Belfast Diary

Edna Longley

Nina FitzPatrick’s Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia won the Irish Times/ Aer Lingus prize for a first work of fiction, only to be disqualified when the pseudonymous author was deemed to be more Polish than Irish[*]. This made the book the stuff of its own fables, which satirise an inbred and confused intellectual milieu. Since 1960 the Republic of Ireland has certainly provided grounds for confusion: modernisation and secularisation; the women’s movement; determined rearguard action from the Catholic Church; a conservative-radical split within the Church’s own ranks; a new urban youth-culture; urban-rural tensions aggravated by swelling Dublin; Northern Ireland; Europe; and – for the intelligentsia – Marxism, Post-Structuralism and all that. Ideological tides often reach Irish shores just as they start to ebb elsewhere.

Seamus Deane, General Editor of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, has constantly applied the Marxist sense of crisis to a ‘political crisis’ whose epicentre is Northern Ireland. FitzPatrick locates crisis in the heads of a Dublin avant-garde who sit beneath the crumbling twin pillars of Catholicism and Nationalism with dust in their eyes. She implies that their unrecognised problem is spilt religion, which, as in late 19th-century England, finds peculiar outlets. In one fable Edmund Ignatius MacHugh frenetically founds cults and dispatches newsletters: the Field Day Anthology is a long newsletter from a section of the Irish intelligentsia.

The conflict in, and about, Northern Ireland has renewed a struggle for cultural hegemony that took various forms in 19th and early 20th-century Ireland. The anthology rehearses those earlier debates and is itself a hegemonic attempt: a heavy-gun emplacement on a Kulturkampf which has engaged Irish literary critics, historians and some writers during the past decade. Deane, for whom General Editor seems an aptly military title, has long maintained that ‘everything, including our politics and our literature, has to be reread.’ Before literary criticism got drawn in, rereading Ireland was chiefly the province of historians. But so-called ‘revisionist’ history (i.e. any complications of a simple Nationalist narrative) has come under fire for allegedly helping the Republic’s ideological pillars to crumble. Thus official embarrassment over commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising produced a small, hysterical backlash against the R-word, revisionism, rather than against the real culprit – the IRA.

The Field Day Anthology, in dominant conception if not in every sub-section, can be interpreted as a longer-meditated backlash from a more elegantly coiled whip. Not so much literary history as a historicisation of writing, it directly challenges Irish historiography. And it does so by invoking ‘theory’. Deane’s General Introduction states:

Historians of limited philosophical resource still long to answer the question, ‘What really happened then?’ More modestly, this anthology asks the longer, less abrasive question; ‘How, in the light of what is happening now, can we re-present what was, then and since, believed to have been the significance of what really happened?’ ... It is part of the received wisdom that the Irish past has been (mis) interpreted by [Nationalist] historians who had a cause to plead and an axe to grind. It is equally the case that this anthology, like the works it presents to the reader, is at the mercy of the present moment and, also like them, derives its authority (such as it is) from that moment.

Reading back from a present moment perpetually frozen at Independence/Partition in 1921 is precisely what Irish historiography has discredited. And I find Deane’s modesty unconvincing. It’s difficult to canonise and deconstruct in the same gesture, to place a sign of erasure over four thousand pages. There are also contradictions between his animus against revisionism, nostalgia for Nationalist history and the tie-breaking proposal to make reader-reception – or the most effective propaganda? – our arbiter of war. Shades of Paul de Man, perhaps.

It would, for instance, be both a pity and a lie if another Irish anthology. Troubled Times: ‘Fortnight’ Magazine and the Troubles in Northern Ireland I970-91,[†] had left out ‘what really happened’: its bleak ‘Chronology of Events 1970-90’. (I should say that I have been a member of Fortnight’s advisory board for five years.) Robert Johnstone, who edited the anthology’s ‘Cultural World’ section of Troubled Times, describes Fortnight as originating in ‘dark days when publishing or anything mildly progressive culturally was a novelty in strife-stricken, bomb-blasted, war-weary Belfast’. Whereas Fortnight offers a local open forum, the Field Day Theatre Company, with its annual play and five series of pamphlets, has always appeared a construction of exile. Field Day’s leading directors – Seamus Deane, Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel and Tom Paulin – are literary kings over the water or over the border. Their locus is a visionary Derry awaiting Jacobite restoration.

The novelist Colm Toibin said in his Sunday Independent review of the Field Day Anthology: ‘Unreconstructed Irish nationalists have always had real difficulty with the 26 Counties. The 26 Counties are limbo, they believe, waiting for the day when our island will be united and the British will leave. This leaves out any idea that Southern Ireland has been forming its own habits and going its own way.’ Seamus Deane, however, perceives the whole island as still subject to imperial constraints. In his introduction to the Field Day pamphlets by Edward Said, Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson, he says: ‘Field Day’s analysis of the situation derives from the conviction that it is, above all, a colonial crisis.’ (Note that the conviction does not derive from the analysis.) Theory helps Deane to renovate the term ‘colonial’, which has been revised by Irish historians.

The anti-colonial compulsions behind the anthology include going back to the beginning, 600 AD, to set the record straight. As if to scratch or show the wound, Spenser and other ‘early planters’ are among those present. So is Cromwell. And the General Introduction remains angry about ‘the power of the English canonical tradition to absorb a great deal of writing that, from a different point of view, can be reclaimed for the Irish tradition’. (Presumably not Cromwell.) But ‘the Irish tradition’, when monolithically conceived, has not always been open, for instance, to Swift, Burke and Goldsmith. Yeats excluded the Anglo-Irish 18th century when he first advocated a ‘national’ literature. The Gaelic ideologue Daniel Corkery went further and excluded Yeats. During the Twenties, when the Southern Protestant population was under pressure, Yeats began to invoke ‘the people of Burke and of Grattan’. Reading this rhetoric literally rather than contextually, Seamus Deane has attacked it as upholding an absurd crypto-Unionist fiction of aristocracy. So it all depends on who claims certain writers and why.

Field Day’s ‘present moment’ does not include the strong presence of women and feminism in the Republic. Might the anthology’s exiguous representation of writing by women be justified on aesthetic grounds? But the General Editor does not believe in aesthetic grounds: ‘The aesthetic ideology which claims autonomy for a work of art is a political force which pretends not to be so.’ Logically, then, the printed poems of Field Day directors Heaney, Deane and Paulin might just as well make way for women contributors. And since the anthology specialises in non-literary texts – copious male ‘political speeches and writings’ – there can be no excuse for omitting the documents of Irish feminism. At least we have William Thompson’s ‘Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men’. In 1825 this enlightened Protestant landlord compared the situation of women to that of Irish Catholics. There is no woman among the 20 contributing editors commissioned by Deane, or on the Field Day Directory itself.

Women’s issues embarrass Northern Nationalists because they highlight the controversy about Church and State in the Republic (divorce, gynaecological freedoms), and thereby expose the religious dimension of the Northern Irish conflict. the Field Day Anthology invariably ascribes ‘sectarianism’ to colonialism (‘a society sectarianised by the Willimite confiscations and the Penal Laws’). This leaves the term unexamined, along with the politics of the Irish Churches themselves. Nor was Ireland the only corner of Europe where the Reformation (and Counter-Reformation) had divisive cultural and political consequences. The anthology’s most striking cross-sectarian initiative is a section edited by Tom Paulin: ‘Northern Protestant Oratory and Writing 1791-1985’. Paulin’s poetry and prose articulate the Protestant Republican strand in Field Day: that is, their invocation of 1798, when Catholic and Dissenter briefly made common cause as United Irishmen. His attraction to radical Presbyterian rhetoric includes even its coarsening in the mouths of Ian Paisley and Paisley’s 19th-century predecessor, Henry Cooke. Nonetheless, Paulin does not condone ‘a fundamental hostility to Roman Catholicism’ or empathise with ‘a solipsistic universe gnawed at its edges by anger and incoherence’. The hound of heaven which fails to bark in The Field Day Anthology is the Catholic Church – more effectively silenced than by the Penal laws. Where, for instance, is Cardinal Cullen, architect of the identification between Irishness and Catholicism? Nationalists play down Catholicism, not only because it gives hostages to the opposition, but because of the Church’s wary attitude towards uncompromising Republicanism. In Portrait of the Artist Mr Casey asks: ‘Didn’t the bishops and priests sell the aspirations of their country in 1829 in return for Catholic emancipation?’ Although Catholicism became the main carrier of Irish identity during the 19th century, there was always ambiguity as to whether any eventual state would be for the Church, or the Church for the state. However, parts of the Field Day Anthology may simply assume that Catholicism is so natural as to require no special position, whereas Protestant orators, raving into a theological vacuum, are obvious exotics.

If Protestantism looms larger than Catholicism, Nationalism looms larger than Unionism. The Ulster Covenant and Edward Carson (not a Northerner) are assigned to Paulin’s orators, whereas the Proclamation of the Republic can be found among ‘Political Writings and Speeches 1900-1988’ edited by Seamus Deane. The selection here, as in Deane’s related 19th-century sections, mainly stresses varieties of nationalism and gives little sense of the long dialectical process which once encompassed Liberalism as well as Unionism. This anthology reads Irish history back, first from partition, second from the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Thus the Carson extract is chosen so as to align him with Ian Paisley and the late Harold McCusker in their moment of ‘betrayal’. To place all ‘Northern Protestant Oratory’ in Volume III, as if merely a prelude to Tom Paulin’s poems, further dehistoricises Unionism and breaks its Southern connections. Meanwhile Deane’s introduction to 20th-century ‘Political Writings and Speeches’ is itself a political speech. It attacks colonialism, revisionism, the Republic’s inertia, Churchill, British governments, Garret FitzGerald and Ian Paisley, while managing not to criticise Gerry Adams, fawning upon John Hume, and eulogising Charles Haughey – currently the object of scandalised enquiry – if with veiled threat: ‘Haughey has still to show that he knows where the British see their interest to lie. But, in the interval, he skilfully combines de Valera’s meticulously crafted republicanism with Sean Lemass’s best possible blend of cosmopolitan modernity and ancestral loyalty for present-day Ireland.’

Irish writers occasionally take time off from the National Question to contemplate sex or death or to play around with form. But many of their academic and critical compatriots have always subordinated the term ‘literature’ to the term ‘Irish’. For instance, the choices from later 20th-century writing, a matrix of the future, too often depend on predictably Irish content. There is no whiff of bold value-judgment or aesthetic surprise. ‘Irish Fiction 1965-1990’ gives 14 pages to a so-so story by Ronan Sheehan because of its ‘reference to Sir William Petty and the colonial past ... transfigured into a brilliant metaphor of Anglo-Irish relations’. However, Declan Kiberd encountered editorial problems with ‘contemporary poetry’, since most poets are not coming up with the right metaphors. They have ‘remarkably little to say’ about politics North or South. This means that they don’t say what Kiberd wants to hear. Paul Muldoon, whom he inaccurately calls ‘a profoundly descriptive poet’, has – among other concerns – deconstructed the political and poetic languages that generated this anthology. Also, Kiberd censors the Republic’s most political and most popular poet – Paul Durcan. An inconsistent fit of aestheticism (‘loose to the point of garrulity’) cuts down Durcan’s space and excludes his attacks on the IRA, satires on the Catholic Church, and agony over the Republic’s complicities in the Northern horror.

The Field Day Anthology finds it hard to recognise Northern Ireland even as a literary location. One need not endorse existing borders to feel that regional distinctiveness might be underlined here and there. This also applies to Munster and Connaught, but they remain as peaceful as Finchley, while the Ulster writer, in the words of John Hewitt, inherits ‘problems and cleavages’ with ‘no counterpart elsewhere in the British archipelago’. Northern Irish poetry – a taboo term – owes some of its recent variety and intensity to an interaction between literary traditions which also has social roots. It is perhaps the most complex cultural map we have: a map with conduits as well as cleavages, a map that links the local particularities of North-East Ireland to wider webs. This map cannot be easily traced in the Field Day Anthology. Nor does the General Editor seem aware of literature’s role in the more pluralistic understanding that has slowly started to erode the distorted cultural ideologies propping up our binary politics. Thus an anthology that contains writing in Latin and Norman French might have acknowledged Ulster Scots dialect – not to mention the endlessly ramifying English contexts of Irish writing. Up to a point Field Day’s premise embraces New-Nationalist talk of ‘accommodating diversity’ (a carefully policed section on revisionism even accommodates me), but that can conceal the old unitary shape. Diversity, if Unionists are ever to become less solipsistic, must comprehend all the affiliations between the islands.

[*] Fourth Estate, 161 pp., £12. 99, 21 February 1991, 1 872180 28 0.

[†] Blackstaff Press, 224 pp., £9.95, 31 October 1991, 0 85640 462 4.