Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation 
by Declan Kiberd.
Cape, 719 pp., £20, November 1995, 0 224 04197 5
Show More
Show More

‘The most important thing we have done is that we have made a modern art, taking our traditional art as a basis, adorning it with new material, solving contemporary problems with a national spirit,’ the Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch wrote in 1903. By the turn of the century, the national spirit had taken over most cultural activities in Catalonia, so that art, architecture and the Catalan language had become more powerful weapons in politics than resentment about Madrid’s handling of foreign or economic policy. The architects who worked on the new apartment blocks and public buildings in Barcelona between 1880 and 1910 began to play with a dual mandate, not merely innovative but Catalan as well, in an effort to create a national spirit in their buildings. They used the most modern methods available: in 1888 Domènech i Montaner used unadorned brick and industrial iron for his café-restaurant in the Parc de la Ciutadella; 16 years later he used a steel frame for his concert hall, El Palau de la Música Catalana, making it the first curtain-wall building in Spain and one of the first in the world. Both buildings sought to establish the progressive nature of the Catalan enterprise, but both are also laden with medieval motifs, reminders of former greatness, of the time before 1492 and the beginning of Castilian imperialism. Like most turn-of-the-century buildings in Barcelona they used Gothic and Romanesque references, spiky shapes, cave-like entrances, floral motifs in wrought iron, coloured glass or ceramic tiles, ornate sculpture, conveying both craft and opulence. They were intensely political buildings, and both Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch became leading politicians – Domènech i Montaner was one of the founders of the Lliga de Catalunya in 1887. Both were elected to the Cortes in Madrid to represent the Catalan cause.

I spent a year in Barcelona at the end of the Eighties, looking at these buildings, reading about these architects and thinking about their efforts to construct a nation. Sometimes, as I sat in the Biblioteca de Catalunya in the 14th-century hospital building, I had to blink to make sure that I was not in the National Library in Dublin. Some of the connections between Catalonia and Ireland during this period of nation-inventing were obvious: the Catalans founded a political party in the early Twenties called Nosaltres Sols, a direct translation of Sinn Fein – Ourselves Alone. There were poems in Catalan on the death of Terence MacSwiney on hunger strike in 1921. A stirring poem had been written in Catalan in 1848 which inspired a generation of nationalists; in the same year in Ireland Thomas Davis wrote the song ‘A Nation Once Again’. Both Catalan and Irish politicians could, and still can, play tricks with the arithmetic of the Cortes in Madrid and the Mother of Parliaments in Westminster.

But it was the general shape and atmosphere of Catalan cultural politics between 1890 and 1910 which constantly reminded me of Ireland. The foundation of the Barça football club, and its role in creating waves of Catalan emotion, was close to that of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland, founded in the same period. The fetishisation of certain parts of the landscape – Montseny, for example, or the Canigó – bore a great resemblance to the sanctity of the Aran Islands and the Blasket Islands in Ireland. The attempt by Yeats and Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde to surround the Gaelic past with holiness had loud echoes in the efforts by Catalan architects and artists, from Gaudí to Miró, to establish the Romanesque tradition as quintessentially Catalan while the rest of Spain was Moorish. And the attempt, too, by Yeats and Synge, and indeed Joyce, to embrace modernity and Europe as a way of keeping England at bay was close to Domènech’s use of iron and steel and modern systems while Spain slept. There were echoes, too, between the careers of Joyce and Picasso, who found all this rhetoric and invention too much for them, who viewed Dublin and Barcelona respectively as centres of paralysis, and who got the hell out as early as they could. And other echoes between the careers of the visionaries Yeats and Gaudí, one of whom embraced magic and the other extreme Catholicism, in a fraught political and emotional climate where everything from the self to the nation was open to invention.

Declan Kiberd tries in this vast, wide-ranging book to find various contexts in which the literature of the Irish Renaissance can be placed.

To write a deliberately new style, whether Hiberno-English or Whitmanian slang, was to seize power for new voices in literature ... Since there were no clear protocols for a national poet, Yeats and Whitman were compelled to charm an audience into being by the very tone of their own voices, assuming a people in order to prove that they were really there.

Whitman’s and Emerson’s efforts to invent America are regularly placed beside the efforts of Yeats and his friends to invent Ireland. Kiberd looks for Indian and African models for the Irish experience, so that figures such as Tagore and Rushdie, Naipaul and Achebe, Fanon and Nandy float on the surface of these pages.

Kiberd loves playing with paradoxes, oppositions and juxtapositions. Whenever the word ‘periphery’ appears in this book, it will almost certainly, by the next sentence, have become the ‘centre’, and the past the future (‘The past is the only certifiable future we have,’ Kiberd quotes Carlos Fuentes as saying), just as women will become men and vice versa (this is a major theme), Protestants will become Catholics and vice versa (one chapter is called ‘Protholics and Cathestants’) and, of course, England will become Ireland (Chapter 1 is entitled ‘A New England Called Ireland?’). This results in a good deal of fine writing and exciting analysis, but the playing with fixity is, at times, a mask for some very old-fashioned views on Irish nationalism and Irish history.

Kiberd tells us that Clontarf in Dublin is ‘the site of a famous victory by which the Irish had terminated Viking power in Europe’. There is a good reason why there is no footnote here: there is no evidence for this statement. It is the sort of thing which was included in school history books up to the Sixties, but even using the term ‘the Irish’ here is misleading.

In a book so concerned with flux and non-binary systems, such phrases fall with a dull thud. Later, without explanation or justification, Kiberd uses the phrase ‘occupied Ireland’ about Ireland in 1907. This is a phrase which might appear now and again in IRA propaganda, but it cannot be thrown casually into a book full of sophisticated distinctions. Elsewhere, Kiberd refers to the Dublin of Ulysses as ‘an occupied city’. It is hard not to feel that it was occupied by Leopold and Molly Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan and others too numerous to mention. Later, he writes: ‘After all, one of the first policies formulated by the Norman occupiers was to erase Gaelic culture.’ Once again, there is no footnote, no explanation. A few hundred pages earlier, through the medium of Joyce, he had acknowledged that ‘the Irish’ had roots all over the place (he lists Scandinavia, Normandy, Spain, England): how come the Normans, then, were ‘occupiers’?

These dull thuds are important because they give us a sense of the political baseline from which Kiberd is serving. He sets out to explore the origins of Irish national identity, how a number of writers and intellectuals imagined a country, how the country came into being and how we are destined to live there, in a place created by imagination and rhetoric and eccentric dreams. He writes with reverence about the central figures in this drama – Yeats, Douglas Hyde, Lady Gregory, Patrick Pearse – and, perhaps more significantly, manages to recruit figures such as Wilde, Joyce and Beckett, placing them posthumously in the pantheon of post-colonial writers who, by revolting into style, created a nation. He wants everyone who put pen to paper in Ireland in these years to lie down in the bed of nation-building, and he is clever enough, much of the time, to make his characters seem grander and more important, rather than cut down to size, because of their close involvement with Holy Mother Ireland.

Some texts were created, you feel, so that Kiberd could play his game with them. It is tempting to think that Shaw wrote John Bull’s Other Island and Brian Friel wrote Translations with Kiberd watching over them, egging them on. Both plays are full of the paradoxes proposed by England in Ireland and Ireland in England. The drama comes from the identity games which colonised and coloniser will play, the masks they will put on, the misunderstandings they will have. In both plays, Ireland and England are imaginary properties.

Kiberd is fascinated by the questions that Oscar Wilde’s presence in London raised about Ireland and England.

Wilde’s entire literary career constituted an ironic comment on the tendency of Victorian Englishmen to attribute to the Irish those emotions which they had repressed within themselves. His essays on Ireland question the assumption that, just because the English are one thing, the Irish must be its opposite. The man who believed that truth in art is that whose opposite is also true was quick to point out that every good man has the element of the woman in him, just as every sensitive Irishman must have a secret Englishman within himself – and vice versa.

It is useful for Kiberd to read Wilde in terms of Anglo-Irish tensions, and to see him ultimately as a martyr for the cause, a cross between St Sebastian and Kevin Barry, which is how Stephen Rea made him appear in Terry Eagleton’s play St Oscar. Kiberd’s reading remains tentative and convincing, but he is forced to leave a great deal out, such as Wilde’s homosexuality.

In taking only the aspects of Wilde and Shaw which fit with his theme, Kiberd comes close to distorting their careers and concerns, but when he comes to Yeats, he is more comfortable, and has more material to use. Yeats is the book’s presiding spirit. He is the one who really invented Ireland, and Kiberd delights in the attention he paid to the self while he did this, at the same time as running a theatre, reinventing a national literature, dabbling in magic, calling up the ghosts of the Gaelic past and spending a good deal of time in London.

Yeats offered a sort of grandeur to the class which had attended O’Connell’s monster meetings and relished Parnell’s mockery of the British Parliamentary system. ‘Rereading England,’ Kiberd writes, ‘the artists learned to rewrite Ireland, and so enabled an Irish Renaissance. In its critical thinking, it was largely a product of artists rather than academics.’ Kiberd does not deduce much from that, but the invention of Ireland by Yeats and his friends seems to me to have had some dire consequences for the citizens of Ireland, for the people who occupy the country. In this invention it was possible by using poems and plays, rather than pamphlets and economic argument, to create a vague consensus and a rhetoric of classlessness: a nation rather than a set of clashing interests. By establishing that ‘Ireland’ existed as an entity, it was easier for governments after Independence to indulge in constant nationalist rhetoric and self-justification while hundreds of thousands emigrated. Ireland is free, who dares complain? In Catalonia the nationalists viewed the loss of the colony of Cuba as a disaster, and had no difficulty opposing anarchism and socialism and, indeed, demands for wage increases as anti-national.

Kiberd tells the story of Ireland’s move towards independence with skill and serious analysis, from Douglas Hyde’s speech on ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland’ in November 1892, when there were only six books in print in the Irish language, through the founding of the Abbey Theatre, the first productions of Synge, the writings of Pearse, up to the 1916 Rising. Kiberd likes to deal with the Irish Revival at its most noble and idealistic; that is part of the reason, I assume, for this book. Thus he can write: ‘The Gaelic obscurantist, the anti-intellectual priest and the propagandist politician were all as inimical to the revivalist ideal as were the empire men or the shallow cosmopolitans.’ This may be the case, but it is likely that all three in the first list enjoyed some aspects of the Revival, and took advantage of it whenever they could.

Kiberd manages most of the time to repel the attacks of Joyce and O’Casey on the invention of Ireland. O’Casey is no use to him: he had no interest in Anglo-Irish paradoxes, he lived in a real rather than an imagined Ireland and he wrote accordingly. ‘O’Casey’s code,’ Kiberd writes, ‘scarcely moved beyond a sentimentalisation of victims, and this in turn led him to a profound distrust of anyone who makes an idea the basis of an action.’ He wants O’Casey’s plays to contain ‘the essential criticism of the code’ to which they ‘finally adhere’.

Kiberd quotes from Joyce’s story ‘A Mother’: ‘When the Irish Revival began to be appreciable, Mrs Kearney determined to take advantage of her daughter’s name and brought an Irish teacher to the house ... People said that [her daughter] was very clever at music and a very nice girl, and, moreover, that she was a believer in the language movement. Mrs Kearney was well content with this.’ Ulysses, Kiberd later writes, ‘is one of the first major literary utterances in the modern period by an artist who spoke for a newly liberated people’. I take it he means here that Ulysses appeared in 1922, the same year as the foundation of the Irish Free State. Were Mrs Kearney and her daughter, I wonder, part of the ‘newly liberated people’? It is hard to think of a phrase less apposite for the transfer of power.

The battle for the soul of Joyce has become almost as intense in recent years as the battle for the GPO in Easter Week. Seamus Deane and Kiberd, both of whom have edited Penguin editions of Joyce’s fiction, have made efforts to dragoon him into the soldiers of destiny. In his essay on Joyce in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Deane wrote that Joyce ‘remained, at one level, an anti-clerical Irish nationalist with socialist leanings, close to Fenianism and even closer to the position of Michael Davitt’. In Inventing Ireland, Kiberd writes: ‘Yet into his own exile Joyce took with him the ancient Gaelic notion that only in literature can the consciousness of the people be glimpsed.’ Again, there is no footnote. Joyce, he writes, ‘attempted in Ulysses to unleash a plurality of voices which would together sound the notes that moved beyond nationalism to liberation’. There is much evidence both in the few newspaper articles which Joyce wrote in Italian and in his fiction that he viewed Irish nationalism and the whole business of inventing Ireland as a sour joke. Phrases like ‘beyond nationalism to liberation’ or ‘a newly liberated people’ would have been given short shrift in the pages of Ulysses.

For Joyce, the idea of England, or Britain, as a mainland was an even sourer joke than Irish nationalism. He himself, rather than any society or nation, was the centre, in a way that no writer from an imperial power could ever be. He knew two sets of tricks; he knew, as Kiberd puts it, ‘that fantasy, untouched by any sense of reality, is only a decadent escapism, while reality, unchallenged by any element of fantasy, is a merely squalid realism’. But he was not a political idealist, and the Ireland he invented was not the Ireland of the Revival, or of Pearse and Yeats, and he cannot be treated as part of the same tradition, just as he cannot be treated as apolitical.

We come then to the 1916 Rising, famed in song and story. In a few sentences on pages 329 and 330 Kiberd becomes very brave, and writes that ‘the Rising and Ulysses can be interpreted in rather similar ways: as attempts to achieve, in the areas of politics and literature, the blessings of modernity and the liquidation of its costs.’ But they cannot be interpreted in the same way at all. Literary critics writing about history and politics often mistake them for texts, and this is the real problem with Kiberd’s book and, indeed, with the Ireland that was invented – this both gives the book its importance and explains a great deal about Ireland. Not enough distinction is made between what was imagined and what happened, between the rhetoric of Pearse (which happened, but is unreal) and the characters of O’Casey (who never happened but are, nonetheless, real).

‘By 1913,’ Kiberd writes, ‘Pearse had endowed Synge with the saintliness of his own putative sacrifice – to be made three years later – for the work of art called Ireland.’ In his chapter on the Rising and the playboys of the GPO, he quotes Yeats:

When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,
What stalked through the Post Office? What intellect,
What calculation, number, measurement replied?

‘And the answer,’ according to Kiberd, ‘was in due time: India, Egypt, Nigeria and so on.’

The old school book version of the Rising was that all the efforts of cultural nationalism led to it, and that it resulted in independence. But nobody much accepts this version any more. It is not accepted, for example, in Joe Lee’s Ireland: Politics and Society 1912-1986 or Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland. Cultural nationalism did not lead to the Rising, though it may have been in part responsible for it; the executions after the Rising certainly inflamed public opinion, but not as much perhaps as the threat of conscription. Also, the myth of the Rising was easy to spread in the years afterwards when all the leaders but one – de Valera – were dead, and Yeats was ready to publish his poem ‘Easter 1916’.

‘They must have been the gentlest revolutionaries in history,’ Kiberd writes. But no one holding a gun is gentle, as O’Casey makes clear. Kiberd is prepared to accept the old school-book version, and prepared to castigate Roy Foster for his tentative version of the events and patronise him thereafter as a patriotic Southern Irish Protestant ‘who believes that the most useful service which he can perform for his people is the devaluation of a nationalism, some of whose disciples are still willing to kill and be killed in its defence’. (I notice that he does not patronise Joe Lee in this way; could it be because he is not a Protestant?) But this is hardly the point; the point is how we approach the Rising: with Kiberd, who views it as part of a grand narrative, as though history had been written by Flaubert, or with Foster, who is wary about the myths surrounding the central moments in Irish history and seeks to examine the past using merely the available evidence.

No one is dispassionate. Kiberd is not a historian, but this does not dent his confidence in sticking to the story we all read in the schoolbooks, which he is the last to believe. Yet, as in all the other sections of the book, there are questions he asks and points he makes about the relationship between literature and history which take your breath away and make you want to tell him to come home all is forgiven: ‘To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical.’

The debate about 1916 continues to haunt us in the Republic for good reasons, best explained by the poet Michael O’Loughlin: ‘It is, I believe, almost impossible for anyone of my generation to think about 1916 as an actual event in history, discrete and autonomous. The way in which 1916 had been presented to us was an important process in our understanding of the nature of our society, and of ourselves. For my generation’ – O’Loughlin was born in 1958 – ‘the events of Easter 1966 were crucial, so much so that I think it is almost possible to speak of a generation of ’66.’

In 1966 the state celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Rising with enormous gusto, with marches in which schools took part and rousing speeches and an emotional television series called Insurrection, broadcast nightly. But once the North broke and the IRA campaign recommenced, the state’s attitude changed. ‘In an act of astonishing political opportunism,’ O’Loughlin wrote, ‘1916 was revised. By 1976, and the 60th celebrations, a different tune was being played. For people of my generation, who were and who are, in an important sense, neither Republican nor non-Republican, this was a lesson they would never forget. To see history so swiftly rewritten was to realise that what was called history was in fact a façade behind which politicians manoeuvred for power.’

The rebels, Kiberd writes with approval, ‘staged the Rising as street theatre’. Pearse ‘saw that, in a traditionalist society, it is vitally necessary to gift-wrap the gospel of the future in the packaging of the past. This Connolly also did when he presented socialism as a return to the Celtic system whereby a chief held land in the common name of all the people. Joyce adopted a similar tactic when he concealed the subversive narrative of Ulysses beneath the cover of one of Europe’s oldest stories, The Odyssey.’ Kiberd is prepared to treat the Rising in the terms in which some of its leaders sought to present it. But it was not a text: it involved the burning of buildings, the execution of prisoners, the shooting of soldiers, the murder of civilians. And it also used the idea of theatre and text – Kiberd calls it a performance – to create a cult of violence. I loathe everything about it; every single moment of it. And the stuff about ‘the Celtic system whereby a chief held land in the common name if all the people’ is pure nonsense.

In 1991, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Rising, there were calls to retransmit Insurrection, but the television station refused on the basis that it was too inflammatory. There were a few half-hearted public ceremonies, presided over by the Taoiseach, but hardly anyone attended. However, the Government sponsored a scheme called the Flaming Door in which Irish writers were invited to read their work during Easter in appropriate places such as the GPO or the jail where the leaders had been executed. When in doubt, they brought in the artists.

We have to live here and face the idea that our state was built on these dreams and texts, on this violence. It is easy to be in a rage with the cult of the Rising, but then Kiberd ends a chapter with the following: ‘In the aftermath of the Rising, as the poetry and prose of the rebel leaders were widely circulated among a sympathetic American audience, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett published essays critical of them in the United States. The poets’ crazy dream was to be countered by some of the leading practitioners of modern English prose.’ I realise when I read this passage that if I had a choice between the ambiguous heritage left by Pearse and Yeats and the unambiguous legacy of Wells, Galsworthy and Bennett, I am happier on this side – the Irish side – of the Irish Sea: it is hard to imagine how you would get through the day with the dryness of the other heritage. But I still hate the Rising, and Kiberd’s chapter on it has not helped me. I was the only writer, as far as I am aware, who refused the invitation to take part in the Flaming Door. I left the country for Easter Week 1991.

Once Yeats’s career has come to an end – and Kiberd has much of interest to say about it – it is difficult to see where Inventing Ireland can go. It is depressing to watch him treating de Valera as a text: ‘De Valera’s pastoral politics owed much to Thomas Jefferson, sharing his hope of having things both ways, of avoiding the savagery of absolute, untamed nature, and also the desiccation of great modern cities.’ He goes on to write about the ideal Ireland of the nationalists as ‘a political version of literary modernism which compensated for all that was lost in the consumer society by emphasising the complexity, beauty and quality of many traditions. It was in this sense that the cultural values promoted by Yeats and Synge could be both very new and very old, evoking Adam and a perpetual Last Judgment.’ He reads Ireland in the Thirties, with its rampant emigration, poverty and class division, as though it were Yeats’s Last Poems. He refuses to deal with the grubbiness of Irish politics after Independence, reading it as though it were a medieval illuminated manuscript rather than a politics rife with opportunism, hypocrisy and failure.

Ireland continued and continues to be invented by writers, mainly these days by Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney. Most other writers, however, do not inhabit a universe shaped by Ireland’s relationship to its past or to England, thus it is difficult for Kiberd to have much to say about John Banville or Tom Murphy or Derek Mahon. And there are other writers, such as John McGahern, to whom these old dreams and inventions mean nothing at all, or those who found or find them worthy merely of jokes and asides, such as Flann O’Brien or Paul Muldoon. Inventing Ireland, in the sense that Yeats invented Ireland, has stopped; writers now invent other sorts of Ireland, and it is not necessary to read their work politically.

Is Beckett, then, the one who got away? Kiberd has him ‘deeply moved’ sixty years later by his memory of watching Dublin burning in 1916. He deals here with Beckett and his relationship to the Gaelic, rather than the nationalist, tradition, placing the origin of his interest in language and silence in the death of the Irish language. (‘It will be dead in time, just like our own poor dear Gaelic, there is that to be said,’ says Mrs Rooney in All that Fall.) One can presume that Murphy wanted his ashes flushed down the toilet of the Abbey Theatre, because Beckett thought that this was a good joke – the building in which Ireland had been so intensely invented he viewed with amusement, even scorn perhaps. But Kiberd is having none of this. He wants to make Beckett’s tramps stand for much more than tramps: he wants them to be cast-out Gaelic poets. He wants the idea of ‘A voice comes to one in the dark’ in ‘Company’ to reflect the habit of Gaelic poets who composed in the dark. But the dark here surely has to be a real, literal dark without any literary resonance or echo. A dark from which the Irish heritage, like all heritage, has been stripped away, the dark before death, the darkness that is death. To find an Irish origin for ‘Company’ is to take all its power away.

Yet Kiberd here, as in much of the book, manages to keep his interpretation intriguing; his analysis is constantly full of fancy footwork. Also, he is right when he writes:

The voices which Beckett heard and committed to paper for the rest of his life as an artist were unambiguously Irish. Occasionally, they bore faint Wildean echoes, as in the inversion of a famous quotation or proverb, but more often they were austere, controlled, pared back. The promise of Yeats and Joyce to take revivalist rhetoric and wring its neck was being brought to a strict conclusion.

It is not easy to bring Kiberd’s project to a strict conclusion. He is not good at dealing with matters which do not fit into his grand plan. He alludes several times to the Gaelic writers from the Blasket Islands, but he does not deal with the fact that, surviving at the very heart of ‘the nation’, they had no time for it, they were too interested in the world. In a way, it is that tradition, the attempt to describe the known world through attention to detail, the placing of a small community at the centre of the universe, which has survived and flourished in Ireland. It belongs to a book called ‘Not Inventing Ireland’ in which Joyce and O’Casey and the writers of the Blasket Islands led to Kavanagh and McGahern, with Beckett and Banville nearby; in which writers ignored the idea of Ireland and concentrated on communities or formal questions and made the whole idea of Irish nationalism a sick joke or a burden or a lie. The idea that we all inhabit both an invented and a non-invented Ireland may help explain why people emigrate from here whenever there is an economic crisis.

In his final chapter Kiberd takes issue with Ireland: Politics and Society 1912-1986, in which Joe Lee makes clear that Ireland’s economic performance after the British withdrawal was worse than under the British. Lee compares the Irish performance with that of other countries of a similar size, such as Denmark, which, Kiberd says, ‘did not undergo the long nightmare of colonial expropriation and misrule’. Nor were these countries dreamed into existence by a mixture of poetry and violence. Kiberd blames colonisation for bad economic performance, but it is just as likely that the way in which Ireland was invented, with so much emphasis on the Gaelic past and foreign occupation and so little on how people lived and what they wanted, meant that economic performance would never be a priority for an Irish government.

This book is a complex and fascinating account of a golden age in Irish writing, or a version of the way self-delusion, fanaticism and rhetoric can capture the soul of a small, fragile place and make it into the nation from which we are still trying to awake. As always, it depends on your politics.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 18 No. 10 · 23 May 1996

In his review of Inventing Ireland (LRB, 18 April) Colm Tóibín mentions ‘the paradoxes, oppositions and juxtapositions’ that characterise Declan Kiberd’s style. If Kiberd’s flamboyance almost invites controversy, Tóibín’s generally understated prose sometimes conceals surprising confusions and contradictions. Buying into Kiberd’s literary-critical vocabulary, he presents Irish nationalism as the creation of writers and artists in the decades before 1916, and the state as ‘a place created by imagination and rhetoric and eccentric dreams’. Elsewhere, the country is ‘dreamed into existence by a mixture of poetry and violence’. In fact, looking at the genesis of the 1916 Rising, Tóibín himself commits the fault for which, in one sentence, he first criticises Kiberd – ‘Literary critics writing about history and politics often mistake them for texts, and this is the real problem with Kiberd’s book’; and then praises him: ‘and, indeed, with the Ireland that was invented – this both gives the book its importance and explains a great deal about Ireland.’ In other words, Kiberd is wrong; Ireland is wrong; but two wrongs make a right, and so Kiberd’s book becomes important and insightful.

Soon, without modifying his dream-theory of Irish nationalism, Tóibín is informing us that ‘cultural nationalism did not lead to the Rising, though it may have been in part responsible for it.’ Bored perhaps with such a prosaic idea, he quickly reverts to his dream-theory: ‘The idea that we all inhabit both an invented and a non-invented Ireland may help explain why people emigrate from here whenever there is an economic crisis.’ The desire for a fuller belly, more money and better prospects may also be relevant.

The fastidious Tóibín must rejoice not to have been born in France or the USA: the legacy of bloody revolution and military adventure and conquest would be too much to contemplate. Oddly enough, his fastidiousness is selective. Like the Irish Republicans whom he abominates, he pays no real attention to Britain. Isn’t it just possible that the origins of Irish nationalist violence may lie not so much in dream-haunted minds as in Ireland’s historical geography: flanking a dynamic, nationalist/imperialist, expansionist world power, set – sometimes distractedly, sometime systematically – on controlling an unruly neighbour which could provide a foothold for rival powers or for internal dissent? And is it surprising that resistance to such control followed various channels over the centuries, swelling and subsiding as circumstances changed?

The curious convergence between Tóibín and the enemy he loves to hate can also be seen in his dismissal of the Irish Parliamentary tradition. From O’Connell to Parnell to Redmond, and on to the Free State, Irish nationalism has shown a remarkable attachment to Parliamentary democracy. With the exception of the Fenian movement in the 1860s, political – non-agrarian – violence was very rare in the century preceding 1916. Tóibín will not have reflected on the message sent to nationalist Ireland by the proscription of O’Connell’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily peaceful) mass meetings in favour of Repeal of the Union, a message reinforced in 1912-14 when the British Army, the Lords and the Conservative Party under Bonar Law bent to the threat of violence from their friends in the Ulster Volunteers, inspiring Pearse and his friends to emulate their methods. But the reaction was rather different on this occasion. Picking up on the fact that H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett wrote to counter the nationalist view of the 1916 Rising in the American press, Tóibín says: ‘I realise when I read this passage that if I had a choice between the ambiguous heritage left by Pearse and Yeats and the unambiguous legacy of Wells, Galsworthy and Bennett, I am happier on this side – the Irish side – of the Irish Sea; it is hard to see how you could get through the day with the dryness of the other heritage.’ Here we go again – the irrational, poetic, unreliable Irish v. the prosaic, decent, dull British. We need not waste our tears on Tóibín as he impales himself on the horns of an imaginary dilemma. The fact is that the modern British prose tradition is both richer and more ambiguous than he chooses to think. And why not compare poet with poet, ambiguity with ambiguity? What of Kipling, Sir Henry Newbolt, Lawrence? It was very easy for an English writer to be unambiguous about Irish violence against the British Army. The real test lies in the attitude of the writer to violence carried out in the name of Britain, or the Empire.

Barra O’Seághdha

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences