Ireland at Swim

Denis Donoghue

  • The Crane Bag Book of Irish Studies, 1977-1981 edited by M.P. Hederman and R. Kearney, with a preface by Seamus Heaney
    Blackwater Press/Colin Smythe, 930 pp, £25.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 905471 13 X
  • A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers by Hugh Kenner
    Knopf, 352 pp, $16.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 394 42225 2

The Crane Bag is a magazine, published twice a year: each issue deals with one theme. In Irish legend, the crane bag contained the alphabet of knowledge. The bag belonged to Manannan, god of the sea: it was made from the skin of his wife Aoife, whom Manannan had transformed into a crane because she tried to steal his secret knowledge and communicate it to the world. It was believed that cranes formed the letters of the alphabet as they flew. The meaning of the letters was available only to the elect. When the first issue of The Crane Bag appeared in 1977, its editors brooded upon meanings, metaphors, occult notations, and the like. Only irrefutable evidence of editorial seriousness in the magazine as a whole set aside the question of vanity in its manifesto. The present book reprints the first ten issues: the themes are Art and Politics, a Sense of Nation, Mythology – a double issue, this – Tradition, Anglo-Irish Literature, the Irish Woman, the Northern Issue, Minorities in Ireland, and the Irish Language and Culture. I should report that the magazine, after an issue on Joyce and the Arts in Ireland, has now gone international with a Latin American issue and one on Socialism and Culture.

The editors of the Bag are university teachers, gifted in literature and philosophy, and, it seems, determined to let these commitments take their chances alongside questions inescapably political. They could hardly do otherwise, living in Dublin since the violence started up again in Northern Ireland in 1968. Several of their colleagues are from the North: the poets Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, John Montague, Michael Longley. Deane, especially, has been important to them, arguing about Irish literature and the question of tradition, the North, the two languages, the available rhetorics.

I have been reading The Crane Bag in association with Hugh Kenner’s new book, A Colder Eye, a study of the modern Irish writers from Yeats, Joyce and Synge to Beckett and Flann O’Brien. Kenner encourages his reader, an American apparently, to believe that Ireland is a crazy country from which, believe it or don’t, a number of extraordinary writers have emerged. Their emergence testifies to the fact, I gather, that nations sometimes get far more, and far better, than their inhabitants of the day deserve. Yeats tried to win his countrymen into Unity of Being, but they chose instead the more succulent joys of division, opting for the courtroom as the theatre of their pleasure – Irishmen love to sue Irishmen, apparently – the ambush as ‘the recourse of their plot construction’, and ‘a fine explosion their ecstasy of climax’. Joyce wrote of ‘shattered glass and toppling masonry’, but now, Kenner explains, ‘improved explosives permit local rains of blood and severed limbs.’ Presumably the argument is that since we don’t get enough sex in Ireland, we have to have our ecstasies of climax outside the bedroom. So that’s what we’ve been up to since 1968, having our orgasms in public.

Leaving that aside – that being a matter on which I don’t value Kenner’s judgment as much as my own – I have transcribed in my commonplace book the following nine items from A Colder Eye. One: Dubliners do not read the Bible. Two: in Joyce’s day, most Dubliners were Catholic, but that designation ‘was apt to denote less a state of supernatural conviction than a web of secular allegiances’. Three: one of the differences between Ireland and England is that in Ireland ‘the conventions of English Romanticism, its blessings in the gentle woods, its brooks that murmur and its winds that cry, were simply implausible.’ Irish landscape is determined rather by individual acts of will, violent and transient. Hence ‘ruined castles, ruined houses, ruined towers round or square, mark achievement that flared briefly and flamed out, whereupon a few more stragglers shifted their ground.’ Four: ‘in Ireland nothing moves forward unjeered at.’ Five: ‘The mind of Ireland is held by the realities of talk, the most notable reality of which is the presence of others.’ Six: the complex role Yeats played included ‘obligation to some void left by destiny, some body of unimaginable things unsaid’. This explains his appropriation of people who did ‘some not wholly fulfilling thing’ – Cuchulain fighting the waves, Robert Gregory taking to the air – their fulfilment to be achieved only when Yeats had emblematised them in strong verse. Seven: Dublin is a capital city in which ‘eight decades’ experience of the telephone has not yet fostered the habit of returning calls.’ Eight: Finnegans Wake may have something to do with the execution, on 8 December 1922 – of Rory O’Connor, one of the Irregulars. Nine: ‘Dublin remains obsessed with the writers it doesn’t read.’

I have listed these items mainly to indicate that anything you care to say about Ireland is sayable or printable. The more exacting criteria which apply to other nations are voided, evidently, when discourse turns upon Ireland. One of the difficulties such an enterprise as The Crane Bag has to face is that there is no reliable context of debate for the matters at hand. In Kenner’s book, silliness jostles with exactness of perception, and he has no means of knowing which is which. He can write like Swift or like a shamrock-toting tourist, prevented from knowing the difference by the Babel of discourses which surround the theme rather than by any defect in his intelligence. I suppose it says something, though nothing very good, about a country if it attracts, by way of commentary, sense and nonsense which only posterity will discriminate. Meanwhile The Crane Bag has to sound as if the themes it takes up were taken up for the first time. The other times haven’t provided either a steady context or a set of criteria.

There is a passage in Yeats’s Memoirs, though, which suggests that criteria may still be found. Kenner quotes it, but doesn’t make enough of it. Yeats is commenting on a dispute he had with Maud Gonne about literature and nationalism. ‘Practical movements,’ he says, ‘are created out of emotions expressed long enough ago to have become general, but literature discovers; it can never repeat. It is the attempt to repeat an emotion because it has been found effective which has made all provincially political literature ... so superficial.’ That’s worth thinking about. For me, it explains why discussion of Northern Ireland is interminable and frustrating. No one is thinking. Everyone is merely repeating an emotion he has found effective: effective, in the sense of making him and his position familiar. Why does Conor Cruise O’Brien exercise his intelligence when he writes for the Observer and turn out vulgar rubbish for the Irish Times? Is it merely that he despises the Irish readers who were sufficiently stupid and unworthy as to turn him out of political office? Or that he assumes that what Irish readers want is the repetition of personality, in any familiar form, week by week? Certainly, Irish discourse – not to speak of the action that has arisen from it – has been congealed by the few emotions that have been found effective.

Indeed, it is my impression, now that Yeats has provided the words for it, that The Crane Bag is an attempt, on the part of its editors and contributors, not to yield to these few emotions merely because they have been found effective. Which emotions? The emotions that suffuse such words as ‘history’, ‘myth’, ‘tradition’ and ‘Ireland’.

History: You can go back as far as you like, to Roderick O’Connor, the last High King of Ireland, who in 1175 surrendered to the King of England. Or, if Northern Ireland is locally in question, to the 17th-century Plantations of Ulster, the immediate occasion of our divisions. Thereafter, as Catholic Ireland has been schooled to expect, an effort would be made in every generation to drive the English out of Ireland. History, Stephen Dedalus instructs Mr Deasy, ‘is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. But a few pages back he made a less famous discovery, that while for his pupils history was a tale like any other too often heard, ‘their land a pawnship’, nevertheless such facts as the death of Pyrrhus and Caesar’s murder ‘are not to be thought away’. Kinsale, the Boyne and Easter Week are not to be thought away or dispelled by a revisionist pedagogy. What can you do with your history? Put up with it, as with any other ill that flesh is heir to.

Myth: Kenner was amused to find that at a McDonald’s in Dublin the counter-girl wore her name-tag: Emer – Cucuhlain’s queen; from which extraordinary episode arose the admonition that ‘if you recover an heroic past, then face the fact that you’ll have it splattered all around you.’ Another fact you might face is the desirability of keeping out of McDonald’s. The Crane Bag has much brooding about myth, especially Richard Kearney’s essay ‘Myth and Terror’, in which he resorts to Mircea Eliade and Paul Ricoeur to understand and, apparently, to pacify the mythic repetitions – of sacrifice, blood and apocalypse – he finds in modern Ireland. There is also much medition on Celtic mythology, the hero, God and Man, and Yeats’s question:

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

Tradition: ‘Discussion of what tradition means,’ according to Seamus Heaney, ‘has moved from a sort of linguistic nostalgia, a puerile discourse about assonance, metres, and so on, to a consideration of the politics and anthropology of our condition.’ Liam de Paor and other writers think of tradition as involving continuities, though not necessarily repetitions. W.J. McCormack writes of tradition as ‘the guarantee, the demonstration of the real interaction of literature and social life’. But there is nothing in The Crane Bag quite as telling, on this theme, as the poems collected in An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed (Dolmen Press, 1981) by Sean O’Tuama and translated by Thomas Kinsella: there, more clearly than anywhere else, we can see what an Irish tradition means by marking its loss. Seamus Deane comes close to this sense of it when he explains that ‘the Irish idea of tradition was naturally more inclined toward the notion of continuity betrayed than of continuity retained.’ He derides, in this essay and elsewhere, the Anglo-Irish filiations – Swift, Berkeley, Burke, and the image of the Big House – which Yeats appropriated with such majesty. For Deane, tradition is ‘what we have yet to build’, not something on which our laurels are to be rested.

Ireland: What else? ‘We Irish’, as Berkeley said and Yeats quoted. The Crane Bag has many essays, by Conor Cruise O’Brien, John A. Murphy and others, on nationalism as a sentiment to be fostered or repressed, and the consequences in each case. But none of the writers has examined the diverse and conflicting relations which Irish people are maintaining with such entities as England, Europe, the EEC – not the same entity as Europe – the Catholic Church, the Protestant Churches, the Irish Abroad in America and elsewhere, not to speak of ancient attachments to an Ireland defined only in legend, poetry and song. The past is another country: yes, but in Ireland it is the same country. It is hard to say what form a coherent life would take: coherent, in the sense of manifesting a decent relation between one’s past and present, one’s obligations and freedoms. Hard, and in Ireland becoming harder, because most people are finding that their lives are governed by immediacies: unemployment, the cost of daily living (inordinately high), taxation (ditto), the quality of government (abysmal), dependence on the charity of the EEC (shameful), and the endless wretchedness in the North. It is almost impossible to think of anything else while these exacerbations persist.

If I am right in supposing that The Crane Bag is trying to think of certain issues without repeating the emotions that have suffused them, where is it finding the energy? In books, mainly, despite what Kenner says about the Irish being talkers and not readers or writers. Or rather, in certain books which are invigorating precisely because they have nothing to do with Ireland. Or not directly. The editors have been reading Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, Chomsky, Marcuse, Vanier, and trying to think of their bearing upon the state of Ireland. Seamus Heaney has been quoting Milosz. The other Seamus has been reading the Marxists and neo-Marxists, Lukacs, Benjamin, most of all Adorno. In another essay Deane argues that ‘the aesthetic heritage with which we still struggle clearly harbours the desire to obliterate or render nugatory the problems of class, economics, bureaucratic systems and the like, concentrating instead upon the essences of self, nationhood, community and Zeitgeist.’ Now there’s something worth arguing about. The short answer is that he’s been reading Benjamin on Fascism as the culmination of the attempt to make politics aesthetic. The longer answer would need a context it is unlikely to get; though The Crane Bag is doing more toward that end than anyone, five or six years ago, had cause to expect.

Does any of this matter? Or, more specifically, do we Irish take ourselves and our ostensibly complex fate too seriously? Hard to measure that kind of thing. Ireland has been of interest, beyond its narrow boundaries, for various reasons: as a thorn in England’s side, or at least a pebble under her imperial foot; as one of the last places, presumably, in which Christians are to be found killing one another; as a country visible to outsiders only through a haze of literary reference and lore. Is that enough? Enough to be going on with.

So what is happening to Irish literary culture? Kenner refers to ‘the fix in which a poet as great as Yeats managed to leave Anglo-Irish literature’. Well, a great writer always leaves the earth scorched. An Irish poet after Yeats has to turn down Yeats’s volume, evade his peremptory rhetoric. Seamus Heaney has disclosed that it was Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry that showed him what might still be done: though I think it must also have indicated the limits of that achievement. Flann O’Brien had to rid his mind of Joyce before he could do his proper work: the riddance is At Swim-Two-Birds, his proper work is The Third Policeman. Austin Clarke nearly left it too late to be stung, by Irish folly, into his own kind of poetry.

As for now: there is an interval. Aspects of Ireland appear on television: safe vistas, now, as in The Year of the French, Strumpet City, The Irish RM. Seamus Heaney wrote, for the Joyce Centenary, a poem daringly called ‘A Familiar Ghost’, an allusion to the great passage in ‘Little Gidding’ where Eliot receives severe instruction from a familiar compound ghost with composite features derived, it is believed, from Swift, Mallarmé and Yeats. Heaney’s poem describes an improbable meeting with Joyce’s shade at a pilgrimage to Lough Derg, one of Ireland’s sacred places. The advice the poet receives is more uplifting than anything Eliot heard. Swim out on your own, Joyce encourages the pilgrim: which I suppose means, put aside your Kavanagh, now that you’ve put down your Yeats,

                   And fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo-soundings, searches, probes,
allurements,
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.

A tall order, any shade knows, even for a poet who has shown himself entirely capable of going beyond North.

The North itself is hardly to be further written about. What more is there to say? Most of our poets have written their North poems. We don’t hear much these days, except in The Crane Bag, of the Northern Renaissance, a somewhat factitious event conjured into existence a few years ago mainly from the desire at large that it should exist. Besides, the desire to see some not wholly fulfilling thing or deed fulfilled at last, if only as a poetic emblem, did not die with Yeats – though ordinary people represent it simply as the hope of understanding what on earth is going on. I suppose an unfulfilling or unfulfilled act needs to be completed, or transcended, by its song. Or so we felt, even to the extent of welcoming some inferior poems because they sang, however falteringly, of their occasion. These poets are still singing, but not about the North. They have turned to older themes of personal life, mostly of love, a turn made with clarity and force in John Montague’s The Great Cloak three or four years ago:

As my Province burns
I sing of love,
Hoping to give that fiery
Wheel a shove.

Or it may be that the poets are lying low for a while, as Montague writes later in the same volume:

Avoid too much notice,
learn from the hare,
crouch low, and quiet,
until the hunt pass.