Valorising Valentine Brown

Patricia Craig

  • Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789 to 1939 by W.J. McCormack
    Oxford, 423 pp, £27.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 19 812806 1
  • Across a Roaring Hill edited by Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley
    Blackstaff, 258 pp, £10.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 85640 334 2
  • Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980 by Seamus Deane
    Faber, 199 pp, £15.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 571 13500 5
  • Escape from the Anthill by Hubert Butler
    Lilliput, 342 pp, £12.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 946640 00 9

In a recent Times article, Philip Howard pounced on the deplorable word ‘Valorisation’ which seems to be trying to edge its way into the English language. ‘To enhance the price, value or status of by organised ... action’ is one of the meanings he quotes for it. Here is an example of one such usage: ‘the literary critics’ valorisation of tradition’. This phrase occurs towards the end of W.J. McCormack’s dissection of Anglo-Irishness as a literary and historical concept, Ascendancy and Tradition. ‘Valorise’, indeed, is a verb much favoured in this book, along with others like ‘energise’ and ‘traumatise’. There’s a word that might be applied to this style of writing: unstylish. At one point we catch the author of Ascendancy and Tradition considering the way in which Joyce and Yeats ‘as a binary and mutually dependent cultural production confront the totality of history’. There the two unfortunate literary figures stand, symbiosis thrust upon them. At another moment, the history of Ireland is called ‘bifurcated’, which makes it sound like a pair of trousers. It is very provoking of W.J. McCormack to write in this benighted way. The less he has to say, the more fussy and fustian his manner becomes. On the poem ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, we get this:

The title employs words, not numerals, but it employs one of several possible verbal formulations. It prevents us from particularising the year as One Thousand, Nine Hundred and Nineteen; it prevents us from slurring it to a loose Nineteen Nineteen. Thus, the element Nineteen is repeated but not emptily so, for we are directed to the middle term, indicating the completed nineteenth century and its nineteen year excess. The post scriptum date, on the other hand, is unpronounceable or at best variously pronounceable.

Close scrutiny, you might say, is one thing; obsessive and fruitless scrutiny another.

McCormack’s main contention seems to be that ‘ascendancy’ and ‘tradition’ alike are figments of the imagination of W.B. Yeats. It’s well-known, of course, that the Protestant Ascendancy of the 18th century (a term not current, in fact, as McCormack reminds us, before 1792) didn’t actually embody all the qualities Yeats attributed to it – courtesy and decency, a high-minded approach to political matters and an aristocratic lineage. As far as the last is concerned – well, there’s the hidden Ireland uncovered by Daniel Corkery in 1928 (his study of 18th-century Munster appeared under that title), inhabited by people who took a very poor view indeed of the new English-speaking aristocracy that had ousted the old Irish-speaking one. ‘Valentine Brown’, as these purists saw it, was the sort of ludicrous name an arriviste landowner might call himself – someone who’d installed himself in a demesne of the great McCarthys, now dead or dispersed. In this world, the speaker of ‘cunning English’ quickly got himself condemned for opportunism, everything English being associated with the kind of baseness Yeats decried. Still, it was quite another Ireland the poet had in mind when he singled out the 18th century, labelling it ‘the one Irish century that escaped from darkness and confusion’. Swift, Berkeley, Burke, Goldsmith and Sheridan: all these stood for clarity of thought, while Dublin gaiety, Belfast liberalism, and the sense of national consequence acquired at Dungannon, all contributed something to the Yeatsian image of a mellow era. That this particular form of Irishness was conceived in opposition to an unsatisfactory present – ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes’ – and (as Louis MacNeice has it) ‘in defiance of the Gaelic League’ and all it stood for, doesn’t in the least detract from its efficacy.

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