A hybrid in full blossom

July 7, 1995

The Anglo-Irish, and the literature they produced, have been variously viewed. In 1848, James Fintan Lalor was bitter: "They form no class of the Irish people or any other people. Strangers they are in the land they call theirs, strangers here and strangers everywhere, owning no country and owned by none; rejecting Ireland and rejected by England; tyrants to this island and slaves to another." Brendan Behan's definition of the Anglo-Irishman is tersely dismissive - "a Protestant on a horse".

There is also, however, Yeats: "We . . . are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan . . . of Swift . . . of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country." For many years, literary critics (for example, T. R. Henn, Donald Torchiana) tended to take the Anglo-Irish and their literature at Yeats's own high valuation. More recently, Edward Said and others have called for a dismantling of the literary myths produced by and accreting to what is seen as an unrepresentative and essentially irrelevant colonial or post-colonial minority.

Julian Moynahan will have none of this: with considerable brio he attacks Said's attempt to read Ireland through the spectacles of Franz Fanon, arguing that the colony was cancelled and cancelled itself through the Act of Union, and that the Anglo-Irish since 1800 became indelibly (if differently) Irish, the Anglo component in their make-up increasingly irrelevant, only emerging occasionally in the wrinkle of a fastidious nose or the curl of a contumelious lip. Insofar as there were divided loyalties, this bred "hybrid vigour", a better literary bloom than the products of narrower nationalist or ethnic sensibilities. But what can be the appeal of this literature to a wider world? Well, one may draw comparisons with certain Russian writing of the 19th century, or with the Fugitives and others from the Southern United States; but Moynahan makes a more sweeping claim: the Anglo-Irish writers "may answer to our contemporary feeling of being at a loss in the world, of wanting more than anything to feel at home, while knowing our fate is homelessness".

The book is strongest in its loving account of Moynahan's favourites, especially Maria Edgeworth, Charles Lever and, above all, Somerville and Ross, and it reads more as a collection of essays on those he finds congenial than as a book with a strong intellectual agenda of its own. There is not much engagement with the powerful arguments of Seamus Deane or W. J. McCormack about 19th-century Irish literature, and it is surprising to find no reference to the many brilliant essays of Roy Foster on such germane topics as varieties of Irishness, Elizabeth Bowen and "Protestant magic" in Yeats and others, collected in the volume Paddy and Mr Punch. Some choices seem odd: is Carleton Anglo-Irish? There is no place for Ferguson, and in general Moynahan seems most interested in fiction.

Two cheers only, then, for a book that will play a part in directing students to pay more attention to Irish literature before Yeats.

G. J. Watson is reader in English, University of Aberdeen.

Anglo-Irish: The Literary Imagination in a Hyphenated Culture

Author - Julian Moynahan
ISBN - 0 691 03757 4
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 288

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