Berni Dwan writes: The floppy-haired youth eyed me disdainfully before throwing himself on the ground with the air of a highbrow resigning himself to sharing the same air space with an average type. I was already sitting on the ground outside Dr Declan Kiberd’s office in University College, Dublin. I will call the floppy-haired youth Jeremy; it was 1981 after all and Brideshead Revisited with Jeremy Irons was the classiest thing on the telly. What could Jeremy and I possibly talk about? We were both sitting outside the Kiberd office for the same reason; as final-year English literature students we needed to speak to him about our “extended essay” topics. Nowadays these modest exercises are given the full-blown title of “dissertation”.
With a haughty glance in my general direction (how blessed was I?) Jeremy inquired what my essay topic might be. I told him in my best Dublin accent that it was a comparison of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. He reminded me in his patronising, south Co Dublin accent that Lewis Carroll was a children’s author and suggested that I might not be allowed investigate something so simple and unchallenging. I shrugged my shoulders and asked him about his own topic. “I’m doing Kafka,” he replied in a magisterial tone. This was a bit tricky. I was no expert on the works of the bold Franz but I didn’t want to lose face. I assumed my serious thinking expression and searched into the middle distance for a suitable response. Reminding Jeremy that English was not Kafka’s first language I wondered aloud if translations could officially be classified as English literature. Just then Declan Kiberd’s door opened and I was ushered in. To this day I cannot look at a Kafka book without seeing floppy-haired Jeremy in my mind’s eye.
Over the years I have always made it my business to buy anything written, compiled or edited by Declan Kiberd. Most recently it was Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922, published by Abbey Theatre Press and co-edited by Kiberd and PJ Mathews. It’s a handsome hardback volume, stylishly clad in orange board – looking, for all the world, like a DIY manual at first glance – a class of a brainiac’s breezeblock, if you will ‑ and what a fine idea for an anthology. Every home should have one; indeed, can I suggest to Fáilte Ireland that every hotel room in the country should have one? Open any page in this handbook and you will understand and appreciate, just a little bit more, the intellectual energy and “heated debate” that proliferated across Ireland between 1891 and 1922, before we sadly returned to the doldrums for several decades.
I was reared beside St Enda’s school in Rathfarnham; it was my childhood playground and prime location for the re-enactment of Enid Blyton-inspired adventures. The school was abandoned, the unkempt grounds were closed to the public and we children were trespassing. I feel compelled to read an excerpt from Patrick Pearse’s Letter to Eoin MacNeill on the founding of St Enda’s School – a grand scheme that might still be regarded as radical over a hundred years later. Mary EL Butler regrets the lack of “national knowledge” being taught in affluent schools in “Irish Women’s Education”. I wonder what her impressions would be of some of the private secondary schools around south Dublin today. Would she still see them as aping their British equivalents? Douglas Hyde in “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland” is puzzled by Irish men who “read English books, and know nothing about Gaelic literature, nevertheless protesting as a matter of sentiment that they hate the country which at every hand’s turn they rush to imitate”. Irish supporters of “the beautiful game” spring to mind.
So why is this anthology important? It gives us a snapshot of that crucial embryonic phase in the history of Ireland’s intellectual and cultural revival as witnessed, interpreted and observed by commentators and scholars. It is immaterial whether you agree or disagree with the sentiments of the writers; what is important is that Ireland, belatedly, was having her own Renaissance and Enlightenment rolled into one. After years of stagnation there were now enough contemporary thinkers, scholars and commentators to make a noise. With so much to choose from it must have been a struggle for Kiberd and Mathews to compile this collection and perhaps they might consider putting more material up on a dedicated Irish Revival website.
The Handbook of the Irish Revival is also important because it demonstrates that literature does not sit alone; literature is written in a context – social, political, cultural and religious, but most importantly historical. History and literature exist symbiotically. If the Irish government does not rescind its ludicrous decision to make history a non-compulsory subject in the Junior Certificate cycle in Irish secondary schools, books like this will be appreciated by fewer and fewer readers. To put it starkly; future generations won’t get it. It also reminds us of the wealth of considered commentary that was available during this time – not just from the heavies like Yeats, Maud Gonne, Synge, O’Casey, Countess Markiewicz and Connolly, but more tellingly, from lesser known entities too.
Thirty-four years later I get to meet Declan Kiberd again. He and Mathews are discussing the anthology in the quirky and independent Books Upstairs on Dublin’s D’Olier Street on a Sunday afternoon. I walk back to the car in Fitzwilliam Square with my signed book. I pass Trinity College, Grattan’s Parliament, Burke, Goldsmith, Davis, blue plaques denoting the former residences of so many contributors to this handbook, the steps of Leopold Bloom, echoes of the 1913 Lockout, 1916 Rising and War of Independence. What might the compilers of a handbook in one hundred years’ time select to reflect the concerns or capture the zeitgeist of Ireland between 1990 and 2015? The answers seem terribly obvious now but for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren it will be a revelation.