The preface to Heathcliff and the Great Hunger tries to disarm criticism. First, Terry Eagleton parodies "Irish historical revisionism" by inventing a euphemistic item of historiography called The Myth of Irish Infanticide. Then he supplies his own CV, both as a rationale for his lately-found interest in Ireland and as a pre-emptive strike against the revisionist reader: "All four of my grandparents were Irish immigrants to Britain. . . my Irish Catholic provenance. . . together with the fact that I am an intellectual of the British left, will allow certain commentators to know exactly what is in this book before they even open it. They will know . . . that the book will be embarrassingly sentimental about Ireland; that it will romanticise its political conflicts. . . and that it will take an unequivocally affirmative line on nationalism. Since I am reluctant to disturb anyone's comfortable assumptions, I would ask these commentators to read no further than the end of this sentence."
For Eagleton radically to disturb anyone's assumptions, including his own, this book would have to engage more deeply with its ostensible topic: Irish culture. Before the passage quoted above, his language already takes for granted the Irish "nation" and "colonial conditions".
But since culture here bears its restricted "cultural studies" meaning, his actual field of investigation is hegemony: its operation, contradictions and failures in Ireland. Eagleton offers his services as a "professional" cultural theorist - there's one for the Yellow Pages ad - and, indeed, Irish texts have suffered enough from hamfisted amateurs during the past decade. Thus in the more literary of these essays, his method often stimulates or illuminates: for instance, where he takes a fresh approach to the Irish novel (or its absence), to modernism and Ireland, and to the avant-garde, revolutionary thrust of the Revival.
But Heathcliff and the Great Hunger also aspires to be a work of (chiefly 19th-century) history. Here Eagleton becomes not so much sentimental as simplistic and fitfully polemical.
It may be Marxist habit that leads him to construct Irish affairs as a trans-historical Manichean struggle between "imperial Britain" and "colonial Ireland". Eagleton's monolithic "Britain" subsumes the Scots and Welsh, as well as denying the cross-winds of British Isles history (manifested in his own autobiography). Essentially, it signifies the unchanging behaviour of an unchanging elite: "Taken overall, the British response to Ireland was quite astonishingly ignorant, bigoted and thick-headed, lurching from transparently false optimism to a desperate faith that if the country were ignored for long enough it might just sidle away. As humble yet crucial a word as 'farm' could breed different meanings on each side of the water, as the British thought of well-cultivated estates and the Irish of a few acres of stony soil."
Which British and which Irish? This will hardly do as a snapshot of the bi-insular agricultural economy in 1800. Indeed, it seems refracted through the lens of Patrick Kavanagh in 1940: "O stony grey soil of Monaghan/ You burgled my bank of youth". Another literary image usurps history when the Ordnance Survey's great project of cultural recuperation is, once again, reduced to the inaccurate, politicised, post-1969 terms of Brian Friel's play Translations.
Twentieth-century Ireland also colours "Ascendancy and Hegemony" in which the hegemonic activities of Irish Protestants are detached from the religious dimension of English and European politics and represented as proto-Ulster Unionism: "The meaning of the ascendancy of Protestantism resides wholly in Protestant political rule." In fact, it was never quite as simple as that, even under Stormont. Eagleton's scornful portrait of Irish Anglicanism - unable to proselytise effectively and empty of "doctrinal content" - is counterpointed by his empathetic account of Catholicism: "the most enduring form of hegemony in human history. . . The Church is, in effect, an oligarchy; but within its structures, prelate and peasant are linked by a common vision in a social order with all the Byzantine apparatus of a political state yet all the intimacy of a family." (He finds the "cross-class character" of Orangeism rather less inspiring.) The fraught political issue of the national schools introduces, partly through Friel's eyes again, the image of how "a Catholic people with a traditional hunger for learning" had "produced the legendary hedge-schools with their nationalist schoolmasters".
In fact, presbyterians were probably the most education-hungry religious group. Eagleton, fixated on Anglo-Irish Dublin and the English-Irish axis, neglects Ireland's theological third force - with one striking exception. "Homage to Francis Hutcheson", his only essay to deal with the 18th century, is a welcome addition to the widening interest in this progenitor of the Enlightenment ideas common to Ulster and Scotland. Yet he plays down the Scottish dimension of "the richest radical culture Ireland has ever known", and abandons this culture to its usual utopian Northern limbo. None the less, Eagleton goes beyond republican convention when he salutes "the philosophical ambitiousness and intellectual fertility of this extraordinary period" and underlines its reproach to all the politics of contemporary Ireland.
The gap between "Ascendancy and Hegemony" and "Homage to Francis Hutcheson" typifies Eagleton's post-modernist way with his materials. Despite some conscientious narrative passages, the Britain/Ireland dichotomy predisposes him to seeing Irish history flat. He is most at home when he can co-opt it for "the time of artistic modernism. . . a curiously suspended medium". Thus the 19th century does not lead to the 20th, but each stands in for the other: we perpetually tremble on the verge of "deep-seated political transformation".
While Eagleton's reading is impressive his powers of synthesis and critical evaluation are less so. He picks from multifarious authors only what suits a present argument, and appears more concerned to answer "mollifying", "sanitising" revisionists than to elaborate his own patterns. He writes about Irish nationalism (a highly contingent formation) as if it were a political party, "a mass radical movement", whose manifesto has been misread.
Thus he tells us - what no historian would deny - that the Catholic hierarchy "was never politically univocal" or that "Not all Irish nationalists were as conveniently chauvinist as some of their modern-day critics would wish". There follows a motley list of non-chauvinist credentials with scant regard for context or for how cultural nationalism was shaken - and remains shaken - by 1916-23. It means little to say, for instance: "The notion of some pure Gaelic race was lambasted by nationalist thinkers from George Sigerson and Eoin MacNeill to Aodh de Blacam and Thomas MacDonagh". Eagleton generally keeps Catholicism and "nationalist thinking" apart (just as he keeps nationalism and literature too close), but he might enjoy the Gaelic-religious purism of de Blacam writing in 1936: "a culture that never was tainted by heresy, and on which Christian austerity has set its seal".
Eagleton's notional opposite is always Matthew Arnold. Yet he, too, sometimes exploits Ireland for his own purposes or does not take it quite seriously - hence the joky preface, his often-sung ballads about Joyce and Yeats, the chapter on "Oscar and George". Presumably "Karl and Walter" are made of sterner stuff. Perhaps, then, Eagleton's "Irish" Heathcliff dramatises his discovery of an exotic, subversive alter ego. The title-essay, in which Ireland figures as "Britain's unconscious" rather than (as for Arnold) England's imagination, positively revels in revolt against the despotism of fact: "I have indicated already that Heathcliff may not. . . be Irish, and that even if he is the chronology is awry as far as the Famine goes. But in this essay Heathcliff is Irish, and the chronology is not awry". Such Humpty-Dumpty Hibernianism is Eagleton at his worst. At his best, as in some of his reflections on modernism, he realises that Ireland might change rather than confirm the categories in which "intellectuals of the British left" have been accustomed to think.
Edna Longley is professor of English, Queen's University, Belfast.
Heathcliff and The Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture
Author - Terry Eagleton
ISBN - 1 85984 932 6
Publisher - Verso
Price - £19.95
Pages - 355