A cornucopia and a diaspora

Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century
June 1, 2001

David Pierce's Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader suffers from one obvious disadvantage: it follows in the wake of Seamus Deane's magisterial Field Day Anthology . True, the Field Day Anthology sets out to condense 1,500 years of literature, Pierce's Reader only 100. But much of the anthology derives from Pierce's period. Deane offers his readers not only a rich selection of absorbing material, but a structure inviting reflection on the creation of an Irish canon and its relation both to "the English canonical tradition" and colonial Irish history. In fact, the Field Day Anthology is tough competition, and it seems to make Pierce a little nervous, for he gets its title wrong at least once.

In some ways, however, Pierce does succeed in providing an alternative to Deane. Deane focuses on Ireland itself, on the many and complex relations between Irish literature and the historical "configurations of power" in Irish society. In effect, the anthology aspires to be a political genealogy of Irish writing. Pierce aims rather to enlarge our conception of what "modern Irish writing" might be. This has some admirable consequences. Irishwomen were notably under-represented in the anthology. But they are much in evidence in the reader, and their inclusion expands and complicates its representation of Ireland. Pierce's incorporation of gay poets like Cathal Ó Searcaigh has a similar effect. So, too, does his inclusion of prison writings and travel literature and his engagingly accommodating approach to questions of genre. At the same time, he also wants to represent the literature of the modern Irish diaspora. His reader repeatedly quits Ireland for Britain, America, Australia and Canada. The result is a cornucopia, in which staple items such as Yeats's "Easter 1916" or Derek Mahon's "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford" jostle promiscuously with Con O'Leary in a Manchester pub and Pat O'Mara, "the Liverpool Irish slummy". The book is studded with gems such as an extract from Fred Ryan's journalism, Patrick MacGill's song of a navvy, F. P. Dunne on Mr Dooley, Vincent Buckley on Bobby Sands and Desmond Egan's fine elegy on Beckett.

Whether all this makes for a very good reader is another matter. Does it really lead to more rigorous thought and better understanding? Deane's and Pierce's titles seem partly the wrong way round. Deane's book is the reader: strenuous, demanding, a collection for intellectuals, scholars and students. It offers a sumptuous range of biographical and bibliographical materials and some very distinguished critical introductions. Pierce's efforts to supply a similar apparatus are comparatively slight. Deane addresses his readers as intellectual equals. Pierce treats his as tyros. Deane's anthology concentrates the mind on Irish themes and issues. Pierce dilutes the latter with American and Spanish landscapes. In fact, his book is really an anthology of excellent curiosities. It reads like a good-natured, humanistic compendium for the leisurely browser.

Yet the ruse of humanism only partly works. "There is no immunity in this island," wrote Louis MacNeice, in a passage from Autumn Journal that Pierce includes. If, as Deane suggests, all Irish writing is profoundly political, but alternately acknowledges and conceals the fact, then his book acknowledges a political involvement, while Pierce struggles vainly to conceal one. For Pierce, for example, the years 1900-20 see the cultural triumph of the Anglo-Irish revival. There is little or no sense of the same period as witnessing the hesitant emergence of Catholic and nationalist culture from the long, historical shadow of the colonial power. The inclusion of Joyce - absent from the reader because of a copyright dispute - would only partly have helped to rectify matters. After all, for Pierce, the early 20th-century Irish Catholic church can be adequately represented by Bernard Vaughan.

More striking still is the fact that Pierce's diasporic Ireland includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O'Neill, Robert Creeley and James T. Farrell; Irish-English writers such as Jim Phelan and Bill Naughton; a number of English, Welsh and Scots writers, some (but not all) of whom spent part of their lives in Ireland, like Garry Hogg, E. Estyn Evans, Sam Hanna Bell and Iain Crichton Smith; and even includes Anthony Burgess, Terry Eagleton and Edward Said; but excludes Edward Martyn, Eoin McNeill, Seamus O'Kelly and Aodh de Blacam. It excludes Michael Davitt, whose The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (1904) is a crucial document for the beginning of the 20th century. Most notably, it excludes Eamon de Valera, while giving us Terence de Vere White "putting de Valera in his place" (just as, later, it gives us Colm To!b!n's critique of Declan Kiberd, but not Kiberd himself).

Pierce's excerpts from other republicans such as Dorothy MacArdle tend to raise doubts about republicanism. He claims that his book is for a reader accustomed - as any reader of Irish writing must be - to "divisions and differences". But to some extent, he obscures or minimises both. At the same time, he cannot let divisions simply stand. He keeps on placing his finger discreetly on the balance, lest we should take the wrong side. Thus Arthur Conan Doyle's account of the Irish soldiers in the Boer war can apparently be trusted, but Dervla Murphy's "demonisation" of Ian Paisley needs a "corrective" and D. P. Moran is "sinister". Pierce's reader is not consistently partisan, and contains a variety of other emphases, though whether he intended Gerry Conlon's moving account of violent screws in Wandsworth Jail to come quite so pointedly after Edna Longley's attack on nationalism must be open to question.

All the same, one element missing from the book is any adequate insight into the extraordinary pathology of Unionism. Pierce could have provided this, for example, by juxtaposing a passage of Edward Dowden's eminently civilised literary criticism with an extract from the sometimes remarkably virulent publications of the Irish Unionist Alliance, of which Dowden was president. But the omission is hardly surprising, for in its own way, Pierce's book is itself obviously an English-inclined, even Unionist anthology, however dressed up in contemporary, globalising clothing.

Andrew Gibson is professor of modern literature and theory, Royal Holloway, University of London and a trustee of the James Joyce Foundation.

Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader. First Edition

Author - David Pierce
ISBN - 1 85918 258 5 and 208 9
Publisher - Cork University Press
Price - £35.00 and £25.00
Pages - 1,351

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