The Whole Bustle

Siobhan Kilfeather

  • The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing edited by Seamus Deane
    Field Day Publications/Faber, 4044 pp, £150.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 946755 20 5

The editors of the Field Day Anthology make large claims for its importance as ‘the most comprehensive anthology of Irish writing ever published’. These three volumes, totalling over four thousand pages and spanning a historical period of fifteen hundred years, bring into print an impressive range and variety of writings from a number of languages, periods and genres, and their publication is a major event in Irish studies. As with previous Field Day events, this one is designed as a significant intervention in Irish culture and politics (if it is possible – Field Day think it isn’t – to distinguish between the two categories): indeed, this anthology has for some years past been heralded as the major Field Day intervention.

Seamus Deane explains the imagined significance of the anthology: ‘It is important to do this now because the political crisis in Ireland, precipitated in 1968, but in gestation for many years before that date, has exposed the absence within the island of any system of cultural consent that would effectively legitimise and secure the existing political arrangements.’ Deane does not explicitly claim that the anthology will produce such a system of cultural consent, but he does claim that ‘there is a story here, a meta-narrative, which is, we believe, hospitable to all the micro-narratives that, from time to time, have achieved prominence as the official version of the true history, political and literary, of the island’s past and present.’ The not-quite-declared agenda is to persuade readers that there is a narrative about ‘the island’, a place which is taken to have a certain kind of cultural integrity that is ‘hospitable’ to controversy, dissension, perhaps even to violent differences of opinion. This is a political claim which many people will reject from the outset, and those dissenters may use the violence of the last twenty years as evidence that none of the available meta-narratives – nationalism, anti-nationalism, imperialism, unionism, socialism, feminism – are sufficiently hospitable to differences.

There is a series of questions to be asked about the anthology, only some of which relate to the Field Day agenda. Does the anthology tell a story, and is it plausible? What is included that changes informed popular perceptions of Irish writing and what is left in place? What are the significant exclusions? Is it textually accurate and well-annotated? Who is it for? Why is it so expensive? How much material that was previously difficult to obtain is now made available? What are some of the particular pleasures in reading through so much material?

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the anthology is its organisation. Each volume is divided into sub-sections, some of which cover historical periods, some of which are devoted to particular genres, a few of which concentrate on a particular language – varieties of Gaelic, of course, but also Latin writing in Ireland and Norman-French texts; and there are sections devoted to major authors such as Yeats and Joyce and to major historical events such as the Famine. Each section begins with a substantial critical introduction by the responsible contributing editor and ends with brief biographies and bibliographies.

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