There’s a moment near the start of Ulysses when a symbol for the whole of Irish art presents itself to Joyce’s exasperated alter ego: ‘the cracked looking-glass of a servant’. As a gloss on this we have, among other commentaries, the remarks of G.J. Watson in his study of 1979, Irish Identity and the Literary Revival. Joyce, as Watson reminds us, was with this image repudiating not only the fatuities of Victorian stage-Irishness as a literary mode, but also their glorified replacement, once Yeats, Lady Gregory and the rest of them got going on the campaign to add dignity to Ireland. ‘The looking-glass, cracked, does not tell the truth’ – and the resulting distortions are, in a sense, John Wilson Foster’s subject in his impressive new scrutiny of the revival era (roughly the period between 1890 and the early 1930s). The word ‘fictions’ in Foster’s title denotes both fictional themes and concomitant misbeliefs: for example, about the incorruptibility of Irish peasant life.
Foster starts by considering the revision of the sagas at the hands of revivalists, many of whom were activated by a nationalist impulse: features of ancient Ireland not in keeping with contemporary ideas of rectitude and winsomeness were apt to be obliterated.
Alongside the sagas were folk-tales and folk poetry, especially after 1890 when Douglas Hyde began to publish, and translate, material garnered in the course of his fieldwork in Connacht; every rediscovery caused jubilation among those in pursuit of the truest variety of Irishness, which was generally held to reside in the West. What precise form this quality should take was another matter: was it, for example, to be spiritual or merely highly coloured? Synge, declaring himself fed up with the whole spring-dayish, Cuchulainoid tendency in contemporary Irish writing, opted for robustness of approach in his portrayal of the West, not even eschewing the word ‘shift’, which – notoriously – got him into considerable hot water with the first Dublin audience for his Playboy. The Fior-Gaedhals (‘True-Irish’) affronted by this word seem not to have been familiar with certain folk songs in the Irish language, like the one in which a girl is boasting of suitors who wouldn’t ask a dowry of her, ‘but would take me in my shift, though I’m not empty-handed’. Synge thought he was celebrating the spirit of the West, all vitality and distinctive palaver, while his opponents thought he was traducing it. As for the native-speakers themselves – Synge’s and Padraig Pearse’s Aran Islanders, Hyde’s Connacht crofters – the attitude of these towards their discoverers was often ironic, as it might well be when we think of proselytising outsiders setting themselves up to teach ‘a power of Irish for five weeks and a half’. And the influx of enthusiasts into such remote places caused considerable adulteration of the traditions they cherished: this is one of the paradoxes noted by John Wilson Foster. For one thing, the oral culture didn’t long survive the brush with transcription. And native Irish-speakers weren’t behindhand in getting out their own accounts of life in the West, or the South-West, just to set the record straight. ‘Our like will never be seen again,’ declared one of them, Tomas O Crohan, in 1926: this elegiac phrase was latched onto by Flann O’Brien, in his satiric denunciations of Irish falsity or self-dramatisation wherever it cropped up, whether with Gaelic Leaguers or island autobiographers.
Between Synge of the exorbitant syntax and Flann O’Brien’s adept mimicry of Gaelic inflation (‘Ambrose was an odd pig and I do not think that his like will be there again’) comes the irreverent James Stephens – irreverent, as Foster says, towards revival high-mindedness and po-faced antiquarianism. Stephens’s work is characterised by an inspired frivolity, and even when it comes chock-full of gods and fairies, the author’s bent for social criticism and parody, and a certain dryness of tone, keeps it from going over the top. His best-known book, The Crock of Gold (1912), is remarkable for its charm and for the scope of its concerns. Stephens, Foster notes, is often as mischievous as a changeling, and displays a changeling ability to shift without fuss from one mode to another. In his first novel, The Charwoman’s Daughter (1912), he even veered in the direction of social realism, only to swing away from it in a hurry as fable, folklore, romance and fantasy of all kinds took a hold on his eclectic imagination. This novel, indeed, has been claimed for the brand of fiction depicting life in the Dublin slums, since it contains a good many passages of everyday description alongside its fairy-tale motifs; and in this respect it attests to a lively tradition of realism, or at least naturalism, co-existing with all the fancy material of the literary revival. It’s one of Foster’s principal concerns, in this study, to examine the realistic strand in revival writing – not omitting would-be realism and its departures from reality.
We have, for example, George Moore, whose emphasis on self-realisation prefigureed that of Joyce, and furnished an antidote to the kind of self-effacement, in the interests of some nationalist ideal, required by the revival of its most ardent adherents. In The Untilled Field of 1903 Moore tackles the malaise of the West (a far cry from Synge’s dramatising of the same locality), a quality he attributes to the interference of the clergy in ordinary lives: Irish Catholicism, as Foster reminds us, was for Moore a state of mind, and a pretty unproductive one at that. For Catholic realism, unrecusant, we need to turn to the work of an author like the Corkman Daniel Corkery, whose themes of unfulfilment are presented rather blandly – that is, without criticism of the social forces conducing to deadliness in provincial Ireland.
In this respect, Daniel Corkery came at the end of an unostentatious tradition in Irish naturalism: at the time – 1917 – his best-known novel The Threshhold of Quiet appeared, the way forward was indicated by the social critics, of whom one, Brinsley MacNamara, had published a novel, The Valley of the Squinting Windows, in the previous year. This author, in pursuit of a rather warped variety of realism, doesn’t hesitate to lumber his characters with a good range of moral defects. The setting is significant. MacNamara plonks his people down in ‘the very middle of Ireland’ – where, we may suppose, Irish awfulness takes its fullest form. (Taking his cue from this location, perhaps, the parodist Flann O’Brien – with considerably more exuberance – creates his oddly sited Corkadoragha, in The Poor Mouth, from which views of Kerry, Donegal and Connemara are obtainable.) It wasn’t long, after this, before criticism of certain Irish attitudes took an overtly symbolic turn. Seumas O’Kelly’s The Weaver’s Grave of 1919, for example, embodies a few realities of the day in its very stylised goings-on in a graveyard.
All this was in defiance of Yeats’s embargo on huckster Ireland as a fit subject for Irish literature – and in the wake of Dubliners (the earliest triumph for Irish realism). John Wilson Foster puts his finger on a number of paradoxes connected with the literary renaissance, and among them is the paradox of Dubliners, in which various states of inertia – the pass Dublin has come to – are evoked with the utmost vigour.