On (Not) Saying What You Mean

Colm Tóibín reports from Dublin

I came to live in Dublin when I was 17, in October 1972. It was very exciting. The annual fee for an arts student at University College Dublin was £100. Someone from home told me that he wandered into Theatre L one morning as Denis Donoghue was lecturing and noticed me staring at Donoghue with my mouth wide open, as though I was hearing an amazing piece of gossip for the first time. Donoghue was lecturing about the short poem in the 16th century. I did not know up to then that there were short poems in the 16th century. I knew there were sonnets and plays by Shakespeare and The Faerie Queen, but even saying the phrase now – ‘short poem in the 16th century’ – makes me wish I were writing about the work of Fulke Greville or Sir Walter Ralegh or Sir Thomas Wyatt.

I studied English and History. In English we were told almost immediately by Seamus Deane that we must bring nothing of ourselves, of our personal experience to a poem when we read. A poem was a verbal structure, and our job was to define the nature of its structure. Thus a poem could be read in the same way by a student in Kenya, at Oxford, in Philadelphia, in darkest Australia and here in Ireland. A poem was a pure, timeless object; reading did not require a cultural context. In History, the physical force tradition in Ireland was never dealt with directly. In three years, there was no lecture about the Famine, the Fenians, Young Ireland, the 1916 Rising. Even poor Michael Davitt and his Land League only got a look in because they represented a headache for Charles Stewart Parnell. History was Daniel O’Connell, Parnell and John Redmond, who led the Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster after Parnell. My grandfather had been interned after the 1916 Rising, and sometimes when the older generation in my family gathered they talked about the Fenians and evictions, Black and Tan raids and the 1916 Rising. Now in 1972, in the history department of University College Dublin, this was unmentionable and not worth studying. And there was something else going on: the voices giving the lectures were posh, at least to this ear from Enniscorthy, where only two to three people spoke like that and they were solicitors and high up in Fine Gael – Garret FitzGerald’s party, John Bruton’s party. (My family was in Fianna Fáil.) It was easy to see why they admired O’Connell and Parnell, and were happier reading Hansard than the list of names on coffin ships.

A whole generation, who had benefited from free education, was being re-educated. It was being made clear to them that reading Edmund Spenser in Ireland was no different from reading him in England, that the real moments worth studying in Irish history were the moments when Irish leaders had shone in Parliament. This was merely a part of what was going on everywhere. A whole society was turning away from itself. Once the Liam Cosgrave Government came to power in 1973, the Irish middle class, new and old, had, in the cabinet, voices of reason, such as Conor Cruise O’Brien and Garret FitzGerald, to lead them away from a notion of their Irish heritage as something dark, catastrophic and violent towards the bright light of European Union and Anglo-Irish Agreement.

I went to secondary school in 1967, the first year of free secondary education. I remember the Budget introduced by Charles Haughey in 1969, not for the tax-free status handed down to artists, although I am grateful for that now, but for the extraordinary increases in social welfare payments, which were backdated and meant that a whole room in our house could be transformed: every single piece of furniture gone, the lino taken up, the old curtains taken down, the walls painted, the old table thrown out, even the fireplace changed. For the next few years every time I came home I was amazed at this transformation. And other things happened too: members of my family began to go on package tours to Spain rather than pilgrimages to Lourdes, books no longer arrived from the Reader’s Digest Book Club, or the Catholic Book Club, new paperbacks by modern writers were bought any time anyone from the family went to Dublin. My sister became addicted to Jean-Paul Sartre. I remember a book called Words which began ‘I loathe my childhood’; this was an astonishing idea in Enniscorthy at that time.

Not long afterwards another sister decided to build a house. There were no architects in Enniscorthy, but lots of builders who suggested that she should look at a book called Bungalow Bliss. This explained everything about the new houses which began to dot our landscape, houses with tiled roofs and picture windows. (The Irish Times, in its infinite snobbery, called it Bungalow Blight.) We went through the book and then began to drive around the countryside looking at examples of House Number Five, or House Number Sixty-Two, cheering with delight when a number which we had particularly favoured appeared in front of our eyes in the townlands around Enniscorthy. Thus Bree, Marshalstown, The Milehouse, The Still, Browneswood, Davidstown Boulavogue each glowed with shiny new examples of what was to become indigenous Irish architecture. You selected your number and sent a small sum of money and the plans arrived. The builder knew exactly what to do. There was no damp in these wonderful new buildings, and there was nothing to remind you of where you had been brought up. The windows were a new shape, the layout was like nothing you had known before; they were like houses in America. Now you could stay in Ireland and be warm and comfortable and proud.

In the early Seventies, as the car-bombs went off in the North and the debate raged over Section 31, which banned Sinn Fein from the Irish airwaves, and the nature of Irish identity, for me and my associates the name John Banville began to have a strange, heroic power. His novel Birchwood, which appeared in 1973, remains the most extreme and perhaps the most persuasive work of Irish revisionism. In this book Irish history was a huge joke: the Famine and the war of independence were mixed with a circus and various Gothic horrors as parts of a sour dream, pieces of a narrative invented to amuse us. Banville’s earlier novel Nightspawn was set in Greece and his next, Doctor Copernicus, in Mitteleuropa. It would be hard, it seemed to me, to write a novel set in the past in Ireland without somehow taking Birchwood into account. It was the attitude that mattered most – the prose glistening with irony, the tone sophisticated and knowing. The idea of viewing Ireland as a joke and the outside world as somehow real was hugely liberating if you were a student in Dublin in the early Seventies in a world dominated by Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Daithi Ó Conall and Seán Mac Stíopháin.

I had come to see Irish nationalism as dreary and irrational: it left no room for variety and dissent. I argued with my brother about it and when he mentioned how many times Ireland had been invaded and attacked I was able to say that our family name was Norman and that we had invaded Ireland, and if we wanted to be Irish as well – and we certainly did, my uncle, after all, was a founding member of Fianna Fáil – we would have to accept the idea that we had invaded ourselves. Scoring a point like this seems a crucial part of the early Seventies.

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