernism, following the collapse of Western illusions of progress in the carnage of the Great War. Linear conceptions of narrative gave way to a recognition that different temporalities or historical time-zones could co-exist inside the world system, the march of history (as against outcomes of political struggles) no longer guaranteeing the obsolescence of ‘pre-modern’ cultures. In the late anthropological turn in his writings, Marx had already raised the possibility that conditions for revolution might be more favourable outside the metropolitan centre and Lenin, in his contention that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism, saw national, decolonising struggles as potentially inciting revolt in the Western heartlands. It was for this reason that Lenin lent his support to the Easter Rising: from being the missing link in Victorian caricatures, Ireland now presented the weak link in British dominance of the imperial world system.
When the young Cambridge-educated classical scholar George Thomson arrived on the Blasket Islands in 1923 on the first of many long visits, it was to a world in his estimation not left behind by history but in many ways ahead of its time. Inspired by his studies of ancient Greek history before the rise of money and abstract social relations, later to find expression in his monumental three-volume work on philosophy and political economy in Greek society, Thomson, in Patten’s words, saw the Blaskets ‘not as a preserved excerpt of a civilization’s past but as a model for a possible European future’, outside the nets of homo economicus and capitalist values. The absence of master/servant domination, possessive individualism, shops, pubs, a police force, even priests in an ostensibly Catholic community, provided a glimpse of how society could be otherwise, at least at a local everyday level.
In his book Marxism and Poetry (1947) Thomson records that ‘The conversation of those ragged peasants, as I learnt to follow it, astonished me. It was as though Homer has come alive. Its vitality was inexhaustible, yet it was rhythmical, alliterative, formal, artificial, always on the point of bursting into poetry’. These sentiments informed his determination to close the gap between highbrow conceptions of culture as aesthetic refinement, and more anthropologically based views of culture as a whole way of life, bringing artistic expression back to the people. As if in mind of this, the one institution that made its mark on the Blaskets was the school: no less than seven literary works were produced by islanders, among them the classic An t-Oileánach (1929, translated as The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig: A Scéal Féin (1936, translated as Peig: The Autobiography of Peig Sayers) by Peig Sayers, and a book mentored and co-translated by Thomson and soon to be included in Oxford World Classics on its translation, with a preface by EM Forster, Fiche Blian ag Fás, by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin (1933, translated as Twenty Years A-Growing).
Patten is right to note the seeming anomaly of Marxist thinkers being drawn to the life of the remote west of Ireland rather than to more overtly political socialist or republican movements but it is worth adding that James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History, which she notes in her discussion, looked precisely to versions of ‘primitive communism’ in Gaelic Ireland to justify bringing class and nationalist struggles together in opposition to empire. It is no coincidence that Thomson, in his fundamental rethinking of social relations, was a close friend of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was also drawn to the west of Ireland, his friend Paul Engelmann observing of the philosopher (in words that could apply to Thomson): ‘it is not the coastline of that island which he is bent on surveying with such meticulous accuracy, but the boundary of the ocean’. Wittgenstein passed through Galway on his way to Rosroe in Connemara later in the same year Virginia and Leonard Woolf made their journey to meet Thomson at the university, but there is no record of his meeting his Cambridge friend there. By the time of his visit, Thomson had resigned his professorship, most likely due to clerical and political opposition to his efforts to bring extra-mural classes to the Connemara Gaeltacht so that, in his own words, ‘they could adapt their culture to modern conditions’ – an example of one figure certainly being ahead of their time.
In the late 1930s and postwar 1940s, the novelist and political activist Ethel Mannin chose to live near Clifden in Connemara, recounting, in her Irish memoir, A Connemara Journal (1949), her delight on discovering the cottage she lived in was a short distance from Mannin Bay. A close (perhaps intimate) friend of Bertrand Russell and WB Yeats, Mannin described herself as ‘an extreme left socialist’, whose visits to the Soviet Union and support for the POUM in the Spanish Civil War left her (like her friend George Orwell) severely critical of communist orthodoxy under Stalinism. Mannin also counted Hannah Sheehy Skeffington among her acquaintances, and in her wide-ranging historical survey, Women and the Revolution (1938), explained the title of her chapter, ‘The Irish Revolution: Constance Markiewicz’, by remarking that change in Ireland had not so much failed as remained incomplete: the ‘revolution had not yet finished in Ireland’. In her considered analysis of Mannin’s novel The Blossoming Bough (1946), Patten shows how the incongruities of mapping the Irish revolution onto the Spanish Civil War become apparent when the (anti-)hero poet Flynn Harrigan, volunteering for the POUM, grasps that in this struggle, republicans are fighting against the Catholic church (though it could be argued that this was what eventually happened in the Irish Civil War).
In the novel, Harrigan journeys from a mouldering estate in Connemara (bought by his feckless father, a successful writer embodying the Irish ‘soul’ in American literary circles) to the bohemian world of Paris, where he is encouraged to pass off his poetry as translations from Gaelic originals to add authenticity to his voice. (As it happens, he is adept at working on Gaelic manuscripts, which adds a greater resonance to his Irish idioms than the fey Celticism of the Revival.) Disillusioned with Paris, he travels to London, joining strands of the Independent Labour Party inspired by the legacy of William Morris (of which Mannin was a member) – an important detail given Morris’s investment, like James Connolly, in pre-capitalist forms to advance a socialism free of the deadening hand of capitalist mass production. Broadening his horizons to ‘a world revolution [that] would automatically free Ireland’ as part of a struggle that would ‘free India, Africa, the Palestine Arabs’, Harrigan turns to the Spanish Civil War and volunteers for the international brigade, learning to distinguish between ‘a liberating nationalism’ and an ‘imperial nationalism’. In a tragic irony, he falls victim to his own side as, suspected of being a Trotskyist in POUM secretly aiding Franco, he is executed by Communist Party comrades.
This is entropic civil war, and it is fitting that in a curious historical slip-up, Mannin mistakes Harrigan’s memories of the Irish Civil War as a war against the Black and Tans: ‘In the Irish Civil War, whether you were bumped off by the Black and Tans, or your political opponent, you could truthfully say you had died for Ireland: here in Spain, you get bumped off by the very people with whom you had fought’. In her active support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, Mannin ended up sharing a public platform with no less than Captain Jack White (released, one hopes, from his captivity in the pages of DH Lawrence’s novels).
Given Harrigan’s fate at the hands of, in effect, the Politburo in Spain, it is easy to see how in Mannin’s subsequent novel, Comrade O Comrade, the chief target of her satire on factionalism on the left is Communist Party doctrine. In an intriguing gloss, Patten raises the possibility, arising out of Mannin’s correspondence with Flann O’Brien, that some of the caustic wit of the Irish author may have given a biting edge to her satire. At times it verges on farce in Mannin’s novel, as when Irish Communist cadres head off to Leopardstown to bet party funds on a horse, or when the film Man of Aran (1934) is valued at an English Communist Party summer school for its insights into Irish agriculture. Throughout the story there is nevertheless an emphasis, as in The Blossoming Bough, on retrieving the west of Ireland from the elegiac reveries of the Revival, seeing respect for ecology and communitarian aspects of life on the periphery not as spent forces but a promissory notes to the future.
In the final chapters of her study, Patten describes the revival of pastoral and displaced imperial nostalgia in the attitudes of writers such as Evelyn Waugh and TH White towards Ireland, seeking to escape from the democratic excesses of the Labour government in the postwar years. As if beguiled by Yeatsian dreams of a renewed aristocracy, except with a Catholic rather than Protestant Ascendancy in mind, Waugh sought to move to Ireland, viewing Gormanston House in Co Meath as a suitable Irish Brideshead. His hopes were dashed when he discovered his neighbours would not be hard-riding country gentlemen, or even the peasantry, but suburban mediocrities enjoying nearby Mosney holiday camp, recently established by Butlins in Ireland. The Victorian return to Camelot also took on a new lease of life in Co Meath, to where the writer TH White escaped from his modest suburban background in the home counties during World War Two to conjure up his Arthurian fantasia The Once and Future King (1958). As Patten points out, it is in this Disneyfied romance that cultural transfer or appropriation is at its most apparent, for though Arthur is divested of his Welsh ties to make him more English, the multiple narratives are braided throughout with characters and sequences lifted from Irish myth and legend, extending to Irish language classics such as Brian Merriman’s Cúirt and Mheán Oiche, recently translated into English as The Midnight Court. White attempted to learn the Irish language and Patten lists the extensive selection of books on ancient Irish archaeology, history and literature he acquired from Hodges Figgis during the war.
While conservatives aspired to restore the Big House to recreate an English country life free from state intervention, those on the left, such as George Thomson, Ethel Mannin, and Graham Greene, were content with the little house on the western seaboard. A newspaper reporter in Ireland during the Civil War, Greene later crossed paths with one of the main architects of Republican resistance to the Treaty, Ernie O’Malley, when he journeyed to Achill in 1947 to share a romantic retreat in the cottage owned by his mistress and soulmate, Catherine Walston. Walston, married to the wealthy Labour MP Harry Walston, was the real-life counterpart of Sarah Miles in Greene’s novel The End of the Affair (1951) and had befriended O’Malley many years before her liaison with Greene, writing to him that ‘your relationship with me is unique in my life’. On the deterioration of O’Malley’s marriage in the mid 1940s, she saw more of him when he moved out of his family home in nearby Burrishoole on Clew Bay to avail of her vacant cottage on Achill. It is hard not to think of the shadow of the gunman falling on Greene’s idyll with Walston on the island as a noirish motif, in keeping with the novelist’s own endless fascination with ‘the third man’ in human affairs.
At one point in Greene’s novella The Third Man (1949), the American Rollo Martins, on the trail of elusive Harry Lime in postwar Vienna, is invited to an English literary gathering to talk on the contemporary novel, a topic which, as a writer of popular westerns, he is ill-equipped to discuss. On being asked from the floor about his literary influences, he immediately names ‘Grey’ – ‘Zane Grey, not the poet Gray,’ his literary-minded host quickly explains to the puzzled audience. To raise the literary tone, another listener asks: ‘And James Joyce, where would you put James Joyce …?’ ‘What do you mean put?’ Martins replies curtly, ‘I don’t want to put him anywhere’.
The main characteristic of many of the English writers in Patten’s wide-ranging study may be that they refused to stay put, and through processes of disavowal and transference, deflected onto Ireland their own presetiments of decline, nostalgia, violence and disintegration at home. Not least of the incongruities they encountered in Ireland was that it was also modern, albeit in a recursive idiom in which the past spoke to the future: while James Joyce was enlisting the Odyssey to make sense of a Dublin on the verge of revolt, the Marxist George Thomson was recreating in the Blaskets the Homeric qualities of life that made a revolution worthwhile in the first place.
Luke Gibbons’s most recent book is James Joyce and the Irish Revolution (2023)