Kenneth Branagh ’s Belfast is set in the early months of the Troubles, in a mixed working-class district that is cleared of its Catholic residents by a loyalist mob. Paving stones are lifted to barricade the end of the street. Neighbourhood vigilantes are replaced by paramilitaries and the British army. Though the representation of events is spare and often stylised, the film catches the impact of the crisis not just on smashed and burned terraced houses but on the fabric of everyday decency.
At the heart of Belfast is a version of Branagh’s own Protestant family in 1969. Buddy, the Branagh figure, played by Jude Hill, lives with his older brother and hard-pressed mother (Catríona Balfe), while his father (Jamie Dornan) comes and goes: he works as a joiner in England. A British soldier quips that he hopes Pa isn’t a joiner in one of the new armed groups: there was a UVF bombing campaign in 1969 and it was the year the Provisional IRA was founded. But the joke points to a deeper resistance to sectarianism. ‘There is no our side and their side on our street,’ Pa tells his sons. When a loyalist gunman pressures him to join up or pay protection money, he refuses.
Pa isn’t a one-off: this is a film about family values and how they are passed on. His own father is a ‘deep thinker’, who has seen a bit of the world and quotes Yeats, while his mother, played by Judi Dench (with an erratic Belfast accent), is enduringly supportive. Contact with the old folks helps stabilise Buddy’s household despite money worries and the strain of Pa working away. Domestic tensions are compounded by larger shifts in the culture. Buddy fears he is damned after hearing a livid sermon that could have been preached in 1690 to the followers of King Billy; yet the Swinging Sixties are coming. Ma has glamorous outfits and the film has a Van Morrison soundtrack. When he is caught up in the looting of a supermarket, Buddy snatches the latest must-have, a box of biological washing powder. There is a sense of opportunity in the air that anyone brought up at the time in a working-class city will remember. Inside Belfast is a Ken Loach movie about Ma deciding whether she can leave these tight-knit streets to start a new life in Canada or Australia (Pa gets the brochures). As threats from the paramilitaries escalate, emigration becomes inevitable.
One complaint about the film is that it ignores the origins of the violence in the ill-treatment of Catholics by the state. And it’s true that the RUC man who calls on Buddy’s home to question him about nicking a bar of Turkish Delight from Mr Singh’s corner shop would have been a lot less friendly if he’d been visiting a house in the Lower Falls. But Branagh leaves this point implicit. If anything, the film eases its way into the favour of liberal audiences by ignoring the armed activities of republicans before the riots of August 1969. It is actually most subversive in showing working-class Protestants in a good light.
The focus on the family owes much to the time of the film’s inception at the start of the Covid pandemic. ‘Some of the circumstances,’ Branagh said a few months ago, ‘reflected and resonated with today’s preoccupations around the pandemic – confinement and concern for the safety of yourself and your family.’ Belfast is a Covid movie not just because it presents the home as a redoubt against public danger but because it explores the impulse to self-impose a siege and accept a tightly monitored environment. All the more impressive, then, that it pushes back against the morbid and precautionary aspects of lockdown.
It did no harm to the film’s reception that the insecurities induced by Covid were compounded in Northern Ireland by Brexit. While Belfast was in production, loyalists were becoming agitated about the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nationalists and republicans also had a concern (or in the case of dissidents a hope) that the DUP’s preference for a full-on Brexit would have the contrary effect of pushing the six counties back towards the border infrastructure that had proved divisive before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Loyalism is now adrift and frustrated, with the most hard-line reverting to attitudes current in 1969. The success of Sinn Féin in the May elections added fuel to the fire, while the death of Elizabeth II and the recent census result, showing a Catholic majority in the North, are sure to increase unease.
But loyalism has never been just one thing, and in Northern Protestants Susan McKay finds people from staunch unionist backgrounds voting Alliance and calling out sexual exploitation by community leaders, just as their contemporaries in the Republic are dealing with the legacy of clerical abuse. Most DUP voters, McKay reminds us, are in favour of abortion under some circumstances. Some are openly LGBTQ+. They think internationally. Many would agree that ‘people are bored of Green and Orange politics.’ Although liberalisation is limited and the Stormont version of power-sharing has reinforced the Balkanisation of communities, changes long underway in the Republic have been advancing across the North.
The mass of scholarship published in Irish Studies since the start of the pandemic shows related shifts. Work is still being published that has the stamp of 1969 on it. Inevitably so in the case of Small World, a collection of the work of Seamus Deane, who died last year. The book includes two pamphlets written during the darkest period of the Troubles. ‘Civilians and Barbarians’ (1983) takes the long view, as Deane often does, arguing that the English and British authorities asserted their civility the better to use law and force against the Irish, from Spenser’s long-haired wood kerns through the Fenians to the Hunger Strikers. ‘Heroic Styles’ (1984) proposes, equally provocatively, that Yeats and Joyce contributed to the logjam of the North. Both essays are vigilant, authoritative and tendentious, with Deane jesting about the Provos and diagnosing in Yeats – a romantic nationalist and a probable initiate of the Irish Republican Brotherhood – ‘the pathology of literary unionism’.
Those essays were early steps in a long journey, along with Celtic Revivals (1985), which unpicks the myths about Ireland passed on by the Literary Revival at the turn of the 20th century and delivers incisive judgments on a series of major figures, and the precociously magisterial Short History of Irish Literature (1986). Deane had a Marxist mode that could be abstract but was grounded in his hard upbringing in the Bogside. He put Derry into Derrida and worked with Edward Said. That Ireland was a colonial, and postcolonial, country became a given of Field Day, the theatre company and cultural powerhouse driven by his directorship. Whether his focus was on the 6, the 26 or the 32 counties, Deane was never an exceptionalist. He thought about Ireland in relation to British Romanticism – as in his wiry, dense Strange Country (1997) – and Revolutionary France, the focus of his doctorate. More recent essays in Small World take Irish writing into world literature.
Deane was prodigious and versatile: he also wrote poetry and an atmospheric novel, Reading in the Dark (1996). Joe Cleary is surely right, in his well-informed introduction, to place Deane in the company of such writer-critics as Yeats and Sean O’Faolain. Somewhere near his core, though, he was an Enlightenment rationalist, anti-clerical and republican, showing more affinity with the Co. Derry freethinker John Toland (1670-1722) than with such rosary-bead nationalists as Pádraic Pearse. After Toland, the figure that mattered most to him, historically at least, was Wolfe Tone. The rising of the United Irishmen in 1798 has long been important for republicans because it brought together (up to a point, and for a time) Protestants such as Tone and the Catholic peasantry. In ‘The Great Nation and the Evil Empire’, Deane concentrates on Tone’s experiences in France, depicting a fouled nest of informers and thwarted hopes. The parallels with the IRA struggle are the more keenly felt for not being spelled out.
Small World ranges from a close reading of Joyce’s endings to an evocative memoir of Seamus Heaney. It gives you fragments of the intellectual world Deane made his own. The reception of Burke in America provides a coda to Foreign Affections (2004), his fine study of Burke and Catholic thought. ‘Imperialism and Nationalism’ (1995) distils decades of reading into an encyclopedia entry and extricates postcolonialism from the postmodern. Most remarkable is ‘The End of the World’ (2012) which deals with everything from the sinking of the Lusitania to Synge to Christian neo-medievalism and the study of ancient Greece. The English scholar George Thomson reading Aeschylus on the Blasket Islands might seem an outlier in Irish Studies, but late Deane was as quick as young Deane to sense possibilities.
The previously unpublished essay ‘Emergency Aesthetics’ argues that the distortions of legality and state power identified in ‘Civilians and Barbarians’ have come to permeate America and its hegemony. Like other Irish republicans, Deane was drawn to the United States, teaching in Oregon and at Berkeley before settling in Dublin. He knew that some of the biggest keys to partition are hanging up in Washington, but he also came to think of Ireland as belonging to a ‘world system’ centred on Wall Street and the Pentagon. This transatlantic outlook was a product of the Cold War but it still has explanatory power. Joe Cleary has updated this paradigm in an excellent pair of books – Modernism, Empire, World Literature and The Irish Expatriate Novel in Late Capitalist Globalisation – which track the translation of cultural capital from London to Dublin and New York, and the emergence of a globalised fiction in which America is a base.
‘Flann O’Brien was right,’ Deane says at the start of ‘Emergency Aesthetics’. ‘Joyce was invented by Americans. He was part of their foreign policy, of the drive to make the USA a cultural presence and to recruit “high” culture to its mission of world domination.’ Humour was never Deane’s strong suit (scorn was more his style), but this flat extrapolation of O’Brien provides a thought-provoking frame for the author-centred studies of Yeats, Joyce and Beckett that characterised the postwar period. The colonial model of Irish Studies that Deane advocated as an alternative was historically more inclusive and almost irresistibly topical given the British troops garrisoned in the North. Part of its persuasiveness came, however, not from its newness but from its reviving of an old analysis. As Declan Kiberd pointed out with such flair in Inventing Ireland (1995), nationalists preparing for independence more than a century ago thought about the country in relation to British India, the Congo, the Boer War and the position of Hungary within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
For Deane, the ‘revisionist’ historians who picked holes in the Sinn Féin worldview were the enemies of his people in the North and agents of the elite liberalism of Dublin 4. His 1991 critique of Roy Foster on the Easter Rising, reprinted in Small World, is blisteringly effective, yet its foundations now seem shaky. ‘Foster’s own writing is itself a reading dependent on the congealed stereotype of the partitionist mentality that is subsequent to the process he affects to describe,’ Deane writes. This is a way of saying that, were it not for the thwarting of the Irish Revolution in the partition of 1921, Foster’s outlook would be different. It is one responsibility of historians to give us the past as it was when the future was uncertain, but it is another to be alert to what made history turn out as it did.
As in ‘Civilians and Barbarians’, Deane is being more dichotomous than dialectical: ‘Revisionists are nationalists despite themselves,’ he goes on. ‘By refusing to be Irish nationalists, they simply become defenders of Ulster or British nationalism, thereby switching sides in the dispute while believing themselves to be switching the terms of it.’ It is a small world in which there is no alternative to nationalism. Deane would reply that the best alternative is republicanism, but it is harder to split Irish republicanism from nationalism than it is to believe (as only an Irishman would) in the existence of ‘British nationalism’. The constitutional and cultural muddle of English, Welsh, Scottish and Cornish Britishness lies behind the assertive front of unionism. It is as though Deane wants to deny the evolved legitimacy of the 26-county state and the varieties of Irishness within it. Many land borders in Europe have moved and will move again (witness Ukraine). To say that the existing Irish Republic has its own history, as all good revisionists would, is not even to defend partition. The extent of any republic can be determined by political accommodation rather than by geography, ethnicity and its constructs, or the descent of royal titles.
Deane’s most formidable interrogator was the Dublin-bred, Belfast-based Edna Longley, who adds to brainpower a willingness to do her homework and an insinuating way with modal auxiliaries: ‘Although the term “colonial” may fit some aspects of Irish experience,’ she writes, ‘most historians would qualify or specify its uses, and dispute the one-size-fits-all zeal of most theorists.’ She must have had the attack on Foster in mind as well as Deane’s antipathy to Yeats, when she noted ‘the tendency for revisionism and the Irish Literary Revival to serve, in nationalist intellectual quarters, as proxies or scapegoats for unionism.’
Her LRB diary of 9 January 1992, written in response to the publication of the three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, is a vintage rebuttal of Deane. Clear-eyed about the derivation of what he, as general editor, calls the anthology’s ‘metanarrative’, Longley objects that ‘reading back from a present moment perpetually frozen at independence/partition in 1921 is precisely what Irish historiography has discredited.’ She is just as brisk with his half-hearted Derridean willingness to turn history into story. She quotes what his introduction says about the Troubles, namely that ‘Field Day’s analysis of the situation derives from the conviction that it is, above all, a colonial crisis,’ and adds: ‘Note that the conviction does not derive from the analysis.’
Longley also remarked on the limited representation of women’s writing in The Field Day Anthology and the neglect of female scholars. It was a common objection. What wasn’t included by Deane became more important than what was. It didn’t help that publication came at the end of a low decade in the Republic. After the passing of an anti-abortion referendum in 1983 and a vote against the legalisation of divorce three years later, the last thing feminists needed was a discriminatory blockbuster from supposed progressives. One of the best things in Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves is his conjuring up of the 1980s, when the Troubles seemed endless in the North and patriarchal Catholicism gave a final lash of its tail. Now that the feminist campaigns of this period are receding into history, it is the more worthwhile and necessary to have Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s compilation of memoirs, Look! It’s a Woman Writer! ‘Thirty years ago,’ Catherine Dunne remembers, ‘we had the infamous Field Day Anthology, which arrogantly excluded the writings of most women: but that was then.’
So what is now? Repeated, high-profile exclusions, such as the almost complete absence of women dramatists and directors from the plans for the celebration of the centenary of the Easter Rising at the Abbey Theatre, have given the scandal around the anthology a zombie-like ability to lurch back to life. On the basis of what has been published since the start of the pandemic, however, a tipping point has been reached in Irish Studies itself. The general editors of the six-volume Irish Literature in Transition, and many of its contributors, are women. Its publisher, Cambridge University Press, has since brought out a substantial and authoritative History of Irish Women’s Poetry, edited by Ailbhe Darcy and David Wheatley. A new genealogy of Irish poetry that doesn’t foreground Yeats or Kavanagh but Katharine Tynan and Máire Mhac an tSaoi has come into view.
Deane reacted promptly to protests about The Field Day Anthology by commissioning two volumes of women’s writing edited by women. Small World includes two perceptive pieces on Elizabeth Bowen, a writer from a Big House, Ascendancy background not obviously congenial to his sensibility. ‘Emergency Aesthetics’ has a section on Anna Burns’s Milkman, set in the Provo stronghold of Ardoyne. More surprisingly, there is an essay about the out-of-fashion novelist and short story writer Mary Lavin. ‘About’ has to be the word because the piece is heavily contextual, using Lavin to illustrate the stranglehold of Catholicism on Irish lives. Celibacy and small-town respectability are laid at the feet of the Vatican and linked to the cult of the Virgin that was harnessed by reactionary forces across peasant Europe. The essay could be more attentive to the emotional subtleties in Lavin, but as a denunciation of the clergy it would do credit to any Dublin 4 liberal.
In fact, it’s a tangled web. I remember talking to Deane about the plot of Brian Moore’s Lies of Silence (1990). At one point in this thriller, a priest tries to persuade a hotel manager to say that he can’t identify a young IRA volunteer (a nephew of the priest’s) who was responsible for a kidnapping and car bombing. ‘It wouldn’t happen,’ Deane declared, whether blinded by anti-clericalism or not. The dogs in the street knew about the complicity of a small number of renegade priests and ex-priests, as allegedly in the Claudy bombings of 1972 – an operation so inane and bloody (nine civilians were killed) that it stands out even in the grisly catalogue of IRA atrocities in We Don’t Know Ourselves.
The waning of Field Day’s influence owed less to scholarly refutation than to the success of the Celtic Tiger between the mid-1990s and 2008. As the economy took off, the Republic consolidated its position at the prosperous, Western end of the EU. Wealth was unevenly spread; large tracts of poverty remained; but it came to seem implausible to compare Ireland’s situation with that of colonial or postcolonial states in Africa or Asia. Northern republicans had already weaned themselves off the rhetoric of ‘colonial crisis’, in step with Sinn Féin’s efforts to appeal to moderate voters. Eventually the party would become what it more or less is today, the SDLP for slow learners. Added to this were the consequences of the Good Friday Agreement. Taking the Armalite out of politics intensified cultural warfare in the six counties, but had the opposite effect in the academy, not just in Ireland but in the United States, the real base, by this date, of Irish Studies, where attachment to Irish identities was already fading in the diaspora.
Energy was lost from the field, but there were gains. As Eve Patten observes in her wise introduction to the 1940-80 volume of Irish Literature in Transition, ‘in the long wake of the Provisional IRA ceasefires … the urgent and predominantly postcolonial imperatives of a highly politicised Irish literary criticism … relaxed, allowing for the purposeful revisiting of cultural forces and themes predating the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969.’ This is true not just for the mid-20th century, in which, as her volume demonstrates, counterflows and achievements can now be seen more clearly, but all the way back.
But origins have a way of being retrospectively produced and partial. Joep Leerssen notes, in the volume covering the Romantic period, that the semi-fictional Ossian was claimed by the Scots and the Irish at about the same time as other lost or buried works, from the Chanson de Roland to the Nibelungenlied, were being recruited to provide back stories for European nations. The search for a founding epic later switched to the Táin, a medieval work about the wars between Connaught and Ulster, translated by Lady Gregory in 1902 and decades later by Thomas Kinsella, which became an Iliad for independent Ireland. It is given a place of honour at the start of The Field Day Anthology. As a vision of the four green fields, however, it is divisive and gory. Was Kinsella anticipating the Troubles when he published his version in 1969? A statue of Cuchulain stands in the Dublin GPO to celebrate the Easter Rising; yet he also became a loyalist icon, celebrated on UDA murals as a defender of Ulster against the South.
Aware that beginnings are not what they seem, Irish Literature in Transition starts in 1700, somewhere between the Treaty of Limerick which marked the defeat of Jacobite Ireland and the publication of Gulliver’s Travels. It opens with a marvellous essay by Marie-Louise Coolahan explaining why 1700 cannot be a starting point (like Deane, she invokes Spenser). The series most clearly begins in a group of essays on Swift that showcase the variety of approaches that emerged in Irish Studies after the Good Friday Agreement. In Small World, Deane presents a Swift troubled by quantification, consumption and rationality, and by colonial attitudes in England that disadvantaged the Protestant Ascendancy. Rejecting the notion that his resentments made Swift an Irish nationalist two centuries before Daniel O’Connell, Deane writes, with some disdain, of ‘the formation of the patriot “persona” as a surrogate identity for a minority group that was parasitically dependent on the polity it attempted to resist’. This is old hat compared to Declan Kavanagh’s account of the anal proclivities of the Yahoos in his queering account of Swift, Aileen Douglas on his friendship with women poets, Rebecca Anne Barr on Swift and 18th-century masculinity, Anne Markey on Gaelic echoes in Gulliver’s Travels and Daniel Sanjiv Roberts’s placing of what was first published as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World in relation to global empires far beyond that of the English in Ireland.
Irish Literature in Transition has learned from revisionism to take short views and trust in plurality. By excavating the discontinuities that Deane always said were characteristic of the Irish past, it offers a story less schematic than the Field Day metanarrative. More strikingly, it aims to connect with a more American-style activist version of Irish Studies that has been growing since the credit crunch. It shows an awareness (in the general editors’ words) of ‘ecocritical issues, affect theory, queer genealogies, questions of scale, and diasporic and transnational geographies’. Add to this list critical race theory and disability studies – exemplified here by Joseph Valente’s bold essay on late Yeats – and you have the agenda. Guides to the territory have now appeared, in The New Irish Studies edited by Paige Reynolds and the edgy and enormous Routledge International Handbook of Irish Studies. The mix of topics might look familiar, but it does reflect changes in Irish society.
The financial crisis made it impossible to think about the Republic only in national or postcolonial terms, given its global dimensions and the role of the Troika in bringing back austerity and emigration. But in contrast with the 1980s, the downturn did not block social liberalisation. As the editors of the Routledge International Handbook put it, ‘when the success of the 2015 Marriage Referendum made Ireland the first nation to support same-sex marriage by way of a popular vote, and a second referendum in 2018 … allowed for abortion on demand, it became clear that Irish Studies needed to expand its critical networks in order to contextualise and engage with such social and political reforms.’
The prefix of Transitions is as fashionable and adaptable as ‘post’ used to be. From the transnational to gender transitioning, Irish Studies is now drawn to topics that bypass postcolonialism and what the Handbook calls the ‘nation trap’. To read some of this work, you would think that the worst thing to happen to Ireland wasn’t the Black and Tans but heteronormativity. The most advanced thinkers in the Handbook regard same-sex marriage as suspect, a mode of homonormativity that pinkwashes neoliberalism and makes corporate power look progressive (think Leo Varadkar). With normativity being so bad, Sally Rooney’s Normal People is asking for, and gets, a kicking.
It is not that empire and colonialism are written out of the account, but the story has shifted from the binary of Britain and Ireland. Roberts’s account of Swift’s use of the ‘black legend’ of Spanish cruelty in the Americas is only one example of Irish perceptions of empire as a global phenomenon. Whether it is Jennifer Orr on the Ulster radicals who wrote about Tipu Sultan of Mysore when he resisted British rule in 1799, or Murray Pittock on Mangan’s ‘The Caramanian Exile’ (which draws parallels between the British and Ottoman empires), or James Quinn on the travel memoirs and historical writing of the militant nationalist John Mitchel after he was transported to Bermuda, the reach of the British Empire matters as much as the comparative discussion. But Transitions is traditional in the way it thinks about an exile such as Mitchel. There is more than one way of thinking about how he ended up in America as a voluble defender of slavery and the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The exilic model of emigration is such an attractive commonplace that it finds a place in Belfast: ‘The Irish were born for leaving, or otherwise the world would have no pubs,’ someone jokes. ‘All the Irish need to survive is a phone, a Guinness and the sheet music to “Danny Boy”.’ This nostalgia for Irish nostalgia is slightly off-key, given that Ulster Protestant patterns of emigration were different from those in rural, Catholic areas and often led to quicker assimilation. But the film does chime with what historians have recently begun to stress about emigrants from all Irish communities: the elements of choice and motivation. The Famine did fill coffin ships with those who had no alternative. But as with Pa, who has prospects in England, the pull factors for leaving were sometimes stronger than the push. The Irish left in search of opportunity and flourished at the expense of Indigenous peoples (Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans). Whether you passed your exams to join the Indian Civil Service or were a labourer doubling your income by taking the queen’s shilling, you were part of the imperial project.
Simplification should be resisted, but so should cognitive dissonance. Many Irish people have forebears who worked in a colonial police force or regiment, but the empire itself has been conveniently tagged as British. As Sophie Cooper puts it, in her well-researched book about emigration to Melbourne and Chicago (different countries, varying outcomes), ‘Ireland’s role as both a partner in the imperial project and a colonised country is complicated and, similar to colonised people who found a way to succeed within an imperial project throughout the world, has led to questions about the power dynamics of colonialism.’ The Irish weren’t special. Other groups who left colonies, such as Indians in British East Africa and the Lebanese in French West Africa, had similar functions and history.
The implications of all this have barely registered in Irish Studies, yet the turn away from postcolonialism should be supplemented by a facing up to the realities of empire. As Jim Shanahan notes in the 19th-century volume of Irish Literature in Transition, plenty of Irish fiction deals sympathetically with ‘Imperial Minds’. Charles Lever’s novels about India, for instance, are alive with adventure, failure and ‘the underlying contradictions of empire – that the British Empire was not, in fact, “British”’. Shanahan might have mentioned that Reginald Dyer, the commanding officer of the British army on the day of the Amritsar Massacre – whose previous military experience included riot control in Belfast – was educated in Co. Cork and his superior, Michael O’Dwyer, was a Catholic from Tipperary.
With empire comes slavery. Bishop Berkeley owned slaves on Rhode Island. Burke was a tepid abolitionist because of the interests of friends and family. Irish involvement was extensive, eventually as masters. When the black slaves of Montserrat planned a rebellion in 1768, the date they chose was St Patrick’s Day, because they thought the plantation owners would be partying. Deane’s sympathy with Mitchel’s struggle against the British leads him to balance with care but not to obscure Mitchel’s role in white supremacy: his ‘passionately rational hatred of capitalism … led him to a violent irrationality about race that still thrives globally amid latter-day slaveries’.
The editors of the Routledge Handbook note that the success and failure of the Celtic Tiger made it impossible to ignore ‘Ireland’s global imbrications’. As a result, the discipline ‘no longer sees Ireland’s colonial crisis isolated from the multiple global crises – like climate change, systemic racism, gender violence and economic inequality – in which Ireland is an inevitable participant’. This is partly what impels the wider outlook on empire that makes Irish Literature in Transition such an advance. Along with this, Ireland’s transformation over the last couple of decades from a locus of emigration into a centre of migration from the developing world has forced the Irish as well as those working in Irish Studies to confront the relationship between ethnic and economic disadvantage and the stratification of life chances.
About one-eighth of the population of the Republic is now categorised as ‘non-Irish national’, a society as ethnically diverse as England and one that has a certain amount of guilt about the treatment of migrants held in Direct Provision centres. The thought is getting around that the racialisation of Irishness in Victorian Punch cartoons was part of a broader, sub-Darwinian development in which the Celts were not entirely losers. Empire was a laundromat for the Irish, one of the institutions that made them white. Calls can now be heard for the ‘decolonisation’ of Irish Studies. Quite a turnaround from the decolonisation of Derry that was front and centre in the 1980s.
Of the ‘multiple global crises’ that preoccupy the Routledge contributors, the most comprehensive is ecological. Questions about the environment were not asked in Irish Studies for a long time. Scholars were slow to unpack the ruralist baggage of nationalism. The poetry and prose of Patrick Kavanagh demolished official legends about the dignity of life on the land while responding to the delight of fretted hedges and ditches, but his writing focused on social constraints and not on the vulnerability of the ecosystem. The greenness of the emerald isle seemed less open to scrutiny because it was attractive to students of Irish Studies in big American cities. Deane did valuable work unpacking the meanings of ‘the soil’ in Strange Country. But 19th-century myths about the countryside shrouded the consequences of damage – species loss, toxic slurry, cattle fed on angel dust – almost as effectively as the self-interest of the farmers who became the backbone of the Free State and Republic. Habitat degradation was assimilated to the national iconography: the bleak, stony landscapes of the West are the result of deforestation.
The first major environmentally conscious monograph to appear in Irish Studies only edges onto the land. Nicholas Allen’s Ireland, Literature and the Coast explores the maritime and watery dimensions of the country, from an early novel by W.B. Yeats through the scrapbooks and paintings of his brother, Jack, and on through periodicals and poetry from Sean O’Faolain to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Ciaran Carson. The readings are tuned to the local, tracking water into the land along inlets and loughs, but there is a sense of the planetary and the political, especially the aftermath of empire, because the waters have taken people so far and create connections around the island.
In a field so driven by opinion it is a relief to find a book grounded in primary research which is nimble in the unpredictable waters of the past. The chapter on Erskine Childers, for example, transforms The Riddle of the Sands – that most unlikely English novel for a future anti-Treaty republican – by investigating his annotations to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Allen’s study will be influential for years to come. The afterlife of Malcolm Sen’s edited collection, A History of Irish Literature and the Environment, will be shorter, but its publication is just as significant because it shows that the ecological turn in Irish Studies is active across many fronts. It includes superb essays on Irish forests and cultural memory by Anna Pilz, on famine by Margaret Kelleher and on place by Eric Falci. There are intricate pages on human/animal metamorphosis. Among the high points is John Brannigan’s survey of ‘Oceanic Imaginaries’, which adds to Allen’s book. It is a demonstration of what environmental studies can achieve.
Sen explains that his collection was put together – like Branagh’s Belfast – in lockdown, ‘a period of both isolation and embrace, of physical distance from society and an intellectual commitment to ecology, perhaps the greatest lesson of Sars-CoV-2’. The pandemic showed us the worldwide interconnectedness of climate change and made us see that we can modify our lifestyles for the sake of survival. Sen goes so far as to declare that Covid ‘is the most recent example of the litany of life-denying crises engendered by late capitalist neoliberalism’. Yet this virulence is compounded by his unease, and that of the left more broadly, at the intrusiveness of the constraints the authorities did employ. At his most trenchant and prophetic, Deane, in ‘Emergency Aesthetics’, looked at the way the powers that be exploit the ‘state of exception’ brought about by crisis. Sen takes a similar line, noting ‘the forms of sovereign power being enacted at a time of emergency’ and arguing that the crisis provided an ‘opportunity for humanist scholarship (and activism) to respond to Covid-19’s intersectional effects by not treating it as a critical flashpoint but as an echo chamber of previous violence and a precursor of future injustices’.
What happens if we narrow this down from the global to the insular? Scholars in Irish Studies are well used to picking up echoes of violence and arguing against further affliction. They also know, from the Famine, the dysfunctional way economic liberalism can combine with relief in the form of lockdowns in workhouses and fever hospitals. This gives some plausibility to Sen’s suggestion that Covid could be the ‘paradigm that will shape Irish Studies of the 21st century’. If so, it will make less of 1916 and 1921 and more of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.
Sen disapproves of beauty. ‘Coupling ecology to economy,’ he writes, ‘and disconnecting “nature” from tiresome aesthetic associations are the greatest lessons that we can gather from our most recent crisis.’ It doesn’t require much critical theory to see where this is coming from, but it must be a mistake. Without a visual and tactile appreciation of flitting finches and dangling alder cones people won’t have any motivation to defend ecology from economy. Irish writing, from the journals of Ernie O’Malley to the poetry of Michael Longley, has been alive to these felicities, and the way we shape them. That said, Sen’s outlook strengthens his collection by extending its remit beyond bogs and glens to the economics of the Traveller lifestyle (tinkering as recycling), the Big House and urban renewal.
Belfast is a black and white movie that starts in colour. During the opening credits the camera sweeps across the façades of the modern city, reshaped for tourism. This is the heritage Belfast of yellow shipyard cranes and the Victorian dome of City Hall, but also of the post-Troubles architecture of high-rise, plate-glass offices and Titanic Belfast. Towards the end of its survey the camera zooms in on lines of terraced houses, flips over a wall and takes us back to 1969. This is cinematically effective and also duplicitous because it implies that Branagh/Buddy lived in an area that can still be visited, although Mountcollyer Street is now a cul-de-sac with waste ground along one side in a district of new housing. The petrol-bombing that provides the opening drama of the movie was a first step towards demolition and redevelopment.
These attacks have a history: not just the burning out of Catholics in Lisburn and beyond in 1920 but the IRA arson that destroyed about 275 country houses between 1920 and 1923. Kerry Sullivan may be right, in ‘The Ecology of the Irish Big House’, to connect the burning down of these houses with the festive uses of fire at Beltane, midsummer and Halloween as well as the burning of kelp for fertiliser and of woodland to clear fields. As Terence Dooley points out in Burning the Big House, one objective of the republican attacks was to free up demesne land for farmers. Environmental facts bring more insights than purely political explanations can offer.
Sen quotes Greta Thunberg’s cry about global warming: ‘Our house is on fire!’ If the security offered by home feels more valuable during a pandemic, or in the face of rioting and conflagration, that is partly because it has also become more vulnerable. An acute essay by Adam Hanna explores this dynamic in relation to houses in Northern Irish poetry, shaken by the Troubles but also by ‘global anxieties’ about pollution and climate change. It may be that cinema audiences more readily share Buddy’s fear when petrol bombs explode in their street because of insecurities that go beyond the pandemic into the derangements of climate catastrophe.
Julia C. Obert and Nolan Goetzinger pursue a related line of thought in one of the most radical essays in Sen’s collection. They highlight the environmental damage done in the Republic by speculative, unaffordable building (glitzy Dublin, ghost estates) and by the cosmetic surgery of redevelopment in the North (as in Branagh’s opening shots). During the Troubles, security was put above EU environmental law and ‘this subordination of lived ecology to national security holds even today, though “security” now connotes economic development.’ Deane was sceptical about environmentalism, but he would have agreed that Northern Ireland ‘is recreating “imperial formations”’ in its development policy.
The areas of compatibility between his work and Sen’s are worth underlining given the lack of fit between Small World and the broader sweep of the New Irish Studies. We can still learn plenty from Deane about the problems of partition, and from his inadequate approach to them. The core of this inadequacy is a lack of empathy with the culture of Northern Irish Protestantism. In his piece about Heaney, ‘The Famous Seamus’, he remembers reading Milton and Dickens as a student in Belfast: ‘I knew the bitterness of Protestantism and its philistine pride, but for the first time I began to sense its magnificence.’ The magnificence is almost as off-putting as what he confidently sees as the acrimony, philistinism and pride of the other lot. Take away Whitehall control of the North and the border, and this partition will remain.
The built environment is an issue that unites the island. The crash of 2008 is blamed on the banks being too indulgent of the construction sector, and the nightmare of debt is not yet over in the South, where ‘vulture funds’ are buying mortgages from lenders and putting creditors through the courts. The inability of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to resolve this is creating an opening for Sinn Féin that parallels its rise in the North. Although the situation is complex, and the voting system makes it more so, historic realignments are afoot. In the Republic, Sinn Féin can advance with less friction because it can more readily obscure its IRA backstory and represent itself as a new force. But there is also, as there is in the six counties, a revived sense of the perfidiousness of Albion – which makes the republicanism of the party more attractive – because of the indifference indicated by the Brexit vote to the Good Friday Agreement and Ireland’s economic prospects.
With talk of a border poll now spreading and middle-class voters increasingly open to unification, Ulster Protestants are wondering about alternative futures. The nuances of opinion picked up by Susan McKay are real, but they often attach to the scepticism and mistrust that in Glenn Patterson’s The Last Irish Question comes out in wry drolleries about ‘the shamrock side of the house’. Patterson explores the way the pandemic was used to further divisions between North and South, nationalist and unionist, and worries about a buried history of discrimination in the South against ‘Protestants of modest means’. From being a backward economy looked down on by the more industrial North, the Republic might now be too prosperous to join. And then there’s its expensive healthcare. If Belfast is remote from the South, the same goes the other way round: ‘The 26 would hate to think it, but they can at times be a bit, well, England-y in how they look at the six.’
The old joke about the Irish question is that when Gladstone thought he’d answered it the Irish changed the question. The subtitle of Patterson’s book, ‘Will six into twenty-six ever go?’ is politically as unresolved as it is arithmetically impossible, but it has the virtue of asking the inhabitants of the island to answer the question for themselves. Ulster Protestants are familiar with the coercions that either force them into Irishness or invite them to leave, though of course they still have the option of turning into Wolfe Tone. In other words, the answer to Patterson’s Irish question is a series of other questions. ‘Northern Ireland equals “Unfree Ireland”’ for Shinners on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Which makes the million or so people who identify with its Britishness … what? Victims of false consciousness? Dupes? Quislings?’
Other books consulted in the writing of this essay:
Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground by Susan McKay (Blackstaff, 368 pp., £16.99, May 2021, 978 1 78073 264 3)
Modernism, Empire, World Literature by Joe Cleary (Cambridge, 326 pp., £29.99, June 2021, 978 1 108 49235 5)
The Irish Expatriate Novel in Late Capitalist Globalisation by Joe Cleary (Cambridge, 280 pp., £75, November 2021, 978 1 108 83357 8)
We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland since 1958 by Fintan O’Toole (Head of Zeus, 624 pp., £12, September, 978 1 78497 834 1)
Look! It’s a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020 edited by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (Arlen House, 277 pp., £28.50, July 2021, 978 1 85132 251 0)
A History of Irish Women’s Poetry edited by Ailbhe Darcy and David Wheatley (Cambridge, 476 pp., £84.99, July 2021, 978 1 108 47870 0)
The New Irish Studies edited by Paige Reynolds (Cambridge, 308 pp., £74.99, September 2020, 978 1 108 47399 6)
Routledge International Handbook of Irish Studies edited by Renée Fox, Mike Cronin and Brian Ó Conchubhair (Routledge, 502 pp., £39.99, August, 978 0 367 69452 4)
Forging Identities in the Irish World: Melbourne and Chicago, c.1830-1922 by Sophie Cooper (Edinburgh, 272 pp., £85, February, 978 1 4744 8709 2)
Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a Time of War and Revolution by Terence Dooley (Yale, 368 pp., £25, March, 978 0 300 26074 8)
The Last Irish Question: Will Six into Twenty-Six Ever Go? by Glenn Patterson (Head of Zeus, 288 pp., £16.99, October 2021, 978 1 80024 547 1)
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