Couplets on a divided isle

Ireland and Irish Cultural Studies - Cascando - Agenda
October 18, 1996

Edited by Lisa Boardman and Emily Ormond, both recent graduates of the University of East Anglia, Cascando has, since its first publication in 1992, established itself as a forum for well-known and emerging writers. The editors have set themselves the ambitious task of producing a high-quality publication aimed at an academic market. They have also plans to publish individual collections of fiction and poetry by contributors to the magazine, most of whom are students or recent graduates. This Irish double issue is an eclectic and lively collection of interviews, articles, reviews, poems, and extracts from plays and novels. In addition to the section devoted to Irish writing, the winning poems and stories in the campus travel writing competition are reproduced. Ian Parks's winning entry, a poem entitled "Unicorns", seems to articulate an outstanding talent.

The forte of previous numbers of Cascando has been the literary interview. Already, the magazine has established an impressive list of interviewees which includes Toni Morrison, Tony Harrison, Benjamin Zephaniah, John Hegley, Sean Hughes and Derek Jarman. This latest issue has interviews with established Irish writers and academics: Tom Paulin, Eilean N! Chuillean in, Colm T"ibin, Dermot Bolger, and Bill McCormack. Literary interviews are notoriously hit-or-miss. Here it is easy to carp at the missed opportunities, the lack of cross-examination in places, the deference to the writer's authoritative statements, but what emerges is a remarkably mobile picture of some pressing concerns in relation to Irish writing, culture and politics. There is also a strong selection of new poetry, including two pieces from the excellent Sinead Morrissey and two startling famine poems by Julie Rowell, as well as an "unrepentantly'' celebratory essay by Shane Murphy on the poetry of Eavan Boland, Paula Meehan and Mary Dorcey.

The only real disappointments are the prose and drama pieces. Very obviously there are in-built problems in representing prose; especially when having to rely on extracts. But that is not the chief problem. What is of most concern is the fact that of the three prose and drama pieces all are from the North, and all are concerned with Northern violence. This is no bad thing in itself of course: indeed Laurence McKeown's "Jailtacht/Gaeltacht'' which is extracted from Nor Meekly Serve My Time, a collection of the accounts of 28 republican prisoners involved in the blanket protest and hunger strikes, is simultaneously a heroic and pathetic account of the prisoner's conviction of the rightness of their cause in the face of terrible brutality at the hands of their warders. But this selection policy fortifies a view that the Northern situation is the only thing worth writing or reading about. This strikes me as an opportunity lost, there are many stories to tell and the emphasis here is skewed and restrictive.

Such a complaint could also be aimed at the editorial policy of Agenda's double Irish poetry issue. The platitudinous editorial makes reference to "a great literature'' and seeks to base the entire selection policy on bits and pieces taken totally without context from Seamus Heaney's 1995 Nobel Lecture, "Crediting poetry". Poetry may indeed "make an order"; it may indeed be "true to the inner laws of the poet's being"; it may even lead us to (here the editorial quotes Mark Patrick Hederman on Heaney) "a homecoming where the poet comes into his own ground to reach the first circle of himself"; it may achieve all this and more. Poetry may also operate in the liminal zones of self or of selves, it may also dissociate ourselves from that which we think we know of our selves. Poetry's mystery, its play may have to do not so much with inner laws and universal verities as with the unacknowledged, barely acknowledgeable elements of memory, desire and repression. It may also, less excitingly perhaps, be nothing more than a particularly interesting interplay of signifiers and the spaces which surround them, which produces the effects of insight, the effects of depth and of truth. And before we get carried away, let's not forget that poetry can be downright tedious, and that no amount of blandishment can transform a weak and unexciting offering into a text bearing the weight of human need and desire.

Luckily the poems collected in this issue of Agenda eschew the blandness of the editorial. This is a rather marvellous collection of poems by a wide variety of poets, ranging from now canonical figures such as Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley through to lesser-known figures. This little collection has to be praised for its heterogeneity and for its excellent representation of women's poetry; two features that tend to be missing from the major anthologies of contemporary Irish poetry. However, there is a deficit. Only two poems in Irish appear; both are by Aine N! Ghlinn, and both are terrifying studies in paedophilic damage. This lack is, however, partly offset by the excitement of what is here, as extracts from Mahon's "The Hudson Letter'' hustle with Kerry Hardie's joyous "The Fat Man Who Stands in the Sea'', and ten new occasional poems by Longley compete with individual poems and sequences from a variety of poets many of whom were previously unknown to this reviewer.

Ireland and Irish Cultural Studies is a special Irish issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly. The quality and diversity of the contributions to this volume of essays reflect the exciting theoretical and discursive developments in Irish cultural debate, but they are also testimony to the cutting-edge nature of this excellent journal, which has in recent times produced numerous volumes of engaged and engaging literary/critical/theoretical essays.

Ireland and Irish Cultural Studies contains essays by, among others, Luke Gibbons on Killarney and the politics of the sublime, Clair Wills on Joyce, prostitution and the colonial city, Lance Pettitt on images of homosexuality within Irish advertising and media production, Declan Kiberd on the sanctification of rural Ireland as the real Ireland and the tensions between the urban and the rural in national(ist) narratives, and an outstanding reading, by Aine O'Brien, of Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol museum as an example of colonial spectacle transformed into, and marketed as, national history.

This brief list allows only a glimpse of the vitality of this excellent volume, which seems to me to proceed from an editorial desire to assess what is going on in the field of Irish cultural studies ("to see and hear'', as the editor states, "a theoretically informed criticism sensitive to the role of language and narrative within Ireland") rather than attempting to "set the island story straight''.

This volume should also guide the interested reader to other influential, sometimes contentious texts in this rapidly developing field, such as David Lloyd's Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (1993), Declan Kiberd's Inventing Ireland (1995), Luke Gibbons's Transformations in Irish Culture (1996) and Colin Graham and Richard Kirkland's Ireland and Cultural Theory: The Mechanics of Authenticity (forthcoming in 1997).

Tom Herron is lecturer in English, University of Aberdeen.

Ireland and Irish Cultural Studies

Editor - John Waters
ISBN - ISSN 0002 0796
Publisher - Duke University Press
Price - £11.00

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