Troubled island that gave us carefree prose

The Cambridge History of Irish Literature
April 13, 2007

Since 1970, the academic field known as "Irish literary studies" has blossomed. Yet this healthy growth, with its range of focus, locus and approach, has been accompanied by an urge to codify: to get Irish literature - and Ireland - between canonical covers. The result is tension between systems of various kinds and texts or perspectives that spill over their boundaries.

In volume two of The Cambridge History of Irish Literature , Colin Graham's searching chapter on "Literary historiography" makes and exemplifies the point. Speaking from inside the whale, Graham queries the "mania for the encyclopaedic" that marks the intersection where unitary Irish impulses meet "the academy's demand for ideological neatness and pedagogic standardisation". Hence Declan Kiberd's literary-critical blockbusters Inventing Ireland (1995) and Irish Classics (2000). Hence, too, the multi-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991, 2002), edited by Seamus Deane.

Even as volumes four and five of the latter, devoted to women's writing, repair the omissions of the earlier volumes, they still (as their bulk indicates) pursue the chimera of completeness. In Irish genealogical style, the Cambridge History attaches itself to these precursors. Kiberd contributes a sweeping prefatory essay on "Literature and politics" ("Like Pearse and Joyce, James Connolly was an Irish Modernist"); and the editors state that Field Day has established "a chronologically organised literary canon" that now requires "a comprehensive literary framework in which to think about it".

Such language evokes the ecclesiastical roots of canon formation. It overlooks the lay reader outside the academy, let alone the ceaseless remaking of traditions by new work. Above all, it runs counter to Graham's truer picture of Irish literary studies as an "ideological battleground" where postcolonial, revisionist, feminist and other paradigms jostle for position. From this quaking sod, the Cambridge History cannot, and does not, stand apart.

Yet Margaret Kelleher and Philip O'Leary honourably include Graham's deconstruction of their enterprise. And editorial talk of "authority", "coherence", "comprehensiveness", "definitiveness" and "organisation" is hedged by caveats about "marginalised texts... and the reasons for their marginalisation". Similarly, the Field Day Anthology represents itself as at once encyclopaedic and kaleidoscopic, canonical and anti-canonical, challenging and challengeable, cake and eat it, perhaps.

All this, of course, parallels standard reflexive practice elsewhere. Jonathan Bate, general editor of the Oxford Literary History , emphasises "the institutions in which literary acts take place" and how "the boundaries of the 'literary' shift". Today's literary histories, conscious of the theoretical suspicion under which all historiography has fallen, genuflect to post-structuralist protocols. Now you see an encyclopedia, now it melts into air. That's how theoretical poachers turn canonical gamekeepers and gatekeepers.

The Oxbridge university presses will probably be last to sell the passes of "literature" or "history". This now benefits Irish literary historiography, itself belated (Graham calls the Field Day project "a nostalgically 19th-century cultural gesture"). Its context of publication allows the Cambridge History to be compendious in a less driven way than the Field Day anthologies, and so offer a generally informative set of narratives that neither pretend to be anything else nor seek to run the country.

For instance, the Anglophone reader is given the basic kit for understanding Gaelic literary culture from the medieval period onwards. In a revealing apologia, the editors say: "We are not seeking to denigrate or subvert the term 'literature', finding it instead both a useful and a necessary term." While embracing discursive texts, they quietly dump much of the Irish social and political articulation that came in under Field Day 's "writing" rubric.

The primary organising principle of the Cambridge History is generic (poetry, prose, drama). But commentators on Gaelic literature rightly resist inappropriate categories, and the "prose" surveys are necessarily eclectic. The chapters on prose in English by Ian Campbell Ross (the 18th century), John Wilson Foster (Revival modes) and George O'Brien ("Contemporary prose, 1940-2000") are particularly effective in tracking period dynamics across subgenres. It seems telling that contemporary prose leans towards "memoir and autobiography" as a deep structure, 18th-century prose towards theology and philosophy. Ross reminds us that John Toland's "anti-sectarian and rationalist" Christianity not Mysterious (1696), to which George Berkeley, Jonathan Swift and Francis Hutcheson were among the respondents, "stimulated a flourishing of Irish philosophy without parallel in modern times".

Genre, however, separates works that have other affiliations (including the same author). In this scheme, the Irish Literary Revival's advance on several fronts is somehow lost. Yet it is interesting to see the Revival, another target of theoretical suspicion, boldly flagged as "The Irish renaissance, 1890-1940". The end date - later than some would put it - is interesting too, although there might be a view that the Revival has not ended and a quibble as to where the "contemporary" begins.

To give one example of awkward division: Patrick Crotty's chapter on "Renaissance" poetry in English has to cede two decades of Louis MacNeice's epoch-defining career to the less safe hands of Guinn Batten and Dillon Johnston. The latter refer to "the intense ambivalence of (MacNeice's) Anglo-Irish heritage" and his "conflict of identities". Such terminology reflects an old confusion between critical and ethnic categories, between the story of Irish literature and the story of Ireland.

The best chapters in the Cambridge History lay this confusion to rest. The division of material between the volumes may itself be controversial (given current attention to the centuries before 1890), if prudential (given the high profile of modern Irish literature). The good news for Gaelic literature is that it occupies over a third of the space - which may again be controversial as undue deference to the "first national language". The bad news is that segregation, as with gender in the Field Day sphere, at once highlights and sidelines.

But individual chapters join up the dots. Crotty stresses "the crossover between Gaelic and Anglophone poetry" during the Revival. Andrew Carpenter's discussion of "Poetry in English, 1690-1800", a fruit of pioneering research, also stresses crossover: "The widespread idea that there were only two cultures in 18th-century Ireland - the culture of English speakers and the culture of Irish speakers - is quite inadequate... There were many forms of English and many forms of Irish, many places (hedge-schools, for instance) where, in their local forms, these languages rubbed against and influenced each other."

If Louis de Paor sees crossover as now a mixed blessing for "Contemporary poetry in Irish", he raises questions that equally concern contemporary poetry in English: "The game of Chinese whispers that ensues once the English version becomes the basis for critique of a poet's work... further complicates the relationship between poems in Irish and their audience."

Perhaps, then, the editors should not speak of "two literary traditions that have shared the island", although calling their volumes "an integrated narrative" goes too far in the other direction.

But island sharing is one of the markers that show the Cambridge History to be conditioned by the "peace process", as volumes one to three of the Field Day Anthology were conditioned by the Troubles. For instance, the term "colonial" is less often flung around with one-size-fits-all abandon. Admittedly, Kiberd calls Ireland before the Easter Rising "a down-at-heel colonial backwater" and Gearóid Denvir takes an uncompromising, and perhaps unrepresentative, view of the "language-shift" as "a classic postcolonial endgame". But Ross very precisely anatomises Swift's "colonial nationalism". And when Anne Fogarty characterises 16th and 17th-century texts as a "literature that can never disengage itself from the dissensions endemic within colonial communities" her summation resonates back over a finely nuanced scrutiny of writings embroiled in "a varying array of conflicts over 'symbolic power'".

Obviously these conflicts involve religion. Post-Reformation antagonisms were neither simply territorial nor confined to Ireland nor without theological content. A contrast between volumes one and two of the Cambridge History is that the former spells out the structural importance of religious differences, for literary good as well as political ill. Thus Ross connects Swift and Berkeley with Irish Anglicanism, then intellectually vigorous, and Hutcheson's proto-Enlightenment thought with his Presbyterianism. He also describes Toland as "an Irish-speaking Roman Catholic (who) subsequently professed a variety of religious beliefs, including Presbyterianism, Latitudinarianism, deism and a personal form of pantheism".

More negatively, as anti-Catholicism, explicit or hidden, disfigures writings by 19th-century Irish Protestants, so Denvir shows how similar reflexes of cultural defence lead contemporaneous Gaelic poets, such as Peadar Ó Gealacáin and Art Mac Bionaid, to be "virulently anti-Protestant"and to prophesy the expulsion of "Clann Liútair" (Luther's clan).

But in volume two it would be hard to trace the literary persistence of Williamite or Jacobite structures or the continuing metaphysical fallout from Ireland's "variety of religious beliefs". The editors say, with the wrong kind of correctness, "we do not intend to marginalise writing from the unionist tradition in Northern Ireland by relegating it to a separate chapter as a regional or provincial offshoot of a putative dominant national tradition".

Literature is not created by political traditions, whether unionist or national(ist). The contribution of Irish Catholics and Protestants, in their shifting historical, regional and imaginative relations, is another matter -though not the only story either. The religious dimension of modern Irish literature has often been occluded both by nationalist emphasis on the British rather than sectarian question, and by the Revival's strategic (if fruitless) denial of its Protestant hinterland. The "rhetorical overstrain" (Patrick Crotty's phrase) in Yeats's later poetry, which includes a rhetoric of Protestant literary worthies, shows him finally losing patience with the opposition.

The Revival bears further paradoxical responsibility for critical incoherence about literary tradition in Irish contexts. Yeats began by exaggerating a death in order to proclaim a renaissance, hence the fact that academics are still filling in the supposed blanks behind him. Again, the Revival's resort to ancient legend could not compete with Gaelic origins. By the same token, its own originary force remains problematic.

After laying out a complex map of "18th-century Irish theatre culture", Christopher Morash shrewdly comments: "Unlike poetry, prose narrative, music or the visual arts, where it was possible to trace (or at least construct) a link to the Gaelic past, the theatre in Ireland was never going to be anything other than a creation of modernity." It is amusing to find Declan Kiberd still constructing such links, but in a way that subsumes European modernity into this cultural-nationalist trope.

The alternative nationalist or postcolonial trope is to break all links and talk of "gaps and disjunctions". For Kelleher and O'Leary, "gaps and disjunctions are at the very heart of the Irish experience". This seems to posit an ideal literary-historical continuum as the European norm.

Contributors to the Cambridge History both note lacunae in research and draw out highly specific lines of tradition. Thus Kelleher concludes her own survey of "Prose and drama in English, 1830-1890" by criticising the idea that "the 19th-century novel may be redeemed as 'Irish' only by its realist failures or by its proto-modernist forms". Clare Connolly's overview of "Irish Romanticism" situates this newly prominent topic, and such widely influential figures as Maria Edgeworth and Thomas Moore, "both inside and outside Ireland".

All comparative study counts. But the British-Irish archipelago is a prime context for missing pieces of literary-historical jigsaws, not to mention the special puzzle of contemporary "northern Irish" poetry. John Wilson Foster associates the invisibility of "creditable Irish writing that neither promoted nor repudiated the Revival" with the fact that the "'English connection' in literature and society has been ignored". Even so, perhaps we should remember Cairns Craig's argument in Out of History (1996) that metropolitan canons have asset-stripped "Scottish literature". Yet Craig advocates not simple reclamation but attention to "movements between".

Archipelagic literary inquiry complements national or insular models by reconfiguring all relations: a process well under way in sections of the Cambridge History . And to admit Scots writing from Ulster goes beyond "generous inclusion", since it implicates both shores of the Sea of Moyle. So why does the "Chronology" call 1939-1945 "Emergency' years"?

In close-up, the Cambridge History does not inscribe a smooth narrative arc. Its chapters constitute a palimpsest of critical languages or phases: from Kiberd's inveterate Young Irelandism (a 19th-century movement that put politics before literature) to Crotty's New Critical evaluations, to the intricate historicism of Fogarty, Connolly and Kelleher and to Graham's theoretical savvy. But these implicit dialectics add interest to the dogged historical trek.

For all their achievements, the editors themselves fall into contradiction. Its root cause may be the slippage between their restoration of "literature" and their statement (not wholly accurate) that "a fundamental theme of this History is the role of literature in the formation of Irish identities".

Indigenous literary criticism, in the strict sense of that term, has also been belated but is less amenable than historiography to encyclopaedic mania. Thus, the default setting of "Irish literary studies" remains the first word rather than the second. Colin Graham concludes his chapter with the fear that "thinking primarily through an uncritical identity politics"

may have "blunted the critical faculties that give a shape to Irish literature".

Edna Longley is emeritus professor of English, Queen's University Belfast.

The Cambridge History of Irish Literature: Volume One: To 1890 Volume Two: 1890-2000

Editor - Margaret Kelleher and Philip O'Leary
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 1,268
Price - £135.00
ISBN - 0 521 82224 6

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