The Whole Bustle

Siobhan Kilfeather

  • The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing edited by Seamus Deane
    Field Day Publications/Faber, 4044 pp, £150.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 946755 20 5

The editors of the Field Day Anthology make large claims for its importance as ‘the most comprehensive anthology of Irish writing ever published’. These three volumes, totalling over four thousand pages and spanning a historical period of fifteen hundred years, bring into print an impressive range and variety of writings from a number of languages, periods and genres, and their publication is a major event in Irish studies. As with previous Field Day events, this one is designed as a significant intervention in Irish culture and politics (if it is possible – Field Day think it isn’t – to distinguish between the two categories): indeed, this anthology has for some years past been heralded as the major Field Day intervention.

Seamus Deane explains the imagined significance of the anthology: ‘It is important to do this now because the political crisis in Ireland, precipitated in 1968, but in gestation for many years before that date, has exposed the absence within the island of any system of cultural consent that would effectively legitimise and secure the existing political arrangements.’ Deane does not explicitly claim that the anthology will produce such a system of cultural consent, but he does claim that ‘there is a story here, a meta-narrative, which is, we believe, hospitable to all the micro-narratives that, from time to time, have achieved prominence as the official version of the true history, political and literary, of the island’s past and present.’ The not-quite-declared agenda is to persuade readers that there is a narrative about ‘the island’, a place which is taken to have a certain kind of cultural integrity that is ‘hospitable’ to controversy, dissension, perhaps even to violent differences of opinion. This is a political claim which many people will reject from the outset, and those dissenters may use the violence of the last twenty years as evidence that none of the available meta-narratives – nationalism, anti-nationalism, imperialism, unionism, socialism, feminism – are sufficiently hospitable to differences.

There is a series of questions to be asked about the anthology, only some of which relate to the Field Day agenda. Does the anthology tell a story, and is it plausible? What is included that changes informed popular perceptions of Irish writing and what is left in place? What are the significant exclusions? Is it textually accurate and well-annotated? Who is it for? Why is it so expensive? How much material that was previously difficult to obtain is now made available? What are some of the particular pleasures in reading through so much material?

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the anthology is its organisation. Each volume is divided into sub-sections, some of which cover historical periods, some of which are devoted to particular genres, a few of which concentrate on a particular language – varieties of Gaelic, of course, but also Latin writing in Ireland and Norman-French texts; and there are sections devoted to major authors such as Yeats and Joyce and to major historical events such as the Famine. Each section begins with a substantial critical introduction by the responsible contributing editor and ends with brief biographies and bibliographies.

The strengths and weaknesses of the organisation may be seen in an examination of two sections dealing with overtly political writings. Nicholas Canny and Andrew Carpenter introduce ‘The Early Planters: Spenser and his Contemporaries’ by reaffirming Spenser’s status as a great poet in the English tradition, and then by redescribing him as an ‘apologist’ for English rule in Ireland, someone whose writing ‘served to drive a wedge between the native Irish and those who came to the country from England and Scotland’. The following selection is then divided between political writings by Spenser, Beacon, Moryson, Davies and Temple, and a selection of poetry. This not only provides a generous selection from texts which, apart from the Spenser, are not easily available outside research libraries, but also offers the basis for an interesting political reading of Spenser’s poetry. The Irish content of ‘Epithalamion’, for example, is not merely a matter of scene, but of a whole argument about the regulation of sexuality set out in ‘A View of the Present State of Ireland’. What is not explained is why the identification of Spenser as a ‘major’ poet, which is specifically set up as an English construct, carries over into positioning him as a major Irish author. This is a problem that recurs in the major author sections on Swift, Goldsmith and Burke. The anthology seems, on the one hand, to wish to reject the idea of authorship in favour of a notion of discursive formations, and on the other hand, to wish to reclaim and redescribe well-known texts in terms of an Irish identity which usually depends on the history of the author. (The interesting exceptions of Congreve and Sterne are discussed below.) Another problem with this section is the argument that any writing can serve to drive a wedge between people, an argument which depends on very simple theories of literary production and intentionality that need to be fleshed out in terms of the production, circulation, readership and eventual publication of these particular manuscripts in this particular historical period.

Seamus Deane’s selections of ‘Political Writings and Speeches, 1850-1918’ and ‘1900-1988’ reveal a different kind of problem in the construction of a politics that is almost completely dominated by issues of national government and sectarian difference. With the exception of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s essay ‘War and Feminism’ there is no acknowledgment of the debates over women’s rights, sexuality and reproduction in which Mary Robinson, for example, established her reputation. Indeed, one could read through this whole anthology without ever confronting the idea that sexuality has been a vexatious political issue in Irish history. Even Terence Brown’s introduction to the useful section on ‘Censorship and Provincialism’ barely refers to sex. One has to turn to Shaw’s piece from The Irish Statesman (1928) to read that Marie Stopes and Radclyffe Hall are exemplary of the demons from which censorship sought to defend the Southern Irish. Where lesbian and gay writers appear in the anthology their sexual identities are occluded. The major sex scandals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries involving Parnell, Wilde and Casement are all treated as if they took their meaning primarily in a context of British repression and misrepresentation. Although the Kincora scandal makes a brief appearance for similar reasons, there is nothing about the divorce and abortion debates, the Kerry babies, or the move to save Ulster from sodomy. The nationalist/imperialist and Protestant/Catholic dichotomies are established at the expense of other neglected constituencies and forms of discrimination within Ireland. The overwhelming body of material about poverty is contained within imaginative and autobiographical rather than political writings. Travellers, Jews, immigrants are almost completely invisible.

Before the Field Day Anthology appeared there was a certain amount of speculation as to how many women writers would be included, given that there are no women on the Field Day board or among the contributing editors. I count 39 women, from Eibhlin Dhubh Ni Chonaill and Mary Barber in the 18th century to Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Medbh McGuckian, with Maria Edgeworth, excellently introduced by W.J. MacCormack, the only woman to whom a whole section is devoted. This is by no means a lamentable showing, and the editors might argue that given the state of feminist history in Ireland in the late Eighties, when most of these selections were made, they do represent contemporary knowledge and opinion of women’s writing; that the anthology is in this, as in other respects, ‘at the mercy of the present moment’. Of the women who appear, few are surprising choices. Mary Balfour, Mary O’Brien and Asenath Nicholson may be novel to many readers, but most of the women are predictable. In the first paragraph of the General Introduction Deane compares this anthology with Charles Read’s Cabinet of Irish Literature (1879): it would be interesting to learn why Field Day rejected writers such as Monk, Ryves, Tighe, Leadbetter, Hall, Mulholland, and over a dozen other women who appear in Read. I particularly missed some of the Northern women writers such as Charlotte Elizabeth, Amanda McKittrick Ros, Frances Browne and Anne Crone, whose varieties of Unionism and feminism would have been intriguingly disruptive of the meta-narrative.

Northern writing is otherwise well-represented. Tom Paulin edits a section on ‘Northern Protestant Oratory and Writing 1791-1985’, which includes Drennan, Cooke, Carson, Craig, Paisley, and Orange Toasts from 1795. Northern writing is also well-represented in fiction, poetry, drama, autobiography and the Irish language.

One of the absolute delights for people who do not read Irish is the wide sampling of texts and translations. (Every text in the anthology is printed in the original language, with a subsequent translation into modern English where necessary.) Proinsias MacCana provides a lucid and informative introduction to ‘Early and Middle Irish Literature’, including epic, lyric and occasional poetry. The period 1600-1800, introduced by Alan Harrison, is probably more familiar to non-Gaelic readers through Kinsella and O’Tuama’s major bilingual anthology, An Duanaire (1981). The Field Day publicity makes the claim that ‘all texts not originally in English have been specially translated for this work.’ That is untrue. There are the familiar translations by Douglas Hyde, Frank O’Connor, Cecile O’Rahilly, Standish O’Grady, Thomas Kinsella and others, as well as the contributing editors.

The advantage here is that readers taken with these excerpts should be able to obtain fuller texts through libraries. There is a real problem, however, with 20th-century writing in Irish. The prose excerpts are very short, and readers who have been waiting to assess the high reputations of Mairtin O Cadhain and Seosamh Mac Grianna – fiction writers whose work is almost wholly unavailable in English – are given very little to go on. Mac Grianna’s moving but very short Famine story, ‘Ar an Tra Fhoilimh’, has been available in English since 1955 – I wanted to read more. It was similarly impossible to respond to the claims made for O Cadhain’s Cre na Cille (1949) as the ‘pre-eminent achievement’ in the modern Irish novel on the basis of a couple of pages. It is difficult to understand the rationalisation by which Goldsmith and Moore figure as major authors, but O Cadhain does not.

Presumably the editors thought long and hard about the value of anthologising excerpts from plays and novels. If these volumes go into paperback they are likely to be used heavily in courses on Irish literature, particularly in the USA. It is surely doubtful that anyone will want to teach a couple of chapters from Murphy or a scene from The Beaux’ Stratagem, easily available texts, and still less doubtful that anyone takes much pleasure from reading such excerpts. Without them, however, the anthology would be seriously hindered in its representativeness. There are a number of complete plays – The Brave Irishman, She stoops to conquer, The Rivals, Translations, Double Cross. A few short novels, rather than the excerpts, might have been more effective for the modern period. In earlier periods it probably requires excerpts from Frances Sheridan, William Chaigneau and Thomas Amory to create a readership for these novels. Ian Campbell Ross’s superbly informative introduction to ‘Fiction to 1800’ creates a persuasive argument for a political relevance and a coherent tradition in the early Irish novel. Ross includes an excerpt from Tristram Shandy, less on the basis of Sterne’s early childhood in Ireland than because he was claimed as a precursor and fellow-countryman by Joyce and similarly influenced Beckett and O’Brien. Sterne is emblematic in the anthology of the ways in which all traditions may be said to be forms of wishful thinking. It is disappointing to see Congreve excluded from 18th-century Irish writing because ‘the wit he exhibits has a serenity and security of tone entirely lacking from most Anglo-Irish writers, whose ability to use the English language brilliantly masks an unease’ (Christopher Murray). On the one hand, there is something narrow about the requirement to produce unease as a passport to national identity and, on the other, it seems a poor reading of Incognita and the plays to represent them as serene and secure.

The final section is on ‘Contemporary Irish Poetry’ (in English), the most heavily anthologised field in recent years. There are almost no surprises here, except for a certain flattening of reputations, also characteristic of the section on mid-century poetry, where Kavanagh, Hewitt and MacNeice are given scarcely more space than most of the younger poets. A look at selections from Kinsella, McGuckian and Muldoon suggests that Declan Kiberd prefers accessibility to the hermeticism that is usually taken to be characteristic of these writers. There are very good poems throughout this section, but it feels as if everything too difficult has been left out. It seems insensitive to conclude the whole anthology with Greg Delanty, someone whose work is in the very early stages of development. Other sections were not bound to chronology and the poetry might have concluded with writing better able to bear the weight of the centuries.

It is always easier to complain about an anthology than to praise it. I receive immeasurable enjoyment from reading these volumes. I never pick them up without finding some previously unknown passage or some striking conjunction of ideas. The most familiar figures are placed in new frames, Seamus Heaney’s introduction to Yeats sets up a dialogue between the two most widely read Irish poets. Heaney situates Yeats in relation to Moore, Mangan and Ferguson as well as to later poets: ‘both culmination and origin’. In this very political anthology Heaney reasserts that ‘poems, after all, are not bulletins or editorials’ and tries to give some account of the ways in which agency and the imagination are affected by historical events, while throwing down a challenge to his fellow editors with phrases such as ‘the human impulse to transcendence’ and ‘universally and inexhaustibly relevant’. The brief section from Beckett is eloquent, and situated as it is between counter-revival drama and Northern Protestant oratory, demands that we rethink Beckett’s Irish context. In terms of cultural criticism, the two sections edited by Luke Gibbons on ‘Constructing the Canon: Versions of National Identity’ and ‘Revisionism and Cultural Criticism’ are an excellent introduction to the variety of positions in Irish cultural debates today, and include some substantial critiques of the Field Day project itself.

I feel obliged to end on a carping note, by mentioning a few of the faults likely to irritate you when you pay £150 for this book. The design is old-fashioned and unattractive. The paper is too poor to take notes in pen. The standard of annotation is very uneven. I don’t believe there are more mistakes than one finds in the average Norton anthology, and in some of the earlier sections the notes are excellent; in many of the later sections, however, there seems a confusion about the implied audience, and an almost inane arbitrariness in choosing what to gloss. In Muldoon’s ‘Christo’s’ perhaps an American reader needs a note to the hunger strikes but wouldn’t such a reader also need a note for Christo? What reader of any nationality needs to be told that the Matterhorn (Kavanagh’s ‘Shancoduff’) is ‘a mountain in the Swiss Alps’? Cronin’s ‘Baudelaire in Brussels’ has a note for Poe but not for Baudelaire. In the selection from Mahon there is a note for Uccello but not for Pieter de Hooch, Voznesensky or Nerval. A note to the line ‘if Henn caught a little girl, “he’d salt her”’ in O’Faolain’s ‘Midsummer Night Madness’ offers an excessive reference to Irish droit de seigneur. In the Irish-language sections the annotations mysteriously accompany the English rather than the Irish texts. A few mistakes spotted in idle perusal include small line misprints, such as that attributing Johnstone’s Chrysal to Sterne, and bad references: the story of Legion is not in Luke 9.30; Charlotte Brooke is not the author of Emma, or The Foundling of the Wood. I mentioned above the ways in which the biographies euphemistically obscure sexuality, and they produce other eccentricities: the institutional persecutions of Mac Grianna and his long confinement in Letterkenny are passed over; J.C. Bowen-Colthurst, murderer of Sheehy-Skeffington, is described as ‘a British officer of Anglo-Irish extraction and an evangelic frame of mind’ as if these characteristics naturally produced murderers; Somerville and Ross are not allowed to be lesbians but they are allowed to have communicated alter Violet’s death.

These are warts on the face of a significant achievement, of which Deane and the other editors may well be proud. I thought of ending with a quotation from something new to me, but there is too much. Instead I recommend for its elegance, wit and relevance Myles na gCopaleen’s defence of public expenditure on the revival of the Irish language:

I may be a wild paddy but I take the view that the free expenditure of public money on a cultural pursuit is one of the few boasts this country can make. Whether we get value for all the money spent on Irish, higher learning and on our university establishments is one question but that we spend liberally on these things is to our credit ... There is another aspect to this question. Even if Irish had no value at all, the whole bustle of reviving it, the rows, the antagonisms, and the clashes surrounding the revival are interesting and amusing. There is a profusion of unconscious humour on both sides.

It seems fair to predict that the bustle of the latest Field Day intervention will provide both antagonisms and humour.