I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Talismans

Graham Good
Reading Life, by Chris Arthur, Negative Capability Press, 214 pp, ISBN 978-0998677712 Hummingbirds Between the Pages, by Chris Arthur, Ohio State University Press, 264 pp, ISBN 978-0814254844 Over the last several decades, Chris Arthur has built up a considerable reputation as an Irish essayist. The more than thirty essays in these two new collections are the latest additions to a substantial body of work. He is unusual in focusing his creative effort almost entirely on the literary essay. Most essayists practice at least one other genre; George Orwell is a novelist-essayist, TS Eliot a poet-essayist, and so on. Despite Montaigne’s example, few later writers have been only essayists. Mostly writers acquire a reputation in another, more prestigious, genre before gaining a public for their essays, which often originate as reviews of other poets or novelists. Chris Arthur, though, after publishing a few poems, staked his claim to an audience solely on the essay But an Irish essayist? Arthur, born in 1955, grew up in Lisburn, near Belfast, in a Protestant family. His father thought of himself as British rather than Irish. The young Arthur’s interest in Seamus Heaney and Flann O’Brien was viewed with silent disapproval as verging on disloyalty. And of course his teenage years coincided with the early years of the “Troubles”. Like many young Ulster Protestants, he left for the “mainland” of the UK to go to university, with the unstated possibility of not returning. After taking a degree at Edinburgh University in philosophy and religion (including Asian religions), he moved to Wales to teach at Lampeter for two decades, before returning to Scotland, where he still resides. Yet he lays claim to Irish affiliation in the titles of several essay collections, including Irish Elegies, and a trilogy called Irish Nocturnes, Irish Willow, and Irish Haiku. The majority of his essays refer to Ireland in some way, mostly the North, including the Donegal of childhood holidays. Arthur often revisits his youthful homeland from the “near distance” of Scotland and Wales, But the fact of his long-term residence in Britain makes his assertion of Irish (rather than British) identity a conscious choice worked out through his essays. Perhaps absence has helped him to construct an Irish identity outside what he calls the “duopoly” of Protestant and Catholic. Religious/ethnic identities are present in the essays, but mainly as an obstacle, a limitation of selfhood ‑ Arthur uses the word “tribe” in a negative…

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