In debt to Declan

New Voices in Irish Criticism
November 16, 2001

A distinguishing feature of Irish studies has long been the high proportion of postgraduate students among paper givers at conferences devoted to the subject. This tendency began when the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures (originally IASAIL) was founded in 1972 and was soon taken up by such guilds as the ACIS and the CAIS (the American and Canadian counterparts), while the SOFEIR and the EFACIS have been similarly well disposed towards younger scholars on the European continent. Yet not until the first New Voices conference, held at the Irish Film Centre in February 1999, has an occasion of this kind been devoted exclus-ively to the work of pre and postdoctoral students.

The 31 papers here embrace topics as various as the politics of the Irish literary revival, women and fiction, poetry/nation/language, literary journalism, children's literature and the challenges for Irish studies. According to the editor's preface, these were chosen from a wider field of 80 proposals as representing research areas "now enjoying the sustained attention of emerging critics". The proposals came in roughly equal amounts from Ireland or Great Britain, America and continental Europe. Authors treated in the resultant proceedings include Wilde and Shaw, Yeats, George (A. E.) Russell, Austin Clarke, Hubert Butler, Edna O'Brien, John Banville and Jennifer Johnston, while the memory of 1798 and the great Irish famine hold a balance with postcolonial reflections on racial stereotyping, disquisitions on the politics of literature in the North and sympathetic consideration of minorities in Ireland.

In a paper that fully shares the deepening awareness of Yeats's sometimes Janus-like relationship with Fenianism now emerging from the Collected Letters , Selina Guinness gives a scintillating account of the montage effects involved in the centenary revisitation of the 1798 rebellion. Ge roid O'Flaherty neatly dissects the points of contact and divergence between Shaw and the contemporary nationalists who so often disparaged him in their newspapers. Des O'Rawe supplies a tour de force analysis of the ambiguous version of social dissidence supplied in Frank McGuinness's Ulster plays, while Aaron Kelly deploys Michel Foucault and Edward Said to reveal the "power-knowledge cartography through which the international thriller market represents Northern Ireland". Jacqueline Belanger sheds light on the "actual dynamics involved in the dialogue between novelist Lady Morgan and her British readers" and Kathy Kremin explains the popularity of Patricia Scanlan's pulp fiction. Maurya O'Sullivan challenges feminists to hitch their ontology to deconstructionist readings of the subject, so much at odds with the conventional solaces of Irish nationalism. Eugene McNulty significantly enlarges our sense of the cultural politics of 19th-century antiquarianism in his examination of the mythic method in James Clarence Mangan and Sir Samuel Ferguson.

All of these, and several other essays in the collection, bear witness to an un-indulgent approach to proposals on the part of organisers. At the same time, a few of these papers are injured by over-laboured sentences and over-dependence on contemporary critical fashion (things still get "inscribed" on the usual intimate spaces). There is a marked propensity to quote primary texts from intermediate sources - most often from the Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature or elsewhere among the writings of Seamus Deane, Declan Kiberd and Luke Gibbons. In particular, allusions to Kiberd's retailored brand of Irish nationalism proliferate. This is hardly surprising since the book is dedicated to him. Such references exceed in number those made to Joyce in the collection and are only outrun by those made to Yeats. Hence it might be said that the "new voices" have all emerged from under Kiberd's overcoat - as Frank O'Connor said of the influence of Gogol on Irish short-story writers.

This is not entirely fortunate. Aside from too-frequent repetitions of certain obiter dicta , it is uncertain that extrapolation from familiar Kiberdian themes is always good critical practice. However Kiberdian in sentiment, it seems unwise, for instance, to call Flann O'Brien's The Third Policemen (1967), as one writer does in an unduly dogged sentence, "a very early response to Yeats, an attempt not to liberate a nation through nationalism, but to refuse altogether to enter a conversation defined by nationalism and colonialism". Nor is the thesis that Banville's "notion of history as fiction highlights the absurdity of the revisionists' claims to objectivity" of any real value without some definite link between Birchwood (1973) and a specific work by one of Ireland's revisionist historians. There is something wobbly about this critic's attempt at even-handedness, as between nationalist and revisionist narratologies. That aside, it is hard to see how he hopes to row back from the deconstructive view of history that he espouses in one place, to the "social/actual reality", that he takes for epistemological terra firma in another.

A certain informality of language characterises several of these essays. John Kenny's stimulating appraisal of the Irish novel tradition and its critics includes the following sentence: "We have gone from a view of the Irish novel at the turn of the century, which argued that it wasn't real enough, to the view put forward by many now that the Irish novel has been too complacently realist." Surely such a well-taken point deserves more exact expression? Repeated resort to "the likes of" - hardly "good blunt English" in Stephen Dedalus's sense - suggests that this critic considered a button-holing rhetoric the right note to strike at the first New Voices conference. The editor might have intervened. Editorial skimping is also apparent in the frequency of uncorrected typing errors, for example, "partying sally" for "parting sally". Such lapses aside, this volume is an indispensable guide to "active" research in Irish literary studies and as good in places as the best conference collections.

Bruce Stewart is lecturer in Irish literary history and bibliography, University of Ulster.

New Voices in Irish Criticism

Editor - P. J. Mathews
ISBN - 1 85182 544 4 and 545 2
Publisher - Four Courts Press
Price - £35.44 and £15.71
Pages - 264

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