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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Talking Heads

The Severed Head and the Grafted Tongue: Literature, Translation and Violence in Early Modern Ireland, by Patricia Palmer, Cambridge University Press, 193 pp, £50, ISBN: 978-1107041844 For the Irish reader, the Renaissance can often feel as though it happened somewhere else. The Borgias scheming around the throne of St Peter, Michelangelo prone on his scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel, those apocryphal cloaks in the mud at Elizabeth’s feet – all the famous vignettes are from a pageant played out not only long ago, but very far away. The few familiar glimpses of this island in the sixteenth century depict a life removed from the flowering of culture going on elsewhere. Drama affords us Shakespeare’s Captain MacMorris digging trenches on the battlefield for Henry V, and touchy about his Irishness: “What ish my nation? Ish a villain and a basterd and a knave and a rascal … Who talks of my nation?” The official account has Edmund Spenser, colonial bureaucrat as well as poet, writing policy documents to further the “tempering and managing of this stubborn nation of the Irish, to bring them from their delight of licentious barbarism unto the love of goodness and civility”. Henry Sidney, lord deputy of Ireland, described the landscape in a letter to his queen: “never saw I a more waste and desolate Land … such horrible and lamentable Spectacles there are to behold, as the burning of villages, the ruin of churches … the view of the bones and skulls of dead subjects, who partly by murder, partly by famine, have died in the fields.” It seems a long way from the scientific advances, the lavish art, the giddy wordplay, with which Renaissance humanists celebrated all the potential of man. This will transpire to be something of a sleight of hand on the part of the recorders of history; however, there is another sense in which Ireland’s Renaissance really did take place at a distance. Just beyond the Spanish Steps in Rome is the steep turn up the Pincian hill. The lower slopes house Santa Maria della Vittoria where Bernini’s Saint Teresa swoons in stone; near the summit is the college of Sant’Isidoro. This is another church in the baroque style, but the frescos flanking the great entrance depict St Patrick and St Brigid, rather than Peter and Paul, and the inscriptions above them are written in Irish. Sant’Isidoro was established as the Irish…

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