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Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789 to 1939 
by W.J. McCormack.
Oxford, 423 pp., £27.50, June 1985, 0 19 812806 1
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Across a Roaring Hill 
edited by Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley.
Blackstaff, 258 pp., £10.95, July 1985, 0 85640 334 2
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Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980 
by Seamus Deane.
Faber, 199 pp., £15, July 1985, 0 571 13500 5
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Escape from the Anthill 
by Hubert Butler.
Lilliput, 342 pp., £12, May 1985, 0 946640 00 9
Show More
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In a recent Times article, Philip Howard pounced on the deplorable word ‘Valorisation’ which seems to be trying to edge its way into the English language. ‘To enhance the price, value or status of by organised ... action’ is one of the meanings he quotes for it. Here is an example of one such usage: ‘the literary critics’ valorisation of tradition’. This phrase occurs towards the end of W.J. McCormack’s dissection of Anglo-Irishness as a literary and historical concept, Ascendancy and Tradition. ‘Valorise’, indeed, is a verb much favoured in this book, along with others like ‘energise’ and ‘traumatise’. There’s a word that might be applied to this style of writing: unstylish. At one point we catch the author of Ascendancy and Tradition considering the way in which Joyce and Yeats ‘as a binary and mutually dependent cultural production confront the totality of history’. There the two unfortunate literary figures stand, symbiosis thrust upon them. At another moment, the history of Ireland is called ‘bifurcated’, which makes it sound like a pair of trousers. It is very provoking of W.J. McCormack to write in this benighted way. The less he has to say, the more fussy and fustian his manner becomes. On the poem ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, we get this:

The title employs words, not numerals, but it employs one of several possible verbal formulations. It prevents us from particularising the year as One Thousand, Nine Hundred and Nineteen; it prevents us from slurring it to a loose Nineteen Nineteen. Thus, the element Nineteen is repeated but not emptily so, for we are directed to the middle term, indicating the completed nineteenth century and its nineteen year excess. The post scriptum date, on the other hand, is unpronounceable or at best variously pronounceable.

Close scrutiny, you might say, is one thing; obsessive and fruitless scrutiny another.

McCormack’s main contention seems to be that ‘ascendancy’ and ‘tradition’ alike are figments of the imagination of W.B. Yeats. It’s well-known, of course, that the Protestant Ascendancy of the 18th century (a term not current, in fact, as McCormack reminds us, before 1792) didn’t actually embody all the qualities Yeats attributed to it – courtesy and decency, a high-minded approach to political matters and an aristocratic lineage. As far as the last is concerned – well, there’s the hidden Ireland uncovered by Daniel Corkery in 1928 (his study of 18th-century Munster appeared under that title), inhabited by people who took a very poor view indeed of the new English-speaking aristocracy that had ousted the old Irish-speaking one. ‘Valentine Brown’, as these purists saw it, was the sort of ludicrous name an arriviste landowner might call himself – someone who’d installed himself in a demesne of the great McCarthys, now dead or dispersed. In this world, the speaker of ‘cunning English’ quickly got himself condemned for opportunism, everything English being associated with the kind of baseness Yeats decried. Still, it was quite another Ireland the poet had in mind when he singled out the 18th century, labelling it ‘the one Irish century that escaped from darkness and confusion’. Swift, Berkeley, Burke, Goldsmith and Sheridan: all these stood for clarity of thought, while Dublin gaiety, Belfast liberalism, and the sense of national consequence acquired at Dungannon, all contributed something to the Yeatsian image of a mellow era. That this particular form of Irishness was conceived in opposition to an unsatisfactory present – ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes’ – and (as Louis MacNeice has it) ‘in defiance of the Gaelic League’ and all it stood for, doesn’t in the least detract from its efficacy.

As for ‘tradition’ and the literary critics’ ‘valorisation’ of it – McCormack advises us to bear in mind the original legal meaning of the word (‘handing over’), and to ponder on the ‘distinction between the handing over of an object or a property, and the handing over of ownership or rights to such an object or property’. Doesn’t this smack somewhat of obfuscation? McCormack (who has written far more cogently on tradition elsewhere) goes on to specify the social and cultural dynamics of the process of handing down – whatever these are – as the crucial factor in the business, but he doesn’t uncover them in any individual case, or tell how, once enumerated, they can enlarge our understanding of what isn’t, after all, a concept especially difficult to grasp. Such assertions can only arouse in the reader an urge to stick up for ‘tradition’ and the way in which it’s commonly interpreted. The search for a precise terminology resulting in convolution and imprecision: that is one of the things that’s gone wrong with the book.

Still, the book has much to recommend it. Its consideration of Edmund Burke is exhaustive. Burke, one of the 18th-century figures whose apotheosis was ordained by Yeats, has lately been attracting the attention of academics like McCormack and Seamus Deane, both of whom have written about him in The Crane Bag. Burke’s social observations are worth repeating: Irish cabins, he said, were ‘scarcely distinguishable from the Dunghill’ and the furniture they contained ‘much fitter to be lamented than described’. The food eaten in these places wasn’t up to much: potatoes and sour milk, and even worse in times of famine, when many people were driven back on boiled weeds and blood stolen from cows. ‘Pain, destruction, downfall, sorrow and loss’ – in the words of the poet Aoghan O Rathaille – doesn’t seem too strong a term to apply to the condition of the penalised Irish. From Burke, opponent of anarchy and advocate of Catholic emancipation, came a formula for British liberalism in the 19th-century, as Seamus Deane points out in an article on ‘Arnold, Burke and the Celts’, reprinted in Celtic Revivals. McCormack, in a Crane Bag essay, has linked Burke’s writings, and especially the Reflections, to the body of Anglo-Irish fiction which began with Maria Edgeworth. (In this essay, he sensibly remarks that, ‘though there are difficulties attaching to the term “Anglo-Irish literature”, it is too late to purge it from our critical vocabulary’ – an attitude one wishes he’d displayed more often in Ascendancy and Tradition.) The Reflections, as he now asserts, uses the ‘big house’ as a dominant metaphor, and moreover shows it getting into a familiar state of ruin. From Maria Edgeworth’s ‘the wind through the broken windows ... and the rain coming through the roof’ to Caroline Blackwood’s Dunmartin Hall (in Great Granny Webster), with puddles in the corridors and warped doors, the Anglo-Irish house has characteristically fallen a victim to disrepair. There are, of course, a good many symbolic points to be adduced from this.

McCormack goes to some lengths to show that Castle Rackrent was only ‘a house of the middle size’, not great at all by the standard of English houses, and he jots down the probable cost (between £1,000 and £1,100), with the number of bedrooms, living-rooms and so on that a typical ‘squire’s house’ might contain. However, as he says, Castle Rackrent shrinks or expands at the author’s whim, just as the events of Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas are cast in a perpetual autumnal haze (as Elizabeth Bowen noted), in defiance of the usual arrangement of the seasons. Anglo-Irish disdain for the tedious requirements of naturalism? Certainly a moral pattern takes precedence over verisimilitude, in Irish fiction of the last century, and it’s usually to do with some form of reconciliation – typically the interdenominational marriage. You also find – as the effect of Burke’s ideas worked its way further and further down the literary scale – a lot of aristocratic heroes who believe in a strong form of government tempered with kindness to the governed.

In his effort to let none of the latent meanings of a text escape him, McCormack sometimes pounces on a particle of import that isn’t there, like a demented lepidopterist making an assault on a shaft of sunlight. Take the Joyce story ‘Eveline’. The most satisfying account of this story that I have read comes in Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, and is properly mindful of Joyce’s Dublin knowingness. ‘Eveline’ opens with a perfectly felicitous and unobtrusive metaphor: ‘She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.’ McCormack gets his teeth into ‘invade’ and won’t let go of it until he’s forced a connection between it and the ‘soldiers with brown baggages’ alluded to in part two of the story. Next, we’re told that ‘behind both nominal heroines’ (the Countess Cathleen is hitched to Eveline here) ‘lies the personification of Ireland as Patient Woman, an tsean bhean bhocht’. Leaving aside the fact that an tsean bhean bhocht can only be translated as ‘the poor old woman’, not a tag applicable to either the Joyce or the Yeats figure – leaving that aside, isn’t the grafting on to Joyce’s story of another, nationalist story a bit gratuitous? When McCormack goes on to wonder if Eveline – poor, romantic Eveline – opts for ‘some domestic form of Home Rule in North Richmond Street’, or ‘alternatively’, if she can be termed ‘an abstensionist’, he is being either fatuous or facetious.

The book covers roughly the same ground as ‘ “The Protestant Strain” ’ (playfully subtitled ‘A Short History of Anglo-Irish Literature from S.T. Coleridge to Thomas Mann’) – McCormack’s contribution to Across a Roaring Hill, a collection of essays on ‘the Protestant imagination in modern Ireland’. In both these undertakings, the short and the long one, McCormack shows a salutary urge to acknowledge all the complexities, social, ideological or whatever, underlying the term ‘Anglo-Irishness’, and affecting its outlets in literature. However – through a fear of what he calls ‘isolationist aesthetics’, meaning, I think, an insular approach – he draws altogether too much into the vicinity of his subject: economics, Nazism, authoritarianism and all.

It’s McCormack who quotes Louis MacNeice on the benefits of being Irish, with the sense of belonging to ‘a world that never was’ among them: but it is Seamus Dean who incisively enumerates the sources of the various transformations – heroic, chivalrous, folklorish and so on – to which the idea of Irishness was subjected. Deane quotes Joyce on Ireland’s ‘one belief – a belief in the incurable ignobility of the forces that have overcome her’ – and goes on to consider the ways in which the concomitant notion of Irish integrity was enshrined in literature. In 1903, when Joyce made this remark, it was customary to differentiate between the adulterated and the ‘real’ Ireland, though not between the real and the chimerical. The West of Ireland was the place in which the country’s strongest substance was thought to reside (as McCormack points out). It was through his contact with the West that Padraig Pearse devised his prescription for a nation (as he put it) ‘not only Gaelic, but free as well; not only free, but Gaelic as well’, Synge, however, believed that the essence of the Gaelic West – bursting with colour and vitality – could be rendered in English, though an English not current in any locality before or since, if we leave aside the haunts of those play-actors observed by Miles na gCopaleen, who ‘talk and dress like that, and damn the drink they’ll swally but the mug of porter in the long nights after Samhain’. Synge’s Irish-English, true enough, achieves its narcotic effects at the expense of both Irish dryness and English wryness of tone.

Seamus Deane has included in his collection a couple of good essays on Pearse and Synge; nothing is missing from the latter but a touch of mockery at the succulent Irishness portrayed by the author of The Playboy. On Pearse, Deane remarks that the ‘former apotheosis of the martyr has now given way to an equally extreme denunciation of the pathological elements involved’ (you can see a comparable process, considerably speeded up, taking place in the literature of the First World War). Pearse’s programme for national regeneration certainly contained elements not in keeping with the properties of the present. ‘His nationalism tottered on the brink of racism,’ Hubert Butler noted in 1968, in one of the pieces assembled in Escape from the Anthill. Deane doesn’t go as far as this in his appraisal of the architect of 1916: but he does, astutely, connect Pearse’s Gaelic revivalism with ‘what used to be called “muscular Christianity” ’. Going into the fight ‘white’, indeed, was a concept Pearse would have cherished.

Deane and Hubert Butler are both authoritative commentators on the depleted condition of Irish letters during the middle part of the present century – ‘once the major excitements of the Revival were over’, as Deane has it, and when a pair of gauche states, one north and one south, were struggling to find their feet. The atmosphere prevailing in both parts of the country, at this time, would greatly have discomfited the fosterers of Irish spirituality. Butler, in a Bell article deploring the unruly literary views of Patrick Kavanagh, distinguished between the parochialism of 1901, which contained the potential for enlargement of outlook, and that of 1951, which didn’t. He likens the mind of the Mucker poet, when it’s not engaged with poetry or fiction, to ‘a monkey house at feeding time’. It was in the same year, 1951, Deane tells us, that John Montague, also writing in The Bell, called for an end to the apathy which seemed the predominant feeling about cultural matters, and at the same time ‘demanded of his generation that it reflect Catholicism as a living force in Irish life’. His implication, like Kavanagh’s contention, was that the Anglo-Irish Protestant impulse in literature had run its course – as indeed, by 1951, it had. However, for some time before this, and in the wake of the major achievements of the Revival, writers like Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor had been reflecting Catholicism like billy-o, as a force to be repudiated or encouraged, or just in acknowledgement of its inescapability. Hadn’t the time arrived to dispense with sectional assertion in any interests whatever? Or perhaps it couldn’t be done, given the tendency of every social group to claim exclusive access to certain tracts of the national consciousness. Thus we have Patrick Kavanagh (as Butler says) light-heartedly arguing that ‘you cannot be Irish if you are not Catholic,’ and Butler himself insisting that to be Irish and Catholic debars you from possessing any insight at all into the mentality of Anglo-Ireland.

Hubert Butler – born in 1900, and Anglo-Irish to the bone – goes in for amiable castigation of the bumptious or unenlightened, and for discursiveness and frankness of manner. He also has an aptitude for the diverting comparison: ‘Her intellect, like a barrage balloon that has lost its moorings, hovers uncertainly between Fishguard and Rosslare.’ He has a thing or two to say about Catholic Ireland, especially in its odder, less Christian manifestations: for instance, we have the case of a man who, in 1895, roasted his wife in full view of relations and neighbours, having convinced himself – or so it appeared – that he was trouncing a changeling. Butler reminds us of the interest in fairy lore which prevailed at the time in scholarly circles. The colourful business at Ballyvadlea – fairy rath, herb doctor and all – shows the obduracy of superstition in the face of priestly admonitions. A more orthodox variety of rancid Catholicism asserted itself in a Wexford village, in the late 1950s. A Protestant mother, married to a Catholic, chose to enrol her six-year-old daughter at a local non-Catholic school. The outrage aroused by this act was such that a boycott was organised against every Protestant in the district. A bishop congratulated the people concerned on their ‘peaceful and moderate’ protest. In the third of his articles considering the peculiarities of Catholic life as they get reported in newspapers, Butler recounts the tussle which occurred in 1955 between Honor Tracy and the Sunday Times. A ‘graceful sketch of an Irish village’, complete with ironical aspersions on its frantic fund-raising operations when a new house was wanted by the canon, appeared in that newspaper. Its author was Honor Tracy. The paper’s staff had taken the village to be imaginary. However, once the sketch was published, an angry canon from Doneraile in Co. Cork promptly surfaced clamouring for restitution. The Sunday Times capitulated. Miss Tracy, who read into its apology to the canon a criticism of her conduct as a journalist, turned on the paper. A court case ensued. The author of the article was awarded costs and damages. At this juncture, the inhabitants of Doneraile, on whose behalf Miss Tracy had thought she was campaigning, took up the cudgels for the canon. A demonstration in support of him and his new house was organised, with the parish choir, the Gaelic League and the Children of Mary out in force. Such exhibitions of Catholic fervour aren’t uncommon. We’re reminded of an episode in Peadar O’Donnell’s novel of 1934, On the Edge of the Stream, when a similar crowd assembles to repudiate in public the message of a socialist agitator. O’Donnell views this outbreak of Catholicism with mock amazement: ‘grown-up men and women,’ he assures us, stood there singing in unison ‘I am a Little Catholic’. It’s not unusual either to hear heated voices raised in Ireland against the avarice of clerics. However, Hubert Butler isn’t writing to endorse any such emphatic view. He isn’t on anyone’s side in the Doneraile dispute. Miss Tracy, not an Irishwoman, is taken to task for implying that she had got the measure of the natives. So are those who attribute the whole thing to Irish dottiness. The spectacle of Catholic solidarity, and its implications for moderation in Ireland, can hardly have pleased Hubert Butler, any more than anyone else, and neither can he have relished public debate on the messy business of possible self-interest in priests. Yet, as he says, it is no very comfortable matter for an Irish Protestant to criticise any instance of priestly greed, even if it should exist, when the countryside has so many half-empty rectories, deaneries and episcopal palaces, ‘for whose maintenance Catholics and Nonconformists once paid tithes’. There is scarcely one of them, he mentions, into which the Doneraile canon’s ‘little house would not fit several times over’. It is this fair-minded attitude, as well as his perceptiveness about the achievements and the charm of the Anglo-Irish, that makes Hubert Butler’s essays so agreeable.

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Vol. 7 No. 17 · 3 October 1985

SIR: It is clear from Patricia Craig’s maudlin and evasive review of Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History (LRB, 5 September) that she is unwilling to discuss the ideas advanced in my book and prefers to deal in matters of style. It seems to her that I favour verbs like ‘energise’, ‘traumatise’ and ‘valorise’, and these are deplorable ruffian neologisms trying, in her view, to edge their way into the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, they have been with us since 1752, 1857 and 1907 respectively. I concede that the literary-critical use of ‘valorise’ is a modification of the commercial term recorded in the dictionary – perhaps it is that vulgar provenance which gives offence to Ms Craig. On the other hand, among the vulgar, semi-literate Bolshevik innovators who imposed ‘energise’ on an unsuspecting language, I must list Henry Fielding, Archbishop Whately and Sir William Hamilton.

What Ms Craig’s review indicates indirectly, of course, is not so much devotion to an out-of-date linguistic purity as a refusal to discuss arguments concerning the transactions between literature and politics. Such transactions cannot, in my view, be discussed in the language of the tea-party, especially in an Irish context where literary culture is intimately involved with a violent (and not wholly Irish) history. Having finally moved on to review other books and in doing so reached the safer waters of narrative and paraphrase, Ms Craig suddenly refers to ‘a more orthodox variety of rancid Catholicism’ (her own phrase, I should add). It will be clear to readers of Ascendancy and Tradition that I am far from being a Catholic. But in deference to the feelings of numerous fellow human beings, I find the phrase highly offensive. Would a less orthodox variety have manifested more or less rancidness? Who would wish to choose style as against content, or content as against style, in discussing this view of things, coming as it does from one claiming to pronounce on Irish history and the English language? In failing to meet Ms Craig’s stylistic requirements, I do not necessarily end up styleless.

W.J. McCormack

Vol. 7 No. 19 · 7 November 1985

SIR: In his book Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History, W.J. McCormack tells us – in a rather curious phrase – that Yeats ‘rewrites the terms upon which he would be interpreted’. (He also tells us that when he refers to Yeats he doesn’t mean the ‘biographical individual’, but ‘the summum of texts bearing his name’.) There’s a certain circularity about this statement which makes it difficult to get to grips with what it actually means (I think it means that Yeats’s view of Irish history was both selective and subjective, but I cannot be sure of this). An element of imperspicuity runs through the book, and it’s as much an effect of Mr McCormack’s use of language as anything else. This is why I chose, in my review of Ascendancy and Tradition (LRB, 5 September), to consider the manner in which the book is written as well as its matter – an approach to which Mr McCormack takes great exception (Letters, 3 October). Clearly, he would like to write the terms upon which he would be reviewed.

He reads some odd opinions into my review. In his letter, he goes on to align himself with a lot of affronted Catholics whom he imagines seething at my miscalling of their religion. In fact, in this case, he’s got hold of the wrong end of the stick he has selected to beat me with. When I use the phrase ‘a more orthodox variety of rancid Catholicism’ (which he quotes), I am saying that Catholicism can take some rancid forms, of which I give two examples taken from one of the other books under consideration: an instance of religion becoming fused with pagan lore, and a ‘more orthodox’ case of anti-Protestant feeling running very high indeed.

McCormack refers dismissively to ‘the language of the tea-party’, which he implies I favour: clearly he prefers the language of the Boston Tea Party – everything overboard, cogency included. Finally, I am puzzled by the word ‘maudlin’ which appears at the opening of his onslaught. I assure him that I was neither tearful nor tipsy when I wrote the review, though if anything could drive me to drink or make me weep, it is Mr McCormack’s fondness for academic jargon.

Patricia Craig
London SE3

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