Nina FitzPatrick’s Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia won the Irish Times/ Aer Lingus prize for a first work of fiction, only to be disqualified when the pseudonymous author was deemed to be more Polish than Irish[*]. This made the book the stuff of its own fables, which satirise an inbred and confused intellectual milieu. Since 1960 the Republic of Ireland has certainly provided grounds for confusion: modernisation and secularisation; the women’s movement; determined rearguard action from the Catholic Church; a conservative-radical split within the Church’s own ranks; a new urban youth-culture; urban-rural tensions aggravated by swelling Dublin; Northern Ireland; Europe; and – for the intelligentsia – Marxism, Post-Structuralism and all that. Ideological tides often reach Irish shores just as they start to ebb elsewhere.
Seamus Deane, General Editor of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, has constantly applied the Marxist sense of crisis to a ‘political crisis’ whose epicentre is Northern Ireland. FitzPatrick locates crisis in the heads of a Dublin avant-garde who sit beneath the crumbling twin pillars of Catholicism and Nationalism with dust in their eyes. She implies that their unrecognised problem is spilt religion, which, as in late 19th-century England, finds peculiar outlets. In one fable Edmund Ignatius MacHugh frenetically founds cults and dispatches newsletters: the Field Day Anthology is a long newsletter from a section of the Irish intelligentsia.
The conflict in, and about, Northern Ireland has renewed a struggle for cultural hegemony that took various forms in 19th and early 20th-century Ireland. The anthology rehearses those earlier debates and is itself a hegemonic attempt: a heavy-gun emplacement on a Kulturkampf which has engaged Irish literary critics, historians and some writers during the past decade. Deane, for whom General Editor seems an aptly military title, has long maintained that ‘everything, including our politics and our literature, has to be reread.’ Before literary criticism got drawn in, rereading Ireland was chiefly the province of historians. But so-called ‘revisionist’ history (i.e. any complications of a simple Nationalist narrative) has come under fire for allegedly helping the Republic’s ideological pillars to crumble. Thus official embarrassment over commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising produced a small, hysterical backlash against the R-word, revisionism, rather than against the real culprit – the IRA.
The Field Day Anthology, in dominant conception if not in every sub-section, can be interpreted as a longer-meditated backlash from a more elegantly coiled whip. Not so much literary history as a historicisation of writing, it directly challenges Irish historiography. And it does so by invoking ‘theory’. Deane’s General Introduction states:
Historians of limited philosophical resource still long to answer the question, ‘What really happened then?’ More modestly, this anthology asks the longer, less abrasive question; ‘How, in the light of what is happening now, can we re-present what was, then and since, believed to have been the significance of what really happened?’ ... It is part of the received wisdom that the Irish past has been (mis) interpreted by [Nationalist] historians who had a cause to plead and an axe to grind. It is equally the case that this anthology, like the works it presents to the reader, is at the mercy of the present moment and, also like them, derives its authority (such as it is) from that moment.
[*] Fourth Estate, 161 pp., £12. 99, 21 February 1991, 1 872180 28 0.
[†] Blackstaff Press, 224 pp., £9.95, 31 October 1991, 0 85640 462 4.
Vol. 14 No. 3 · 13 February 1992
From Padraig O Conchuir
At the end of her Belfast Diary (LRB, 9 January) Edna Longley yearns for an awareness ‘of literature’s role in the more pluralistic understanding that has slowly started to erode the distorted cultural ideologies propping up our binary politics’. An dtuigeann sibh? From her vantage-point in the School of English of Queen’s University, Belfast, she ought to be able to contribute towards any momentum in that direction. That school recently invited applications for its course leading to an MA Certificate in Irish Writing. Candidates could choose from a list of eight topics. Seven of the topics could be described as ‘Anglo-Irish’, although no Anglo hyphen was allowed in them. The other topic was for study of a bilingual Irish writer. Although I can think of a handful of people who wrote or write in Irish and in English, I fancy that the school really had in mind Sam Beckett. After an introductory paragraph about Nina FitzPatrick, Dr Longley devotes the rest of her diary to an assessment of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. It would seem that more than a little space in the anthology concerns writing in Irish. However, she does not mention that language at all; she does mention Spenser and Cromwell. In fact, both of them regarded the language spoken by the Green Island Abos as ‘Irish’. It would have astounded them to have heard a prophecy that alchemists had a monoglot pluralistic philosopher’s stone capable of transmogrifying whatever they wrote in the Green Isle into Irish Writing! Edna’s Diary calls to mind
The Faber Book of Irish Verse,
With not a Bloody word of Erse!
Padraig O Conchuir
Vol. 14 No. 5 · 12 March 1992
From Theo Dorgan
Edna Longley in her Belfast Diary (LRB, 9 January) is going it a bit when she says that ‘official embarrassment over commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising produced a small, hysterical backlash against the R-word, revisionism, rather than against the real culprit – the IRA.’ Edna Longley well knows, though your readers may not, that the principal official reaction to this anniversary, in the South at least, was silence. She is quite right to characterise the official reaction as embarrassed. She is, though, being a little bit naughty when she omits to mention certain unofficial responses to the opportunity for considered revaluation offered by the anniversary and, one might say, precipitated by the official embarrassment. One such was a modest collection of essays entitled Revising the Rising, edited by Mairin Ni Dhonnchadha and the undersigned. Containing views on the Rising and its interpretations from a variety of traditions in Ireland, political and historiographic, the book was a quiet and considered attempt to tease out certain historical readings of the Rising. As a contributor herself, she is aware that we included, happily, a number of essays which were negatively disposed towards the Rising and its consequences. The book was assembled by its editors, who then offered the manuscript to Field Day. I am glad to say they accepted it with alacrity, and I suggest it is very much to their credit that they should have published a book containing such a variety of positions, many of them at variance with the perceived Field Day world-view.
Vol. 14 No. 6 · 26 March 1992
From Edna Longley
Padraig O Conchuir (Letters, 13 February) wilfully misrepresents not only my attitude, but that of the School of English at Queen’s University, to the Irish language. We offer an ‘MA in English (Irish Writing)’, rather than one in ‘Anglo-Irish Writing’, because the hyphenated term carries excess historical baggage. Students entering an English Department, as opposed to the University’s Celtic Languages Department, know what to expect. It is, in fact, a bonus, not an insult to the Irish language, that one of our MA courses concerns ‘bilingual’ authors who have written in both languages. And undergraduates and postgraduates can take literary courses in the two departments if they so desire.
Mr O Conchuir – or should I call him Padraig since he calls me Edna – notices my failure to comment on the Irish-language texts in the Field Day Anthology. Alas, I am disqualified from so doing either by innate lack of linguistic talent, or by the fact that the language was badly taught during my schooldays in Dublin. Finally, Padraig’s quibble illustrates the point of my ‘Belfast Diary’. Political ideologies have held up understanding of writing by Irish people in whatever language.
Queen’s University, Belfast