While Colm Tóibín, understandably, emphasises Catholic dominance in Southern Ireland (LRB, 22 May), he ignores the persistent anti-clerical tradition. People may have been moved by the piety of the leaders of the 1916 rebellion as they awaited execution, but they supported the subsequent war for independence, contrary to the stern advice of their pastors. Dublin supported Parnell right to the end; the bitter Christmas dinner scene in Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist represented a heart-felt schism. With the formation of the state in 1922, anti-clericalism went subterranean. But in the Forties and Fifties, many working-class men went to Mass ‘for the sake of the children’, and because their wives told them to, at the same time making obvious their contempt for all in the cloth. An old Communist in Dublin told me how members of the local Catholic Solidarity responded to such contempt by squirting holy water from a water-pistol through his letter-box to purify the tenement.
In Colm Tóibín’s world Irish Catholicism emerges out of nowhere with mysterious power in the last century. The Catholic Church’s drive to implant itself in the minds of Irish people and to establish itself ineradicably on the landscape through the building of schools, seminaries, convents and orphanages can be seen, in part, as the typical will-to-power of that extraordinary institution. In an Irish context, it can also be seen as a form of over-compensation for the variety of religious apartheid that characterised Ireland in the previous century, during much of which almost all the social, political, educational and economic power was controlled by a Protestant minority. Tóibín quotes approvingly from The Moral Monopoly by Tom Inglis – ‘It was peculiar to Ireland, and it was to have a lasting effect, that the whole civilising process took place in and through the Catholic Church’ – and blandly accepts the word ‘civilising’, with all the colonialist freight it carries. For the colonised mind the switch from Gaelic to English is inherently civilising. Modernisation, state schooling and anglicisation – these were not exclusively mediated through the Church. Nor was ‘a native rural bourgeoisie’ entirely absent.
On the Catholic nature of the 1916 Rising, Tóibín accepts uncritically those parts of Kenny’s book that suit his own pick-’n’-mix approach to history. Thus (via Kenny, via Tóibín) Conor Cruise O’Brien ‘points out that the emphasis on the Catholic nature of the Rising made the partition of Ireland almost inevitable’. Realistically, partition had become almost inevitable several years before when, in reaction to the prospect of a very limited form of Home Rule for Ireland (under the Crown), the Ulster Volunteers had been formed and armed. This momentous event had taken place under the benign eye of the police, with the approval of the Conservative Party under Bonar Law, and was unopposed by key elements in the Army. The message was clear, particularly as Carson was soon to be invited into the War Cabinet. All this merits precisely half a sentence in O’Brien’s Ancestral Voices.
Curiously, Tóibín fails to mention the Ulster Protestant Roger Casement, hanged for his part in the Rising, who became a hero to nationalists, even though his homosexuality had been publicised by British propagandists. Tóibín also fails to grasp how heretical Pearse’s sacral nationalism was: it placed national over individual salvation, and conferred political sainthood on such non-Catholics as Tone, Emmet and Mitchell. Given the Catholic Church’s anti-revolutionary pact with the authorities in 1795, its denunciation of the Fenians (and of Parnell after the Split), its defusing and Catholicisation of the potentially dangerous 1798 centenary celebrations, its Flatley-like leap from the old Home Rule establishment to the new Free State order, and its carefully controlled retrospective blessing of revolt (once real revolution was excluded) – is it not a tribute to the success of the Catholic Church’s manoeuvrings that ‘post-Catholic’ Irish liberals like Tóibín are still in thrall to its version of history?
Barra Ó Séaghdha
Academy of English
Five years ago, at the James Joyce Symposium in Dublin, I visited an exhibition of dust-jackets in the Irish Writers Museum designed for what was hopefully advertised as John Kidd’s Dublin edition of Ulysses. Kidd, who opened ‘one of the ugliest academic disputes in memory’, as Lawrence Rainey rightly points out (LRB, 19 June), has never fulfilled his promise to relieve eager Joyceans from teutonic drudgery by delivering his ground-breaking new Ulysses. Now, a freelance editor from Chapelizod has taken to the field unarmed – with no academic apparatus to shield him against popular oblivion (the people may refrain from buying his edition or acknowledging his work) and academic crossfire. Could it be that Rainey argues pro domo, for American academia, when he turns on the Irish editor in the wilderness, just as Kidd voiced the discontent of those who resented Gabler’s success in securing the right to edit Ulysses for European Joyceans against the Joyce Industry nine years ago?
Janette Turner Hospital (Letters, 5 June) if I’ve got her right, has got me all wrong. If I described her cult-death novel Oyster as silly, it wasn’t for being like the fiction of Joyce or Proust. The names of Joyce and Proust didn’t come to mind as I made my way through Turner Hospital, and I’m not entirely persuaded even by her own insistence on the continuities. There is, though – and I’m still sure of this – material in Oyster for a great made-for-TV movie, and who could say that of Joyce or Proust?
Graham McCann (Letters, 24 April) may find my (inconclusive) evidence regarding Cary Grant’s homosexuality unpersuasive. However, what I find much more unpersuasive is McCann’s insistence against the odds – and the available evidence – that the ageless icon had to be a superstud heterosexual because he married all those women. Five, count ’em! But what if Grant had married fifty? More to the point, what if he’d married only one or two – would the jury still be out? Surely after all these Freudian years we can accept that the marrying of many women, especially in Hollywood, is a guarantee of SFA: it can be used to prove anything from impotence to rampant priapism to infantilism to Oedipal outrage. Why would McCann in his biography of Grant insist otherwise? It seems from my reading as if he would find the slightest suggestion of non-heterosexuality threatening to his personal vision of Cary Grant, superstar, as if Archie Leach’s Cary Grantness would wither for ever in the absence of a Guaranteed Grade-A Het branded on its haunches.
When he was starting out in Hollywood Grant shared a Hollywood bungalow for some years with Randolph Scott (who also married – and became, incidentally, one of the wealthiest people in Hollywood history). What do we deduce from this? Nothing, McCann would insist, except that the studio was sufficiently worried about appearances that they arranged for Grant and Scott to be photographed, as a send-up, cooking for each other in the kitchen, wearing frilly aprons – a photograph which, it appears, was never released, but found its way into Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.
Last month in the New Yorker, in a review largely devoted to McCann’s book, Brendan Gill wrote that
Grant was obliged by studio fiat to endure a quasi-comic role not unlike the roles he played on-screen. The New York photographer Jerome Zerbe, who, strikingly handsome and flirtatious, was a lover of both Grant and Scott, used to tell me of how Grant and he in the Thirties were obliged to honour the prevailing Hollywood taboos and at the same time generate favourable publicity in movie magazines and among Grant’s doting fan clubs. To that end, Grant was reported in the press to be enjoying an impassioned affair with the starlet Betty Furness. Night after night, he took the good-natured Furness out to dinner and returned her to her apartment promptly at ten o’clock, after which Zerbe and he and assorted companions went out on the town … Poor Cary Grant! What about all the men he was attracted to in his youth and with whom he sought to form permanent relationships, always in vain? The story of that struggle, often heartbreaking, remains to be told.
McCann says the struggle never existed.
I wish John Kerrigan had engaged with the substance of my contribution in his recent review of the collection of essays edited by John Morrill and myself under the title of The British Problem (LRB, 5 June). Instead he resorts to the soft option of an ad hominem put-down by presenting it as an unreflecting regurgitation of the ‘nationalist narrative’ which he – and I, he implies – imbibed as pupils of the Christian Brothers. Interestingly, it seems he emancipated himself from his malformation by devoting himself to the study of English literature at Oxbridge. Perhaps it may be useful to put the record straight as regards my formation as a historian.
My last contact with the Christian Brothers’ version of Irish history was at the age of 12. In the junior forms of secondary school I was taught history by a lay teacher. In the senior forms I was not taught it at all. The Christian Brothers regarded physics as more important. I elected to study history on my own as a subject for the Leaving Certificate. As an undergraduate I was exposed to the chilly winds of revisionism then in full spate at University College Dublin under the aegis of Robin Dudley Edwards and Desmond Williams, ably abetted by such Young Turks as Hugh Kearney – like John Kerrigan Liverpool-Irish. I found my voice and my intellectual perspective on Irish history as a research student at that well-known bastion of Irish Catholic nationalism, Cambridge, under the tutelage of that true-green Irish Catholic Sir Geoffrey Elton, a mentor to whom I remain hugely indebted. However, the major formative influence on me in the course of my research, as I recall, was the testimony of the archives themselves at the Public Record Office and the British Museum (as it then was). I had gone to these with all the assumptions of a revisionist neophyte. The weight of the evidence forced me to conclude that the nationalist ‘myth’ – like most myths that survive in popular memory – contained an important truth which needed to be recovered and probed by professional historians rather than mindlessly debunked by the revisionist barrage. It was only at that stage that I discovered that my approach was shared by two very great historians of medieval Ireland: Edmund Curtis, of English Protestant stock, who professed history at Trinity College Dublin, and Eoin McNeill, the bête noire of Irish republicans.
Queens’ College, Cambridge
I would be the first to agree with John Kerrigan that historians should be ‘self-aware about the political pressures which determine the topics they choose to research’. But even when one has allowed for the fact that no interest in the past, no matter how arcane, can be innocent of current concerns and assumptions, it is still far from clear that the first response to that hard-won self-knowledge should be an orgy of anachronism and present-mindedness without guilt. One might have conceded, albeit after considering far more historical contingencies, mediations and might-have-beens than Kerrigan’s vision of the historical process appears to allow, some relatively tenuous connections between the Early Modern period and aspects of recent events in Northern Ireland. But while one might follow Kerrigan rather half-heartedly down the road to Belfast, the route from the Boyne to Brussels seems a road decidedly not worth taking.
In fact, the problem with ‘the British problem’ involves precisely the lack of such a self-awareness among its proponents. There is a largely unexamined politics of contemporary relevance at the heart of the whole enterprise which has seemed to be leading, in some renditions of the period and some versions of a unitary British problem, to a reading back of entirely contemporary concerns into the 17th century, where they have no place. A whole set of nationalist, party-political, cultural and personal/scholarly agendas can be served by such a process, but writing sensibly about events in 17th-century England, Scotland and Ireland is not one of them.
Jerry Fodor’s review of Peter Høeg and Will Self’s novels (LRB, 19 June) was, as he put it, good enough for a read in the bath. However, his assertion that putting a fulcrum sufficiently far out would increase the leverage of one’s voice would have made Archimedes leap out of the water and run naked through the streets. Moving the fulcrum in the manner described would in fact reduce the leverage. It is by increasing the separation of fulcrum and effort, not load, that leverage is increased, which is why Archimedes, whose effort was the potentially motive force, only asked for a long enough lever and a remote enough place to stand in order to move the Earth.
I am puzzled as to why Derek Hughes (Letters, 5 June)should be so indignantly determined to misconstrue my comments about the style and emphasis of Janet Todd’s eminently scholarly biography of Aphra Behn as allegations of ignorance. I thought I had made it clear that my reservations are, if anything, of exactly the opposite tendency, to the effect that Todd spends too much time conscientiously counting the trees (whether newly-discovered or hypothetical) to convince me that she has much of a feel for this particular wood.
What is especially puzzling is that at the same time Hughes seems to want to exaggerate the ease of the feat which Todd has attempted. I don’t think it at all ‘preposterous’ to compare Behn unfavourably with Shakespeare as a potential subject for biography. Despite the best efforts of the lunatic fringe, we are far more certain that the author of the Shakespeare canon was the firstborn son of John and Mary Shakespeare of Stratford baptised on 26 April 1564 than we are ever likely to be about whether Aphra Behn was the Eaffrey Johnson born at Harbledown on 14 December 1640, and not only do we know when and whom Shakespeare married and how many children he had but we can even see each one’s share of his estate in his will. Whatever Hughes may think, biographers usually care quite a lot about matters like date and place of birth, antecedents, marriage, children and testaments, and with these sorted out the biographer of Shakespeare surely has a substantial head start over the biographer of Behn, for whom all of them, as Todd’s Introduction acknowledges, must inevitably remain in the realm of the probable and the possible.
There’s nothing ill-informed about Todd’s various attempts to compensate for this disadvantage by her readings of Behn’s work and its contexts, quite the contrary: but there’s something about her tone that seems so out of sympathy with her subject – something so apparently unresponsive to what makes Behn’s plays exciting and distinctive as plays – that her erudition is inclined to lapse into exhaustive mugging up. I am sorry that Hughes doesn’t seem to share my sense of the difference.
Mina Loy’s The Lost Lunar Baedeker, edited by Roger Conover, which was reviewed by Jane Eldridge Miller (LRB, 19 June), will be published in the UK by Carcanet in September. Carcanet also published Mina Loy’s collected poems, The Last Lunar Baedeker, in 1985, introducing Loy to British readers.
In the issue of 5 June, the final line of Simon Armitage’s poem ‘The Ram’ was swallowed by our computer. The poem in full is as follows:
Half-dead, hit by a car, the whole of its form
a jiggle of nerves, like a fish on a lawn.
To help finish it off, he asked me to stand
on its throat, as a friend might ask a friend
to hold, with a finger, the twist of a knot.
Then he lifted its head, wheeled it about
by the ammonite, handlebar shells of its horns
till its eyes, on stalks, looked back at its bones.
Editors, ‘London Review’
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