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Home Uncategorized Irish Modernism: Still an Oxymoron?

Irish Modernism: Still an Oxymoron?

John Greaney

A History of Irish Modernism, by Gregory Castle and Patrick Bixby (eds), Cambridge University Press, 442 pp, £79.99, ISBN: 978-1107176720

Once an oxymoron, Irish modernism has become a commonplace descriptor in both academic and public discourse for twentieth century cultural production in, and in relation to, Ireland. The wide popularity of the term is in immediate evidence today in Dublin and beyond. For example: the Freud Project at IMMA, 2016-2021, promises to pay attention to Lucian Freud’s relationship to Ireland and Irish modernism; an exhibition entitled “The Birth of Modernism in Irish Art 1920–1960” was held between April and August of 2019 in Dublin Castle; and on September 25th, 2019, the Irish Cultural Centre in London hosted an evening dedicated to the theme “Irish Modernism ‑ A Brief History”. Similarly, the term has gained traction in print and internet media: Irish writers Eimear McBride and Mike McCormack have respectively been described as reviving and resurrecting Irish modernism (The IndependentNew Statesman); and similarly, Irish painter Mary Swanzy has been denoted as Irish modernism’s unsung hero (The Independent).

Both igniting and responding to the critical cachet of the term, various academic publications, often in the form of edited collections of essays, have treated Irish modernism as a central theme in recent years. Those include: Irish Modernism: Origins, Contexts, Publics (Peter Lang, 2009), The Cambridge Companion to Irish Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2014); Science, Technology and Irish Modernism (Syracuse University Press, 2019), as well as the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to Irish Modernism (Edinburgh). Corresponding to this critical upsurge is A History of Irish Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2019), perhaps the most significant publication to date in the study of Irish modernism.

The history presents twenty-three chapters which both interrogate, and align with, the collection’s titular term. In their introduction, the editors trace an academic history of that term noting, in consulting the Modern Language Association Bibliography, that the first uses of “Irish modernism” appeared in publications in 1995, whereafter it appeared “no more than twice a year until 2010”, when its usage increased, “later peaking at eighteen results in 2015”. The reason for this increase, as Castle and Bixby acknowledge, is undoubtedly linked to the rise of the new modernist studies, an endeavour of literary and cultural criticism which has sought ‑ successfully it must be said at this stage ‑ to expand the remit of the modernist canon beyond, broadly speaking, a white, male, Eurocentric formulation. The rise of the new modernist studies has thus led to the global and temporal expansion of the modernist canon to include multiple modernisms the world over, from Irish to Mongolian modernism and beyond. As a result of this critical re-evaluation, the term “modernism” has become capacious. In producing an expanded canon and remit ‑ and because every national or transnational modernism does not have its own Finnegans Wake ‑ a feature of scholarship in light of the new modernist studies has been to focus on cultural production in modernity, rather than forms of modernism which compare to high modernism, or a difficulty of form à la TS Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound or Virginia Woolf. And such is undoubtedly an organising principle for A History of Irish Modernism, which in keeping with the earlier mentioned collections, seeks to extend beyond a Yeats-Joyce-Beckett genealogy of Irish modernism. As the editors suggest “[w]e take it as axiomatic that Irish modernism is not simply about the arts, or about artistic innovation and experimentation but about political concerns, commercial interests and media technologies as well”. It is thus that the collection begins with the influence of Gothic literature on Irish modernism and ends with a study of Irish modernist architecture which includes a focus on the Ballymun estate. By and large then, Ireland’s passage through modernity is the organising structure for this collection. Simultaneously, Yeats, Joyce and Beckett are never far away.

The first section of the book, entitled “Revivals”, offers origins and antecedents to the phenomenon of Irish modernism. Across these five chapters ‑ respectively focused on the Gothic influence on Irish modernism, Standish O’Grady’s History of Ireland, JM Synge’s liminal position within the canon of Irish Modernism, the Abbey Theatre, and the internationalism of the Revival ‑ WB Yeats is either at the centre of discussion or looming large in the background. Broadly speaking then, Yeats provides the point of departure for A History of Irish Modernism, as well as the point of departure through which the frame of Irish modernism can be expanded; Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Standish O’Grady and JM Synge all become part of the equation as a result, as does the Irish Literary Revival, the latter a recurring feature in recent discourse on Irish modernism and now narrativised as one of its fundamental moments.

A similar organising principle is evident in the second section of the book, entitled “Revolutions”. Yeats remains a dominant figure in three of the six chapters, while Joyce looms large elsewhere. The chapters here range from the importance of naturalism to the development of Irish modernism; the specific manifestations of the materiality of the book as it pertains to Irish modernism as a phenomenon; the paradoxical relationship between Irish modernism and Catholic faith and religious feeling; the reciprocal relationship between the international literary marketplace and Irish modernism; the reactionary and revolutionary aspects of Yeats’s poetry; and the importance of material culture in Ireland and beyond, and thus the importance of time and place, to the generation of Irish modernist art. It is as such that George Moore, George Egerton, Pádraig Pearse, Thomas MacGreevy and Kate O’Brien enter the fray as important and relevant to expanding the variety of forms particular to Irish modernism, thus pushing the scope of the field beyond obvious names and thematics.

Following the chronological structure of the book, the third section is entitled “New States”. Beginning with an exploration of Irish-Ireland white nationalism across Joyce’s oeuvre, this section focuses on literature from the post-independence period. The chapters here thus engage Sean O’Casey’s late expressionist theatre; forms of disaffection particular to the post-independence Irish novel; the conceptualisation of an archipelagic modernism based on the movement of culture across the Atlantic; the example of Kate O’Brien’s life and output as contrasting with standard formulations of modernism to expand what that canon and term might encompass; and the legacies of modernism in Irish poetic practice after Yeats. This section of the book is particular in that the respective chapters seem to fall into two groupings (a feature prevalent though less obvious in the first sections): either the respective chapter in question simply aligns with a tacit understanding of what constitutes Irish modernism (as is the case with the chapters on Joyce, O’Casey and Yeats); or it offers a reconceptualisation of what Irish modernism might encompass (as is the case with the chapters on the Atlantic archipelago and Kate O’Brien). Regarding the latter, the example of the Irish-American ecologies of late modernism, and the deployment of O’Brien in terms of, and in contrast with, canonical definitions of modernism, reveal that Irish modernism, as a concept, is capable of sustaining discourse beyond its obvious formulations: the Yeats-Joyce Beckett model, or situated as determined by the development of the nation state. In this sense, this section reveals where this collection is at its strongest and, despite excellent scholarship, where the collection becomes passive: the chapters that contest and interrogate Irish modernism, and recognise it is a mode of narration performed by critics in the twenty-first century, put the concept at stake, and thus given the collection a contemporary vibrancy; those chapters which act under the moniker of Irish modernism, and that nonetheless provide excellent moments of scholarship could have easily appeared in publications in Joyce studies, Yeats studies and beyond, and so the collection becomes less urgent in the instances that Irish modernism becomes accepted by association.

Such is less the case in Part IV of the book, entitled “Emergenc(i)es”, where the expansion of the canon and conceptual remit is continued and where it is demonstrated, largely through the array of forms presented, that Irish modernism has legs beyond English language literary practice. Irish language modernist literature, radio modernism, Thomas MacGreevy and Samuel Beckett’s discussion of Irishness and the visual arts, the relationship of The Bell to modernism, and Irish architectural practice in the twentieth century are discussed here; as well as, though perhaps belatedly positioned, the relation of Samuel Beckett’s writing to Ireland. Emerging from this section, as a result of the variety of forms, and the difference in critical terminology used to describe them, are Irish modernisms, rather than Irish modernism. The explorations of architecture and radio in modernity here, particularly as they occur alongside Beckett’s position within the canon, tell a different story of Irish modernism, one which diverges radically from those chapters focused on literary practice.

Overall, then, A History of Irish Modernism caters for a plural understanding of that term, a feat achieved, broadly speaking, through the structural metanarratives deployed. In tracing the development of Irish modernism through a pre-Revival form towards a mid-twentieth century modernity in Ireland, this collection rehearses and presents the metanarrative that the development of Irish modernism follows the trajectory of national history. Similarly, the tacit centralisation of Yeats and Joyce (and Beckett towards the end) suggests that this field of study emanates from, and can thus be organised around, these writers’ achievements. That these metanarratives emerge from this collection is unsurprising. A History of Irish Modernism brings together leading scholars who have, for the most part, long been working in the field of Irish studies (where the trajectory of national history, as well as Yeats, Joyce and Beckett, have long been central concerns). It is as such, as the editors acknowledge in their introduction, that A History of Irish Modernism is very much influenced by Irish studies and postcolonial paradigms of investigation.

With this consolidation of that particular history, new opportunities arise, some of which the collection signals. Frank Shovlin, in his chapter “Was The Bell Modernist?”, in quoting Lauren Arrington, raises a key issue for this field of study. Arrington writes: “[m]odernism is separate from modernity, and denotes an experimental style that reacts against conventional forms. If these terms are not carefully defined, then [m]odernism becomes a useless aesthetic category and is synonymous with the modern”. In tacitly carrying this concern, A History of Irish Modernism points to the possibility that the trajectory it records is not the only conceivable history of Irish modernism. Another history, following Arrington’s account, might conform to a history of aesthetic forms in Irish art. Similarly, the other Irish modernisms that emerge through this collection ‑ archipelagic, architectural, feminist, radio ‑ suggest that there is more Irish modernist cultural production to be investigated which will expand, and challenge, the underpinnings of, this conceptual field. Certainly, two of Irish modernism’s major figures ‑ Elizabeth Bowen and Flann O’Brien ‑ are largely absent from this collection (brief analysis of Bowen features in one chapter), and their inclusion would undoubtedly provoke a different sense of the term. In this sense, A History of Irish Modernism demonstrates the richness of its titular indefinite article – “A” ‑ and consolidates one possible narrative for this field of study and gesture towards others, in the process offering an important contribution to how we understand what remains the oxymoron which is Irish modernism.


Dr John Greaney is a Fulbright-NUI Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania



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