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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This Island Now

George O’Brien
Rebel by Vocation: Seán O’Faoláin and the Generation of The Bell, by Niall Carson, Manchester University Press, 192 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-0719099373 From the title of this book, I expected that the author would tell how in the course of its lifetime (1940-1954), The Bell featured a group of writers who, over and above their stylistic, temperamental and formal differences, had common aesthetic interests, ideological outlooks or cultural aims, to the degree that they could be thought to comprise a generation. I anticipated a portrait of O’Faoláin acting as these writers’ patron, sponsor, guide, overseer, and all-round friendly adult presence. Identifying and characterising this group would, I expected, speak to the challenges of creating a literature responsive in a variety of ways both characteristic and representative of the national and international times that were in it. With these considerations to the fore, Rebel by Vocation would break new ground, inasmuch as treatments of literary generations have not been a very prominent part of the critical repertoire up to now. The use of a generational approach has recently received a historiographical imprimatur in Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces, as Niall Carson acknowledges. But with all due respect to that unmasking work, an awareness of “the dead generations”, from flying earls and undomesticated geese to fearlessly speaking of ’98 and bold Fenian men, was part of a great many people’s mental furniture for so long that it was bound to become faded and worn. Eventually a sense took hold of being browned off with it, and with the narrative deriving from it. That narrative may have provided the comfort and convenience of making ourselves feel at home, but it eventually proved impossible to prevent the ideological springs from poking through the fabric, and the whole suite had to be packed away or at best made available to visitors as a sample of native design, upholstered in colours they recognised and guaranteed to give years of intellectual ease and cultural sedentariness. In contrast, literature has been left alone, a mantlepiece ornament noteworthy largely for being the bigger story’s life companion, occupying the distaff side. We have hardly any literary generations who’ve been thought worthy of the name. Long ago and far away, in The Pound Era (1972) and The Auden Generation (1976), Hugh Kenner and Samuel Hynes, respectively, showed what could be accomplished by approaching writing from a generational perspective. And, for the record, in WR Rodgers’s Irish Literary Portraits (1972), Desmond Ryan recalls that…

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