Celtic Revisionism

Patrick Parrinder

  • A Short History of Irish Literature by Seamus Deane
    Hutchinson, 282 pp, £15.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 09 161360 4
  • The Peoples of Ireland by Liam de Paor
    Hutchinson, 344 pp, £15.00, April 1986, ISBN 0 09 156140 X
  • Portrait of Ireland by Liam de Paor
    Rainbow, 192 pp, £13.95, May 1986, ISBN 1 85120 004 5
  • The Complete Dramatic Works by Samuel Beckett
    Faber, 476 pp, £12.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 571 13821 7
  • The Beckett Country: An Exhibition for Samuel Beckett’s 80th Birthday by Eoin O’Brien and James Knowlson
    Black Cat, 97 pp, £5.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 948050 03 9

Nationality is a strange thing. Modern technologies, economic systems and much of our culture are international as never before. Yet as national barriers have been lowered, the sentiment of nationality has often increased. Leopold Bloom’s sublimely rational definition of a nation as ‘the same people living in the same place’ sounds even less adequate today than it would have done eighty years ago.

The main merit of Bloom’s definition, appropriately enough for a modern Ulysses, lies in calling attention to the fact that most of the problems of nationality are caused by people wandering about. For example, the trial of the other Joyce – William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw – demonstrated that a man born in Brooklyn and brought up in Ireland could be hanged as a British traitor for war crimes committed in Germany. William Joyce and James Joyce had their British passports in common. At least James’s literary nationality has never been in doubt, though this is scarcely true of his friend and compatriot Samuel Beckett. It would be interesting to know how many British university libraries shelve Beckett’s books under French, not Irish, literature.

Traitors sell their nationality, whereas writers, if they are well-known, find themselves trading on their nationality whether they like it or not. Neither traitors nor imaginative writers can ever fully discard what we choose to call their country, though other people can, and frequently do. Who, for instance, is the greatest Irish scientist of the 20th century? The answer I would give to this conversation-stopping question is Professor J.D. Bernal FRS. Bernal, by origin a Munster Catholic, has not yet been reclaimed (so far as I know) by his country’s intellectual historians. Yet if any comparably famous expatriate novelist had been born in County Tipperary in 1901 we should have certainly heard of it.

Bernal’s decision to make his career in England was nothing extraordinary. A promising young crystallographer might take the same decision just as easily today. The political rhetoric (whether Nationalist or Loyalist) according to which London and Dublin are conceived as ‘foreign powers’ is doubtless diplomatically correct. But I would guess that the recent Anglo-Irish agreement was so eagerly welcomed in Britain because it seemed to suggest that, politically, the two countries could return to what in cultural terms they had never lost – a state of neo-colonial intimacy.

‘There is no nationality without literature, and no literature without nationality,’ Yeats wrote. This has not stopped the communications media from being one of the chief agencies of Anglo-Irish cultural intimacy. RTE follows political and sporting events in Britain with the sort of slavish and unrequited passion which both the British and Irish media show towards the United States. London publishers play an essential role in the dissemination of Irish writing and scholarship. British tabloids are the staple diet of a very visible section of the Dublin working class. The current political hero of the younger generation in both Britain and Ireland is the same person, Bob Geld-of. It is against this background that Ireland’s propensity to lose, and anxiety to reclaim, its imaginative writers must be understood.

Yeats’s connection between literature and nationality has been mediated by two specifically Romantic forms of imaginative piety. These are the link between literature and landscape, and the use of historical imagination to reveal a hidden identity between the present and the remote past. Wordsworth, walking across Salisbury Plain, pictured the Druids of Stonehenge as ‘long-bearded teachers’ – remote ancestors, in fact, of the English poets. Books on Irish literature and culture almost invariably find themselves embodying (or interrogating) pieties of this sort. Moreover, certain consequences of Romantic nationalism, from the temptation for a writer to become a national spokesman to the economic significance of literary tourism, are clearer in the Irish context. The current re-examination of notions of Irishness has, as a result, considerable implications for ‘Englishness’ too.

For example, what today can we mean by ‘English’ literature? Seamus Deane begins his Short History of Irish Literature by asserting that the term ‘Anglo-Irish’ for the body of writing with which he is concerned is now anachronistic. Deane here is lending powerful support to the modern tendency to appeal to national divisions, rather than language divisions, in defining a literature. Such a tendency will not be confined, I believe, to the other side of the Irish Sea. In future, we may need to distinguish Modern English literature, a Romantic offshoot of the same type and vintage as Irish, Scottish and American literature, from an older English literature as well as from the generic subject of Literature in English. In other words, the ‘English literature’ which began with Shakespeare and Spenser may be seen to have started to splinter irrecoverably during the lifetime of Samuel Johnson. If English imperialism, beginning with the Tudors, had allowed English to become one of the great literatures of the world, it also hastened its eventual disintegration into the separate national components of Literature in English. Modern English literature can then be read as an affair of (native or naturalised) English writers, expressing a complex but initially local English identity.

Before too many readers protest, let it be said that the foregoing paragraph is an experiment in taking an ‘Irish’ view, looking at English literature to see if it will conform to an Irish (or Scottish or American) model. The new books by Seamus Deane and Liam de Paor are judicious and informative in their own right, but they have the added interest of embodying two influential and competing conceptions of cultural identity from an Irish perspective. De Paor is closest to the traditional Romantic outlook. His writing is sometimes reminiscent of Sean O’Faolain’s vigorous study of The Irish (1947), a book which its author described in the uncomplicated idiom of forty years ago as a ‘creative history of the growth of a racial mind’. Seamus Deane, by contrast, offers a political reading of cultural nationalism, bringing a steely scepticism to bear on the Romantic tribal mentality.

Of de Paor’s two books, The Peoples of Ireland is straight history, while Portrait of Ireland is a personal (though scholarly) essay which the publishers have unfortunately tried to transform into a coffee-table book by the addition of a job-lot of tourist-board photographs. Both works reflect the historiographical advances and changed political perspectives of the last four decades. Nevertheless, de Paor’s very readable summaries of Irish history, literature and topography in Portrait of Ireland are the prelude to a chapter, ‘Time out of Time’, in which (like O’Faolain) he seeks to define permanent features of, or at least permanent influences on, the Irish character and temperament. In this chapter de Paor’s training as an archaeologist, which is a strength in both books, is very much in evidence. Much as Wordsworth turned to Stonehenge, the author of Portrait of Ireland turns to the Book of Kells and the Tara brooch for intimations of what is truly Irish. These masterpieces of ancient Celtic art share a grotesque and fantastic profusion of ornament, ‘following a kind of mad logic through bewildering convolutions’ – a pedantic intricacy similar, it has often been argued, to the fiction of Joyce and Jonathan Swift. Joyce himself was a firm believer in such ‘Celtic’ qualities, and they offer an obvious context for his own art. Do we have here – as Vivian Mercier, for one, has implied – an unbroken tradition of genuinely Irish expression reflecting the national character? De Paor, for all his appealing mixture of archaeological enthusiasm and scholarly caution, seems to me to imply that we do. Seamus Deane would almost certainly disagree.

As a Northern Catholic, Deane has the best of reasons for being suspicious of Romantic cultural nationalism. ‘Reference after reference was made to Edward Carson, the Relief of Derry, William the Third, the British Empire and the Battle of the Boyne,’ runs the newspaper report of a recent Ulster rally. Once the past is accepted as a legitimate guarantee of contemporary identity, the Book of Kells and the Tara brooch are not necessarily any better than the Battle of the Boyne. It is the fervour of the belief, not the beauty and antiquity of its symbols and totems, which seems to matter. Both in his Short History and in his distinguished recent collection of essays, Celtic Revivals, Deane mounts a fierce and even-handed attack on the pieties of Irish national mythology. From his revisionist viewpoint Yeats’s championship of the Protestant Ascendancy and Patrick Pearse’s sentimentalisation of the Spirit of the Gael are equally deplorable. Instead of a continuous national tradition, Deane’s sense of Ireland’s cultural history is of a series of discontinuous, and heavily ideological, historical revivals. Historical assertion in Ireland, he implies, has been one of the prime vehicles of false consciousness.

As a scholar and critic, Seamus Deane seems to have little interest in the long perspectives: his chapter on ‘The Gaelic background’ is much the shortest in his Short History. What unifies Irish literature, for him, is principally its status as the literature of a colony given to outbursts of historical revivalism. As a colonial literature, it has no proper beginnings, no founding epic (the first substantial work analysed at any length in the Short History is A Tale of a Tub), and no settled relationship to the Irish people or their language. It strengths lie in its interrogation of forms and the wariness of its language. The unspoken parallel history of Modern English literature is needed to put the tradition that Deane surveys in its literary context. This ‘colonial’ reading of Irish literature is forceful and candid, and much of its impact comes from its pithy and penetrating assessments of individual writers. The book is generous in its use of quotation, and contains some memorable epigrammatic judgments. Deane’s bias may, however, be questioned in two respects. First, his hostility to Romantic cultural nationalism perhaps leads to a few forced readings. Secondly, my suspicion is that cultural nationalism is too formidable an adversary to be slain by any individual critic. A state of complete detachment from nationality and of imperviousness to its myths is unattainable in the contemporary world. To attack one set of cultural-nationalist presuppositions may be an effective way of endorsing another set.

Deane’s impatience with Romantic antiquarianism can be sensed in the Short History when he comments on John Montague’s poem about a group of old country neighbours: ‘Like dolmens round my childhood, the old people.’ These old people, who inspire mixed feelings of tenderness and repugnance, are compared by the poet to a ‘standing circle of stones’. For Deane this is a ‘petrifying inheritance’, and he credits the old people with a ‘Gorgon stare’ which is in danger of distracting Montague from ‘the appeal of the sensual, the sexual, the living landscape’. Though Deane has few rivals as a commentator on contemporary Irish poetry, the misjudgment here is doubly ironic. It is ironic that Deane misses Montague’s Wordsworthian reverence for the dolmens, which by no means belong to a ‘dead’ landscape (whatever that might be), and ironic too that he expresses his distaste for these monuments of Irish prehistory by means of a metaphor derived from ancient Greek mythology. Above all, what Deane has missed is the subtle sensitivity and tact of Montague’s evocation of old age and its impact on the young.

Part of the general vocabulary which Deane brings to bear on Irish literary history consists of terms like ‘culture’, ‘community’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘dispossession’, which seem to be indebted to Raymond Williams. Following the implicit direction of some of Williams’s work, one senses that Deane might have written a short history of Irish literacy – a cultural history, that is, of the practice of writing and reading in Ireland – rather than sticking to a chronological account of the literary canon. Many of his comments on language, on the deliberate construction of a nationalist heritage and on Irish writers’ perceptions of (and failures to perceive) their country’s colonial status seem to point this way. Such comments cannot be followed up within the conventional literary-historical textbook format. The result is something of a compromise.

One sign of the compromise is that prominence is given to a number of confessedly very bad books, on the grounds of the historical significance that is claimed for them. The myth that the Short History endorses (though it cannot altogether sustain it) is, I believe, that of an ultimately seamless relationship – almost a profound congruity – between a country’s political history and the development of its literature. The literature is stunted by the politics, but it also in some way completes the politics. The one is a distorted and often inverted, but still recognisable, reflection of the other. Seamus Deane’s Irish literature is political in origin (its birth being effectively marked by the assertion of a non-English identity within English literature), and it is still political today. This means that in the Short History a political and a literary-critical vocabulary exist side by side; neither subsumes the other, and each is tacitly supposed to have renounced its hegemonic claims. The results are often highly persuasive, even if a doubt remains about the method. ‘Irish literature sometimes reads like a series of studies in dying cultures; the moment of political death is the dawn of cultural life,’ remarks Deane at one point. Contemporary writers, he adds, have been intent on finding a way out of this labyrinth of ‘Irishness’.

The achievement of Samuel Beckett, whose 80th birthday we are currently celebrating, does not directly challenge this Caudwellian view of Irish literature, though it may make us wonder about its relevance. Beckett surely stands as the archetype of the kind of modern writer who has tried to put his work beyond the reach of any political thesis. In Deane’s words, Ireland functions in his work as a ‘mode of absence’: but Beckett is now being reclaimed by the Irish. (Shades of Stephen Dedalus – is Beckett important because he belongs to Ireland, or is Ireland important because it functions as a mode of absence in Beckett?) The Beckett Country records a photographic exhibition, including superb pictures by David Davison and Nevill Johnson, of locations mentioned in Beckett’s writings. These have been devotedly traced – and in a few cases tactfully invented – by Eoin O’Neill.

Cultural tourism, as Deane observes in Celtic Revivals, found its most influential Irish apologist in J.M. Synge. Yeats added his considerable support – notably in ‘Under Ben Bulben’, when he ordered his epitaph in Drumcliff churchyard (citing a clerical ancestor of whom remarkably little had been heard until the poet needed an Irish burial-place). The ‘Beckett country’ around Foxrock and the Dublin mountains, though attractive enough, can hardly match the resonance of the Yeats Country and the Aran Islands. And though Beckett’s father was an Anglo-Irish Protestant, there is little of the aura of cultural death about this prosperous Dublin commuter and his family.

Landscape in Beckett is less the symbol of a dying culture than a token of his profound preoccupation with the culture of the dying. It enters his later and more characteristic works in the form of obsessive and obstinate traces of memory. A shadow has invariably obtruded between these landscape-memories and the ordinary world of the tourist. When Vladimir asks Estragon if he recognises the tree in Waiting for Godot, ‘Recognise!’ Estragon exclaims, ‘What is there to recognise? All my lousy life I’ve crawled about in the mud! And you talk to me about scenery!’ In fact, there are numerous place-names and descriptions of places in Beckett, some of them readily amenable to the sort of semi-biographical sightseeing tour that The Beckett Country provides. Others are more recalcitrant. (Why, in Play and Happy Days, do we come across the names of three villages in north-west Kent?) The idea of a Beckett country is ‘not so strange as at first sight it sounded’, to quote John Pilling’s foreword to the exhibition catalogue, though for all that it remains a little strange. What is affirmed by returning Beckett’s art to the local, topographical and biographical level is the quality of Irishness. His plays, unlike Synge’s, are set in universal as well as dehistoricised landscapes, but it is quite possible for readers to reverse the process. The national myth and the Beckett myth then become mutually sustaining. Let nobody suppose that this sort of present-day cultural consumption of literature is confined to Ireland. For Irishness try reading Englishness throughout.