One of the very large number of excellent extracts from Declan Kiberd and PJ Mathews’s new annotated collection Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922 is the following, “Physical Force in Literature”, from George Russell (“AE”) and first published in Dana.
It seems to be the way for many in Ireland, either through hatred of thought, or through incapacity to think, to content themselves with abuse. They shout ‘bigot’, ‘sourface’, continually, and at any attempt to reason out the right or wrong of a question, the chorus of abuse grows more vehement and angry, until the shouters are at last stupefied and happy, having deafened themselves to anything but their own voices … It is amazing to hear these cries of ‘bigot’ from people who refuse to argue, and of ‘shallow’ from people who do their thinking by proxy. The criticism of Ireland in the New Century [written by Horace Plunkett and published in 1904] illustrates the physical force element in argument. The most eminent critic never found it necessary to read the book …
At an enjoyable event organised by the Dublin Review of Books in the Books Upstairs cafe in D’Olier Street this afternoon, Declan Kiberd and PJ Mathews were joined by Barra Ó Seaghdha in a discussion of the themes of their collection. The point was made by Prof Kiberd that (in spite of Russell’s lament over the reception of Plunkett’s book) many of the voices who engaged in debate about culture and politics over the generation covered by the book did in fact listen to each other and some even went so far as to change their minds as a result of that listening. Barra Ó Seaghdha remarked, perhaps somewhat ruefully, that one could not necessarily say the same about much of the public discourse on history and culture today, where an opinion that is out of joint with the orthodoxy seems scarcely to be listened to and where certain views – for example that Ireland before the 1960s was a cultural desert or that certain sections of the population were “written out of history” in the new state seem to be accepted as almost unchallengeable truisms (perhaps by those who do their thinking by proxy?).
In contributions from the floor towards the end of the discussion one attendee asked why there was not more in the collection about economics. PJ Mathews explained that much had had to be left “on the cutting room floor” in the editing process (it is still a very substantial book), while Declan Kiberd pointed out for many of the participants of the revival politics and economics and culture were intimately bound up with each other: according the dismal science an autonomy in relation to cultural or “human” questions would not, at the time, have been considered a great idea. And perhaps the implication was that it was still not a great idea. The economist who asked the original question did not return to the fray to say if he was persuaded ‑ or otherwise ‑ that revolutionary politicians or literary intellectuals tend to have what it takes to pronounce on mundane but perhaps essential matters of pounds, shillings and pence.
Another question from the floor concerned the downgrading of history teaching in secondary schools. If children are not to study history, for how long more will there be a market for the kind of invaluable collection of documents that Kiberd and Mathews have assembled, the questioner asked. This brought an eloquent and impassioned reply from Prof Kiberd, who suggested fairly reasonably that people (or a people) who don’t know where they came from or where they might be going are condemned to live in an eternal present, a rather barren place intellectually in which it is quite inevitable that anomie – or spiritual desiccation ‑ can only grow. The point seemed to provoke a great deal of assent in the gathering, as did Prof Kiberd’s expressed fear that the decade of commemoration seemed set fair to take on a predominantly military tinge, to the virtual exclusion of the period’s very significant intellectual and cultural importance.
The Handbook of the Irish Revival is very handsomely produced by Abbey Theatre Press and sells at €18.99.