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.

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[*] 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.