There can at times be an attention-seeking particularism about Irish writing – look at us, we like to say, look how unique, and how very interesting, we are. When I was a boy, we were taught that post-independence Ireland was poor but uniquely virtuous. Today we are taught that it was poor and uniquely wicked. Both positions are misguided: we were never as different as people have made out.
The Rosc art exhibitions, which ran in Dublin for twenty years in the second half of the last century, opened up Ireland to the experience of modern and Modernist art. But did the impulse for them come from the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and its ultimate paymaster, the CIA?
Brazil’s Workers Party is smarting after losing its president through impeachment, accusing its enemies of mounting a coup. It would be better off engaging in stringent self-criticism and renewal, as it is still the country’s best bet for much-needed progress on social justice.
The exemplary career of Irish broadcaster Andy O’Mahony illustrates the role that can be played by the critic in the public sphere. Standing beside the novelist and the poet, he or she illuminates experience through texts, as the others do through plot and character or rhythm and metaphor.
Immediately a man dies for what he believes, Robert Lynd wrote after the death of Pearse, everything he has said or written assumes a new value and his words seem mysteriously laden with meaning, a ghostly bequest in regard to which we do not feel quite free to play the critic.
Politicians sometimes consider that facing up to the consequences of their mistakes entitles them to be regarded as brave. But in the case of the Irish crash the warnings were there long before 2008. Hell was at the gates and the banging getting louder, but no one was listening.
In his celebrated 1959 work ‘Mythologies’, Roland Barthes handed the reader a torch with which to illuminate for himself the semantic corners of his personal world. Peter Conrad, in his ‘tales for our times’, walks in the steps of the master and proves himself an entirely worthy successor.
From 1987 to the intoxicating highs of the Celtic Tiger, peaking in 2008, then crashing, there would be one political certainty in Ireland: most voters would choose a mainstream party in a general election. Even in 2011, the three established parties still dominated the scene.
The bloom of Existentialism may have faded today – though its presence is still felt in literary work – but fifty years ago every fashionable person wanted to learn about it, the Establishment fretted about it, and almost every journalist seemed to be using it to make a living.
Heaney’s Virgil certainly contains some of the verbal exuberance we associate with him, but some may wonder why there is not more. But Virgil’s Latin is known for its poetic decorum, which Heaney wishes to preserve rather than challenge. His aim is not to confound but to celebrate.