Irish Literature in Transition, 1980-2020, Eric Falci and Paige Reynolds (eds), Cambridge University Press, 448 pp, £89.99, ISBN: 978-1108474047
Given how controversial anthologies and histories of Irish literature have proven to be in the recent past, one turns to this book, the final hefty volume in a new series of six from Cambridge University Press, with excitement and trepidation. The full series, titled Irish Literature in Transition, was prepared under the general editorship of Claire Connolly and Marjorie Howes, and covers the period from 1700 to the present. Eric Falci and Paige Reynolds are the editors of this final volume, which deals with the last four decades. There are twenty-three contributors, with eleven based in Irish universities, eight (including the editors) in North America, three in England, and one in Australia. Twelve are women.
The essays include new work on Irish drama, cinema, poetry and fiction. There are two contributions on writing in the Irish language and two on Northern Irish writing. Topics including religion, migration, commemoration and children’s literature are discussed in other essays. Three shorter sections, called “Codas”, are devoted in turn to two major figures in poetry, drama and fiction (Eavan Boland and Seamus Heaney; Tom Murphy and Brian Friel; Edna O’Brien and Eimear McBride). Two essays consider the current position of Irish literature in academic criticism (Ronan McDonald) and in the Irish public sphere (Margaret Kelleher). The volume concludes with an account by Reynolds of the contributions of The Irish Times and the publisher Tramp Press to contemporary Irish writing.
As McDonald outlines in his essay “Irish Studies and its Discontents”, The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing Vols 1-3 (1991) remains central to debates about Irish literary historiography and literary criticism. In response to protests about the neglect of women’s writing in the anthology, two further volumes on “Women’s Writing and Traditions”, were added in 2002. The five-volume Field Day anthology was by far the most extensive collection of Irish writing ever assembled in print and is likely to remain so – digital technology may by now have rendered the multi-volume anthology obsolete. Later collaborative projects in the field of Irish literary criticism could also justifiably claim to be both innovative and comprehensive. The 2006 two-volume Cambridge History of Irish Literature aimed to provide a chronological overview of the entire tradition; more recently, A History of Irish Women’s Writing (2018), another Cambridge University Press publication, offered the first history of Irish women’s writing from the early modern period to the present. As Kelleher discusses here, a recent Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets (2017) was faulted for its under-representation of women poets in what was in some regards a smaller-scale replay of the Field Day controversies nearly thirty years on.
However, as McDonald points out, generous coverage and inclusivity, particularly in an era of digital overload, are not the only desirable things in the area of literary history. Non-specialist and student readers especially also value concision and expert judgement. Indeed, it might further be suggested that today’s generation of Irish literary critics have been slow to produce any updated equivalents of stylish, authoritative short works such as Terence Brown’s Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922-79 (first edition published in 1981) or Seamus Deane’s A Short History of Irish Literature (1986). In any event, as in the case with this new series, it is obvious that the entire field of Irish literary criticism over recent decades is considerably indebted to Cambridge University Press and to the energetic initiative of Ray Ryan, its commissioning editor for literature – warmly acknowledged here by the general editors.
The rationale for the series and for this particular volume are set out in the general editors’ brief preface and the editors’ longer introduction. Connolly and Howes state that the series will set aside established precedents of writing about Irish literature mainly in relation to political history. This is taken to be dominated by the issue of state power or of the resistance to it. Hence, presumably, the round numbers in the subtitles of these volumes, rather than dates with a specific historical resonance in Ireland – for example, 1780 and 1940, not 1798 or 1922. It is clear that the general editors want to disentangle the story of Irish literary achievement from the metanarrative of national struggle, self-assertion or self-realisation. More ambitiously, they also want to propose a more satisfactory account of the general relationship between history and literature as such.
Asserting that the field of Irish cultural studies has not yet developed a sufficiently “dynamic” sense of the relationship between literature and history, they argue that
literary transitions do not “reflect” historical change in any simple or straightforward way. Rather, the complex two-way traffic between these realms involves multiple and uneven processes such as distortion, selection, repression, embrace, and critique. The temporal relationships involved in such traffic include simultaneity, time lag, and anticipation.
That is to say, writers may have views about history, whether consciously or unconsciously held. Or they may try to ignore it. Historical changes are sometimes registered in literature as they occur, or later on – they may even be anticipated by writers. However, these are surely all uncontroversial claims and it is difficult to imagine how any literary critic would dispute them. The concept of the “transition”, although intended here to be neutral and non-teleological, may carry its own ideological implications. It certainly involves “change” that is not abrupt and that is generally positive. After all, we would not tend to talk about Ireland “transitioning” to famine in 1847. Nevertheless, the ambition is to “to highlight the significance of change as a lived, felt force”. Lived or felt by whom? This formulation, one assumes, is intended to emphasise the idea of change as an everyday, shared experience. It could not easily be applied to the experiences of historical victims – it is perhaps more relevant to those who contemplate the fate of victims in the past. This is not the kind of change contemplated by radical thinkers or revolutionaries nor by literary innovators who set out to transform genres, audiences or institutions. There is an implication here that those kinds of change have already garnered enough attention in other literary histories.
In their introduction, Falci and Reynolds declare that it is “no exaggeration” to assert that the last four decades in Ireland have been “rife with transitions so dramatic they seem themselves to be the stuff of fiction”. They define the contemporary mainly by reference to a benignly conceived globalisation. This is in fact a feature of neoliberalism (not any longer universally regarded as benign). This is the reason, they suggest, that Irish experience and identity have become more “open and porous”. Hence what Falci and Reynolds describe as the “drearily familiar” Ireland of the early 1980s – taken to have been mired in sectarian enmity, economic failure and social repression – undergoes “dizzying societal changes”. But Ireland and the West in general had begun to change radically in the 1970s. There was nothing “drearily familiar” about the Oil Crisis, the outbreak of the Troubles, or accession to the EEC. The editors are reluctant to identify “origin points” for contemporary culture – as in the account of Brian Friel’s Translations and the emergence of the Field Day Theatre Company at the start of their period. However, in the present volume, the most important examples of such beneficent and progressive change are taken by both the editors and many of the contributors to be the advance of social liberalisation in the Republic and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland.
How have such changes been registered in Irish writing? Falci and Reynolds single out two Irish works that are “political in the best way”: Paula Meehan’s celebrated poem “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks” (1991), also discussed by a later contributor, and Emilie Pine’s research into Irish industrial schools, showcased in this volume. The editors claim “that these do not operate as propaganda for an ideological position, but rather aim to represent and concretise the complexities of lived experience within systems that are unjust and oppressive to stir an aesthetic and political response that might, however indirectly, buttress political activity”.
They do not point to any specific examples of more “propagandistic” art.
In describing the emergence of Field Day in 1980, Falci and Reynolds approvingly note the considerable international impact of writers and critics, such as Friel, associated with the company. The fact that the premiere of Translations took place at the Guildhall in Derry, a symbol of Unionist power in the city, and in the presence of the Protestant lord mayor, is taken to have been a hopeful indicator of a “moment of cultural unification” that was to come in the North. But this is all “despite the nationalism underlying the play, a point that tended not to be pursued by early reviewers”. By implicit contrast, Falci and Reynolds mention the Channel 4 hit series Derry Girls (2017 – ) as an example of a story about growing up in Northern Ireland in which the Troubles do not determine everything in the experiences of the young people depicted; thus, it is an alternative to what they aptly call the “adamant immediacy” of many representations of the North after the 1970s. (Writers who explore the trauma of the Troubles in diverse ways are also discussed in several essays, including those by David Lloyd, Stefanie Lehner and Julia C Obert.) But even given the overwhelming emphasis of Irish Literature in Transition on reconciliation and the soothing of past conflicts, the editors also note the “re-emergence of socio-political divisions that were thought to have receded” in Ireland in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Like most of the contributors here, Falci and Reynolds are most concerned with the threat Brexit (not yet an accomplished fact at the time of the completion of the book) presents to the soft border between the Republic and the North. They do not contemplate more radical constitutional changes, such as the ending of partition. (Although Lehner does mention Fintan O’Toole’s 2016 suggestion of a new union of Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland.)
Despite editorial anxieties about unreflective historicism, some key political developments are repeatedly mentioned here: the Good Friday Agreement, the Celtic Tiger, the financial crash, abuse scandals, the referenda on equal marriage in 2015 and on the repeal of the 8th amendment in the Republic in 2018. And while we cannot be confident about the judgements of posterity, certain significant literary landmarks, noted here by a range of critics in several different contexts, seem likely to be remembered. Among these are Roddy Doyle’s stories of working class Dublin in The Barrytown Trilogy (1992), Heaney’s Nobel Prize in 1995 and Anne Enright’s Booker Prize-winning novel about the after-effects of child abuse, The Gathering (2007). Anna Burns’s Booker Prize for Milkman in 2018 evidently arrived just in time to make it onto the very last page of this book. Sally Rooney is name-checked here alongside other emerging writers – in part due to the lockdown success of the BBC adaptation of Normal People (2018), she is arguably at this point one of Ireland’s most high-profile authors. Many of the contributors seem to agree that contemporary Irish writing is of an exceptionally high standard – Reynolds endorses Sebastian Barry’s recent judgement that we are living through “an unexpected golden age of Irish prose writing”.
Largely in keeping with the editors’ own sense of the present moment, the main (although, as we shall see, not the sole) critical focus in these essays is on how writers negotiate the “transition” to our putatively more irenic and less repressive times. This sometimes leads to reading certain authors, who are clearly obsessed with the past, a little against the grain – as in the case of Falci on Heaney or Christopher Langlois on O’Brien. Most of the essayists here who call for the field of Irish literature to be updated, expanded or redefined do so on the basis of arguments about “representation”. It is largely assumed that the importance of literature lies in its capacity to give powerful expression to the experiences of previously marginalised groups, such as emigrants, diasporic communities, abuse survivors or, in the case of Anne Mulhall’s essay, “Arrivals: Inward Migration and Irish Literature”, recent migrants to the country. McDonald, while arguing that “the emphases and theoretical fashions” of Irish Studies are “almost always imported”, observes that postcolonial theory, associated initially with the Field Day project and dominant in the 1990s, has now receded in Irish Studies conferences and journals. (He ascribes this to a by now widespread acknowledgment that Ireland hovered between the condition of “colony and coloniser”; in fact, while Irish people have indeed been colonised and colonisers, it is hard to defend the view that Ireland, while in comparative terms now a rich country, has ever been specifically a “coloniser”.) It is not just postcolonial theory which is now less commonly deployed. Psychoanalytic feminism, also very prominent in an earlier phase of Irish Studies, is here notably less so; for example, there are two references to Edward Said in the index but none to Julia Kristeva or Hélène Cixous.
The recent success of works of memoir and essay-writing, especially though not exclusively by women, is frequently linked by critics in this volume to the post-1990s “breaking of the silence” in Ireland concerning clerical abuse, unwanted pregnancy and other issues. Nevertheless, it seems dispiriting that a new generation of brilliantly accomplished women writers should write so many novels mainly about unhappy relationships with men. Of course, as Clair Wills points out in her “Coda” on O’Brien and McBride, you can lay the blame for these – and for the distressing, recurrent depictions of sexual exploitation and debasement in Irish fiction – on men and on the culture that produces them. However, she notes that other women writers, as early as the 1970s, expressed frustration that O’Brien’s abject women characters apparently failed to develop any insight into their own situation, and were thus out of step with developments in the society around them. Wills proposes that Irish criticism needs to tackle the issue of sexuality in new ways, now that writers about sexual abuse of various kinds a half century after O’Brien’s The Country Girls (1960) find themselves to be “flowing with the cultural tide”.
Some emerging areas of criticism, as enumerated by McDonald, are perhaps less well-represented in this volume than in the field generally, including disability studies and queer studies. Hanna’s essay on “Habitations: Spaces, Place, Real Estate” is the only contribution directly concerned with ecocritical themes. However, entirely new methodologies are indeed deployed to startling effect in the essay on “Modes of Witnessing and Ireland’s Institutional History” by Pine and a team of collaborators in the field of digital humanities in UCD. The text they investigated is not a literary work but the Ryan Report, the by its nature lengthy and unwieldy summary of the findings of the Commission of Investigation to Inquire into Child Abuse in industrial schools, published in 2009. As Pine notes, the report made for “daunting reading”; nevertheless, “reading it seems the least we can do”. Using computer-assisted techniques, she and the other researchers were, for example, able to trace the movements of known abusers between institutions over extended periods. In a heart-rending footnote, they recount applying the search term “[taken] out of bed” to their database of the survivors’ testimony, in order to identify patterns of abuse in various institutions.
Falci and Reynolds define their project in part negatively – in opposition to, or as a successor of, postcolonial studies. They argue that the centrality of “Ireland” (their quotation marks) within postcolonial criticism means that it “may seem difficult from such a perspective to conceive of the category of ‘Irish literature’ outside of the history of colonialism, decolonization, and nation-making”. They suggest that, by contrast, a central concern of their contributors is “the status of a category called ‘Irish literature’ outside or beyond a colonial dynamic, that is, as part of a larger global web rather than a Manichean binary that stretches the Irish sea”. However, it is inaccurate to claim that postcolonial criticism confines the analysis of Irish culture to an Anglo-Irish frame of reference – indeed, while several works of Irish postcolonial criticism are cited in an accompanying footnote, no example of such a reductive approach is offered. Indeed, one of the most frequently made criticisms of Irish postcolonial studies, as McDonald reports, is that as a consequence of treating the colonial history of Ireland as an episode in the imperialist expansion of European capitalism more generally, the Irish might be encouraged to identify themselves uncritically with “the wretched of the earth”. The object of investigation in postcolonialism is not so much the constitutional status of Ireland in relation to Britain but capitalist modernisation as this unfolded in uneven and often catastrophic ways in peripheral zones such as Ireland. This points to a different understanding of Irish history from Falci and Reynolds’s notion of a “delayed modernity”, which implies that Ireland was simply slow to “catch up” with developments elsewhere.
McDonald observes that Irish Studies in the 1990s devoted itself to the “greening” of major modernists such as Joyce and Beckett, by relocating them in their formative Irish context. But this is perhaps not quite the whole story. The purpose was not merely the repatriation of those Irish writers whose “presence in the front rank of Western literature was assured” – they were not being claimed simply to augment Irish cultural prestige. Rather, as some of these leading artists had themselves reflected on the nature of empire and nationhood, assimilation of and resistance to imperial ideologies, or the hurts of history, these were central figures to any reconceptualisation of modernity and modernisation in Irish culture. One of the most prominent of all the Irish writers repatriated in this sense was Edmund Burke; it was the recognition of his role, in relation to world revolution and counter-revolution in Ireland and in modernity, that helped to displace the exclusively literary element from its pre-eminence in Irish writing. The so-called “greening” of Wilde, Joyce or Beckett, whether by postcolonial, queer or other forms of scholarship, has involved taking them seriously in an Irish context, and is not some reductive exercise in trumpeting their origins.
Falci and Reynolds note that the contributors to this volume do not necessarily adhere to any single methodology or agree with one another. While it is indeed positive that the collection can accommodate clashing perspectives, it would perhaps have been preferable for some of the most salient clashes to have been more clearly introduced or explained at the outset. This would certainly benefit outsiders or newcomers to the field – a chronology, bibliography or suggestions for further reading would also have been helpful in this regard. As matters stand, fuller discussion of the emergence of the interdisciplinary field of Irish Studies, of debates between Irish historians and literary critics, and of the institutional histories and politics of Irish Studies, is left to McDonald’s essay late in the book.
Consequently, the reader may be surprised, turning to the first three essays, that these contributors do not seem at all to share the editors’ reservations about postcolonialism. For example, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, in her essay on “The Contemporary Conditions of Irish Language Literature”, describes how the poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, now “arguably the most revered of Irish-language writers”, charts the “postcolonial situation and the trauma of language loss”; Ní Ghearbhuigh also comments that Máirín Nic Eoin, among the leading critics of writing in Irish, “emphatically argues for applying postcolonial theory to modern Irish literature”. In a footnote to his essay on “Cultures of Poetry in Contemporary Ireland”, Lloyd notes the importance of Wills’s pioneering study of Northern Irish poetry, Improprieties (1993), which analysed the interpenetration of private and public spheres in Irish social experience and in Irish writing. Such critical work, Lloyd states, “represents an exemplary case of the intellectual necessity of postcolonial arguments about Irish culture”. Obert, the author of the third essay, has written a book on Northern Irish poetry entitled Postcolonial Overtures (2015). She covers a range of writers of varying political persuasions in her essay on “Literature and the End of the Troubles”. In the course of her discussion, Obert quotes at some length an account by Joe Cleary of partition that advances an analysis of the Troubles strikingly at odds with the overview of the conflict presented by Falci and Reynolds. (Cleary argues that “the attempt to manufacture ethnically homogenous states, or states with secure ethnic majorities, cannot be accomplished without extraordinary communal violence. This violence does not end with the act of partition: violence is not incidental but constitutive of the new state arrangements thus produced.”) Falci and Reynolds may not have wished to impose any editorial line on the contributions, but this represents something beyond broadmindedness. There is a sense of dissonance – or of a lack of strenuous engagement with some of the arguments actually presented in their collection. Editors ought not to be expected to adjudicate between the different arguments their contributors propose, but to account for and explain them is certainly a service to readers. Otherwise inclusivity begins to appear like indifference.
Falci and Reynolds acknowledge disagreement among their contributors on one point only. They concede that some may offer a less than entirely affirmative view of contemporary culture, specifically in relation to the issue of realism. They state that “ highly esteemed contemporary writers have come under significant critique for failing to transform their aesthetics – their thematic, generic, and stylistic propensities – so as to address more adequately the actualities of life in the twenty-first century”. So the editors report that some authors have been charged with adhering to relatively traditional or conservative forms of realism in fiction and drama, or with versions of the first-person lyric poem, “unswayed by modernism”. This is partly, one imagines, in order to prepare the way for Lloyd’s blistering essay. But it would nevertheless be misleading to suggest that Lloyd, for example, enjoins writers merely to address “the actualities” of contemporary Irish life, as these have been set out in the introduction. He does suggest that experimental writing can better resist being turned into a commodity in the literary marketplace and that it may also connect with recalcitrant elements in the culture (the latter understood as “practices that live on in defiance of domination”). Cleary, another contributor to this volume, is mentioned here in a footnote as representative of this anti-realist line of critique – but the editors do not explain his arguments about the histories of forms of Irish writing, or the politics of contemporary cultural production in Ireland, in Outrageous Fortune (2006) and elsewhere. In his contribution on “The Irish Realist Novel”, Cleary does not advocate for modernism as an “advanced” form against a regressive realism. Rather, he traces the longer-term evolution of realism in Ireland in relation to its British and European models and counterparts, noting that realism is always defined by its difference from other competing modes in any particular literary ecosystem. Cleary suggests, for example, that there is disabling contradiction in some Irish writers’ commitment to versions of the realist novel that were “constitutively anti-heroic in disposition” even as they “lamented post-independence Ireland’s anti-heroic mediocrity”. In any event, it may be impossible to re-create the broader social and historical conditions that facilitated the modernist “revolution of the word” in Irish literature or more generally – and naturally enough, even distinctive and original experiments with anti-realist techniques, such as stream-of-consciousness, no longer have the same capacity to impress or shock as they did a century ago.
Lloyd in turn argues that most Irish poetry, “like deal dressers and hand-blown glass … offers a reliably commodified form of traditional craft, supplying a market segment within the larger global circuit of poetic production”. Using the example of a quatrain by Michael Longley, he argues that
contemporary Irish poetry offers all too many examples of the happy procedure of the poem that commences with “vividly realized” experience, draws from it some metaphoric thread and winds up with a moral payload, validated by a nice turn of phrase, that brings metaphor and experience into graceful concord again, often enough “clinched by a final rhyme and a final perspective” (the quoted phrases are from Edna Longley) … Once the pattern is established, the object of perception ceases to matter: whether a hawk or a handsaw, its gleam in the subject’s eye is what counts.
In a series of detailed readings, drawing on Adorno and Beckett, he contrasts this model of the “anecdotal lyric” with work by the Northern Irish poets Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian and the Dublin poet Catherine Walsh. He argues that the most authentic Irish poetry registers the violence of capitalism in both its content and its form. Dismissive of the idea of the “separate development” of Northern Ireland and the Republic since partition, Lloyd suggests that “it is important to recall the degree to which the techniques and technologies of counter-insurgency that were developed in the laboratory of Northern Ireland have become part and parcel of the of the regime of neoliberal capital that has extended onto a global scale the violent policing and containment of the populations it has displaced and made disposable in the service of accumulation”. Given “the continuing subsumption of Ireland as a whole into the capitalist global sphere”, the question for the Irish writer is how to find modes “adequate to the conditions of unfreedom that the neoliberal transformation in all its domains has produced”. Although it occurs in a different context, one is reminded of the poet Leontia Flynn’s disenchanted response to contemporary Belfast, now commercialised and made over as a tourist destination – “Friendly! Dynamic! Various!”.
McDonald discusses several kinds of “privilege” in Irish Studies. He comments that the field was boosted by the status of those Irish writers, especially of the early twentieth century period, who were already “winners in the global literary marketplace”. The allure of Celtic Tiger economic success also played a part. However, McDonald suggests that scholars should reflect on the reasons why “Irish Studies flourished in the universities of America and Britain, whereas Congolese or Puerto-Rican studies did not”. In the US, this was partly based on Irish-American philanthropic support. This had in turn been facilitated by historical circumstances in which Irish immigrants, while immiserated and exploited, nevertheless possessed the relative advantage of whiteness as they struggled to advance in constitutively racist society. It is interesting to note that while Lloyd mentions the Irish, even today, alongside people who have been “displaced and made disposable” by capitalism, McDonald contrasts them with “dumped and disregarded ethnicities around the globe”.
This difference stems in part from Lloyd’s perspective on class. For example, he – and many other Irish people – would, even twelve months ago, have balked at the editors’ claim that “the Irish economy has largely recovered from the losses of the early part of the century”. Irish writers, reviewers and university teachers are almost exclusively middle class and even less likely perhaps to interrogate the biases associated with that class position than with gender or race. In addition, many left-leaning critics, like Lloyd and Cleary in this volume, do not seek to redress this situation simply by calling for more narratives by or about working class people – true to the preoccupations of Western Marxist critical theory, they focus more on how literature sublimates the trajectories and costs of historical development. However, it is nevertheless revelatory to read Lloyd’s analysis, for example, of Walsh’s experimental account of the “development” of the site of the Fatima Mansion flats in Dublin, rooted in both personal and collective experience. A new cohort of young Irish novelists are also more sympathetic to socialism than were authors of the generation of John Banville and Colm Tóibín. So far, these newcomers have struggled to reflect these commitments in their work, other than through social satire or romances between characters of different class backgrounds. Nevertheless, a significant shift seems to be under way.
One imagines that Mulhall, here discussing writing by new migrants and Irish writers of colour, would be sympathetic to McDonald’s critique of the relative inattention to race in Irish Studies (although the topic has indeed been addressed by some – including, for example, CL Innes, a pioneering contributor to postcolonial criticism in areas including Irish and African writing). Mulhall would also probably find herself more in agreement with Lloyd’s sceptical view of contemporary cosmopolitanism than with that of Falci and Reynolds. She uses an epigraph from Ghassan Hage, who declares that today’s “open” borders are experienced as such mainly by white middle class people; by contrast, national borders remain “racialized class divides” for “[the] ‘third-world-looking’ transnational working class and [for] under-class citizens”. Mulhall seeks to look beyond the well-intentioned but restricted multiculturalism of writers such as Roddy Doyle and Donal Ryan; she considers instead work by artists including Melatu Uche Okorie and Felicia Olusanya that “centres migrant of colour consciousness”. She questions whether new Irish writers of colour will seek to be included in Irish literary institutions or instead opt to reach their audiences mainly via video, digital media and performance poetry. Aware of the pitfalls of “identificatory pity”, Mulhall appears to have no truck with notions of “subaltern” or postcolonial Irishness. (In the ongoing campaign against direct provision, parallels are often drawn between the treatment of asylum seekers in Ireland and of inmates of Irish Magdalen laundries or of Irish emigrants overseas in the past. One wonders if she would regard these as inevitably unhelpful.) There is certainly no suggestion here that writers of colour do, or will ever have, much investment in the traditions of Irish writing. Apart from some recent works which to various degrees illustrate the shortcomings of assimilationist liberalism, the only Irish literary text mentioned in the essay is Heaney’s early lyric “Digging”. As Mulhall recounts, this poem is invoked by Oritsegbemi Emmanuel Jakpa, a Nigerian writer now living in Ireland, in his “Harmattan”, a work concerned with “poetic and global border regimes”. Curiously, Jakpa’s response to Heaney appears in fact to chime with Lloyd’s postcolonial critique – now canonical in Irish Studies – of the same poem in Anomalous States (1993). Mulhall does point to some new political and artistic alliances among writers of migrant, minority ethnic, LGBTQI and working class backgrounds, as demonstrated by performances at marches and demonstrations – further evidence, she suggests, of a “political turn in Irish writing since the 2008 crash”.
In his even-handed assessment of postcolonialism and present-day Irish Studies, McDonald recalls the intensity and frequent acrimony of academic debate during the worst of the conflict in the North. He suggests that the calmer atmosphere of post-Troubles Ireland has taken “much of the heat but also some of the light” out of the field. His point is not that new studies of migration and the diaspora, of gender and sexuality, or of climate crisis, are less important than investigating the conflict in Northern Ireland – that would be absurd. But he argues that these scholarly imperatives may render Irish Studies less “special” in the wider academic world. This is reflected in the halting of institutional expansion in the traditional centres of Irish Studies in the UK and the US, with funding reduced and some long-established centres closed down – although this may be balanced in the future by new programmes outside the Anglophone world, including in China and Brazil. He emphasises that academics strongly disagreed about Irish history and about the North, in a way that they generally do not these days – as we might further suggest – about abortion, Donald Trump or Brexit. McDonald is obviously not fully convinced either by the assertion that that Irish Studies has lately become “global”: he remarks that at its best the field was never “provincial”. But he is not here concerned to make the point, crucial to postcolonialism, that issues of sexuality, migration or climate change are, like that of imperialism, fundamentally related to the broader dynamics of capitalist development.
Irish Studies may have become less “special” in other ways too. In revisiting the controversy about the 1991 Field Day Anthology, McDonald recalls that the general editor Seamus Deane, while scornful of – for example – the charge that the anthology was too “nationalist”, nevertheless “quickly acknowledged the force of the feminist critique”. This underlines, according to McDonald, that Field Day and feminist critics in fact shared a belief, itself indebted to left-leaning literary studies in the 1980s, that “literature, whatever its erstwhile claims to the numinous or sacred, should be unmasked and historicized”. While the anthology was still centrally (if by no means exclusively) concerned with major authors and with traditional genres such as plays, poems and novels, the “disavow[al] of a principle of aesthetic exclusivity … rendered the anthology particularly vulnerable to accusations of bias. If all could be included, then why were some things excluded?”. The subsequent two volumes were overseen by an editorial board of eight members, which included three historians. These featured a far greater proportion of “writing” (not “literature”) that was deemed to be of political, rather than artistic, significance, than had appeared in the first three volumes. Despite the importance of overcoming bias towards women writers and of acknowledging feminist concerns, McDonald suggests that such developments are in some respects to be regretted. Irish Studies, he concludes, will in the future need not just to continue to gather and expand – “arbiters” and “gatekeepers” are also required.
McDonald is here in tune with some other critics internationally who warn against the pitfalls of “critique” – that is, literary criticism as a “hermeneutics of suspicion”, devoted to uncovering hidden or repressed meanings in texts. For example, Rita Felski argues that such modes have become routinised in contemporary literary studies. While not calling for critique to be abandoned, Felski discusses ways in which we might understand the purposes and effects of literature, without resorting to elitist judgements about universal aesthetic value (see The Limits of Critique ). This project is complicated by the fact that English departments, currently facing declining enrolments internationally, often justify themselves by claiming to promote “critical thinking” – which translates mainly as critique. But if we also (and some academics may not) want to help students actually to enjoy important and unfamiliar texts (even when these are indeed likely to be “heteronormative”, “imperialist” or “sexist” in various ways), and to learn about old-fashioned literary scholarship (biography, technical analysis of literary forms, etc), then we may indeed need to find new ways to explain all this.
Connolly and Howes may also allude to what has been termed “post-critique” by Felski and others. Rather than (like McDonald) declaring that we need to return from critique to debates about value, the series editors seem to endorse instead what Felski calls a “network” theory of reading and writing. “Value” – or so the argument goes – arises from repeated interactions between texts and communities of readers. Hence, perhaps, the general editors’ ambition to encourage “conversations” about writing and their anxiety to avoid “summaris[ing]” fields or “clos[ing] down” debate. However, it could be argued that, whatever its potential contribution to new definitions of literature, “post-critique” is not well-suited to the purposes of chronological literary history (however that chronology may be conceived). Indeed, it does not appear to have exerted a significant influence on most of the contributors here, who largely tend to discuss texts as “reflecting” contexts in conventional ways.
Indeed, can critique be said to have been a dominant mode in Irish Studies? There are certainly a few examples here of fine work in more traditional styles. One of the best is the measured, adroit “Coda” by Patrick Lonergan on Friel and Murphy. This distils an obviously intimate knowledge of both dramatists’ work into a clearly written and admiring but not hyperbolic assessment that summarises key features of their development and influence within lightly-sketched social and political contexts. Elsewhere in Irish Studies, there may be a sense that critique is OK for some writers but not for others. For example, in earlier literary periods, it is sometimes assumed that various important women writers should be shielded from critique, especially of a postcolonial kind. However, noting the class and colonial biases of writers such as Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Bowen or Kate O’Brien is surely essential for a thorough understanding of their novels. Nor are the politics of such writers in any event particularly heinous or surprising – any more than those of metropolitan writers such as Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf, who may also have uncritically enjoyed certain kinds of social privilege. (It remains true as well that they have all been read at times in sexist ways.) Saluting Ireland’s recent social progress and the positive contributions of artists (past and present) to liberalisation is not the same kind of action as analysis or evaluation. In some cases, critics may still retain the idiom of “excellence”, but in fact find themselves to be merely “ventriloquising” the boosterism of “marketing managers and administrators” (McDonald).
And so Falci and Reynolds sum up contemporary writing: “As long-standing ideological norms and practical constraints lost their power to determine, and so limit, aesthetic possibilities and readerly tastes, writers have had more room in which to manoeuvre”; in the concluding “Coda”, Reynolds suggests that the current “golden age” results from “factors including the proliferation of creative writing programmes and venturesome literary periodicals”. The editors do not mention, for example, the extraordinary prominence of earlier Irish writers in world literature between the Irish Literary Revival and Beckett’s death. If today is a “golden age”, how should that period be described?
In her essay on “Contemporary Literature and Public Value”, Kelleher is generally circumspect about judging the contemporary scene in Ireland. She discusses state funding for the arts and the ways in which it can be defended. Here, the contested notion of aesthetic value remains relevant – as it does for literary historians and anthologists. Some kind of state support for literature is surely a public good. But how, Kelleher asks, does this affect the social role of the writer? How is the case for funding to be made on behalf of an individual artist? (Cleary comments that the era of the Irish writer as political renegade, dandy or bohemian maverick appears to be over in a new culture of “professionalism”.) It might also be noted that many writers now teach creative writing, including in the universities. Some fill posts previously held by lecturers. Writers and critics such as Mark McGurl and Elif Batuman have analysed the implications of this for what gets taught and written in the United States – there has been little, if any, such discussion of these developments to date in Ireland.
Kelleher flinches a little at the declaration in the state-sponsored programme for Creative Ireland, 2017-22, that “promoting creativity provides us with a strategy for individual wellbeing, social cohesion and economic success”. The dilemma is that few would want to oppose the democratisation and popularisation of culture. However, does the promotion of “creativity” involve accepting a merely instrumental or therapeutic role for literature or the other arts?
It is true that Irish writers no longer stand out against the society generally for their dissident views of religion or sexuality. Is it then a good thing for writers now to feel much more at home in a drastically imperfect country? For example, in the final “Coda” devoted largely to an analysis of the positive influence of The Irish Times on Irish literature, Reynolds states that the paper was “founded in the nineteenth century with a moderate nationalist Protestant bent”, but that is it is now “a generally progressive newspaper, one with neoliberal sympathies”. Reynolds herself seems to be at ease with this “neoliberalism”. However, we might interrogate the connections between such politics and the operation of the literary scene that The Irish Times supports (assuming that the paper is not so different from other publishers or state bodies). What becomes of literature when image, social media presence and incessant competition for publicity, awards and grants are the order of the day?
Kelleher also comments on the issue of merit or excellence in literary studies. She notes that Gerald Dawe, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, defended the selection of mostly male poets in his collection by an appeal to aesthetic value and scholarly reputation. (The Field Day editors in 1991 had not done this.) Kelleher is evidently sceptical about Dawe’s argument, but the status of “excellence” in her essay remains somewhat ambiguous. She hesitates about valorising an aesthetic of experiment and subversion. This has historically been associated mostly with male writers in Ireland. Indeed, Kelleher claims that the traditional male-dominated Irish canon, especially in poetry, is characterised by both rebellion and conformity: “an aesthetic that privileges distinctiveness and rupture has dominated (the high-profile staging of an attempt to kill the father being the means to paternal respect)”. But one wonders if that really characterises, say, Heaney’s attitude towards Kavanagh or Yeats – or that of younger male poets towards him? It certainly seems to suggest that “innovation” by male writers is merely ritualistic and that perhaps too much has been made of it in the Irish tradition. (There are possible implications here also for teaching – Kelleher regrets that “a study of selected individual writers can still seem the means of understanding a whole field”. But how else might it be done?) Kelleher suggests that collaborative work in theatre may seem to accord better with the ideal of a less ego-driven model of literary production. Yet that risks confining women’s achievement to the “company” or the “workshop” – as she points out, a career as a female dramatic “author” is an equally legitimate ambition. In any event, the discussion seems to underline the fact that recourse to “value” in literary discussion is probably inevitable, for so long as advocates for work by female, overlooked or emerging writers wish to claim that such work is at least “as good as” any that it may displace.
The editors admit that it was “somewhat cheeky” for their survey of the contemporary Irish literary scene to include in its subtitle the year in which their own volume was published. But they defend this choice by suggesting that all such dates, especially in relation to recent developments, are necessarily “inadequate or provisional”. In fact, perhaps in an over-reaction to earlier forms of historicism in Irish literary studies that they find to be uncongenial, they seem unduly troubled by the intricate business of analysing any event from a specific historical perspective. They state:
Each historical era has its complexities, but approaching Irish literature of the vertiginous near-present through the long lens of “transition” present manifest challenges and opportunities … From one angle, contemporary literature is all transition: seen from the inside, the overwhelming immediacy of the present can make locating any particular transitional node a difficult task since a vantage on a historical or cultural transition is obtained from some moment in that transition’s future. A shift or pivot is apprehensible only when we can see with relative clarity the conditions both before and after, and can thus retrospectively recognise the point on which matters turned.
Whatever about such difficulties with pivots, shifts, lenses and nodes, this volume may have misconstrued its own historical moment. Concerned with soft transitions, it appears in a moment of exceptionally hard ones. While it assumes things will continue more or less as they were, recent months suggest that they will not.
The editors could not have foreseen the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. This catastrophe will dominate all future accounts of Irish culture, as well as of so much else, in 2020. It is poignant to notice that several essayists, including Hanna, mention the late writer and cartographer Tim Robinson, whose wonderful work on Connemara and the Aran Islands was an early contribution to the environmental humanities in Irish Studies. Robinson died in April 2020 after contracting Covid-19. One fears what the impact of the coming recession may be on future state funding for culture and the arts in Ireland, already low by European standards. Multiple contributors here highlight the importance of such dramatic works as ANU Productions’ Laundry (2011) in exploring the testimony of those abused in Ireland’s carceral institutions. Live performance and theatre will now be suspended for a long time. The financial difficulties already facing writers and publishers in the Irish language, as outlined by Rióna Ní Fhrighil here, are likely to become even more severe. And just as there can be no new art without artists, so too McDonald points out that criticism of Irish literature cannot thrive in the absence of the possibility of secure employment for new academics in the universities, whether in the Irish system or elsewhere. The current crisis is likely to exacerbate the baleful situation that he describes.
A few other points about the proximate but pre-Covid past must also be mentioned in relation to the analysis of present-day Ireland in this volume. Lloyd comments that it is ironic that the “new cosmopolitanism” in criticism, with its celebration of global mobility and consumerism, sometimes overlooks features of the present that have “all too much to do with the old things that we may be blithely assured we have left behind”. Several essayists note that the Decade of Centenaries had unfolded in Ireland up until 2019 without a great deal of public controversy (apart from the protests over the Abbey Theatre’s commemorative programme, which initially featured hardly any work by women). The kerfuffle over the planned state-sponsored ceremony to honour those who served in the RIC, resulting in the cancellation of the event in January 2020, presumably occurred while this book was in press. Thanks to the BBC’s Steve Coogan, “Come out you Black and Tans” became a viral hit on social media around the same time. Rather more significantly, Sinn Féin won more votes than other party in the Republic of Ireland in February’s general election. Its success, especially among young voters, no doubt owes in large measure to the enduring impact of the crash in 2008 and of the “austerity” which followed. Frustrations with crises in housing and the health service also inspired numerous older people to register a protest against both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. In the midst of the pandemic, those parties have now embarked on an unprecedented coalition, alongside the Greens. Many of Sinn Féin’s young voters had been strong supporters of equal marriage and repeal and were more likely to be admirers of Greta Thunberg or Bernie Sanders than Gerry Adams; some had not yet been born at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. Nevertheless, this may suggest that what McDonald describes as the “old culture wars” over nationalism and revisionism are not entirely over. He recalls Deane’s insistence that nationalism was never simply an Irish problem but had always been deeply informed by its British counterpart. This, McDonald remarks, seems “prescient” – perhaps especially so now as a no-deal Brexit looms into view.
What stories are being told, however discordantly at times, in this volume? Irish literature continues to expand and to be reinterpreted and redefined. As has been the case for three or four decades, developments of postcolonialist and feminist forms of analysis remain the most fertile strains in Irish literary criticism. Though some have insisted that these critical paradigms are essentially at odds, there is a case to argue that they have in fact instructively informed and invigorated each other. In criticism, as in other areas of life, progress isn’t always achieved only by consensus. The editors and some of the contributors suggest – often quite mildly, as if this were a matter of common agreement – that the insights of postcolonialism have not so much been discredited as absorbed or transcended by new scholarly agendas. Other contributors take a different view. Liberal inclusion perhaps has more limits and biases than it recognises.
The editors should be commended for the serious commitment it takes to bring a substantial volume such as this to readers. The book offers an important index of the character of Irish literary criticism as it stood in 2019. Clearly, the times they are a-changing already, however, and everywhere new transitions, to what we cannot tell, are under way. If it is to keep pace, Irish criticism will have to change too, recouping things most of value from its past as well as, on all sides, critically inspecting current assumptions.
Emer Nolan teaches English at Maynooth University. The paperback edition of her book Five Irish Women will be out this month.