Playboys of the GPO

Colm Tóibín

  • Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation by Declan Kiberd
    Cape, 719 pp, £20.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 224 04197 5

‘The most important thing we have done is that we have made a modern art, taking our traditional art as a basis, adorning it with new material, solving contemporary problems with a national spirit,’ the Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch wrote in 1903. By the turn of the century, the national spirit had taken over most cultural activities in Catalonia, so that art, architecture and the Catalan language had become more powerful weapons in politics than resentment about Madrid’s handling of foreign or economic policy. The architects who worked on the new apartment blocks and public buildings in Barcelona between 1880 and 1910 began to play with a dual mandate, not merely innovative but Catalan as well, in an effort to create a national spirit in their buildings. They used the most modern methods available: in 1888 Domènech i Montaner used unadorned brick and industrial iron for his café-restaurant in the Parc de la Ciutadella; 16 years later he used a steel frame for his concert hall, El Palau de la Música Catalana, making it the first curtain-wall building in Spain and one of the first in the world. Both buildings sought to establish the progressive nature of the Catalan enterprise, but both are also laden with medieval motifs, reminders of former greatness, of the time before 1492 and the beginning of Castilian imperialism. Like most turn-of-the-century buildings in Barcelona they used Gothic and Romanesque references, spiky shapes, cave-like entrances, floral motifs in wrought iron, coloured glass or ceramic tiles, ornate sculpture, conveying both craft and opulence. They were intensely political buildings, and both Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch became leading politicians – Domènech i Montaner was one of the founders of the Lliga de Catalunya in 1887. Both were elected to the Cortes in Madrid to represent the Catalan cause.

I spent a year in Barcelona at the end of the Eighties, looking at these buildings, reading about these architects and thinking about their efforts to construct a nation. Sometimes, as I sat in the Biblioteca de Catalunya in the 14th-century hospital building, I had to blink to make sure that I was not in the National Library in Dublin. Some of the connections between Catalonia and Ireland during this period of nation-inventing were obvious: the Catalans founded a political party in the early Twenties called Nosaltres Sols, a direct translation of Sinn Fein – Ourselves Alone. There were poems in Catalan on the death of Terence MacSwiney on hunger strike in 1921. A stirring poem had been written in Catalan in 1848 which inspired a generation of nationalists; in the same year in Ireland Thomas Davis wrote the song ‘A Nation Once Again’. Both Catalan and Irish politicians could, and still can, play tricks with the arithmetic of the Cortes in Madrid and the Mother of Parliaments in Westminster.

But it was the general shape and atmosphere of Catalan cultural politics between 1890 and 1910 which constantly reminded me of Ireland. The foundation of the Barça football club, and its role in creating waves of Catalan emotion, was close to that of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland, founded in the same period. The fetishisation of certain parts of the landscape – Montseny, for example, or the Canigó – bore a great resemblance to the sanctity of the Aran Islands and the Blasket Islands in Ireland. The attempt by Yeats and Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde to surround the Gaelic past with holiness had loud echoes in the efforts by Catalan architects and artists, from Gaudí to Miró, to establish the Romanesque tradition as quintessentially Catalan while the rest of Spain was Moorish. And the attempt, too, by Yeats and Synge, and indeed Joyce, to embrace modernity and Europe as a way of keeping England at bay was close to Domènech’s use of iron and steel and modern systems while Spain slept. There were echoes, too, between the careers of Joyce and Picasso, who found all this rhetoric and invention too much for them, who viewed Dublin and Barcelona respectively as centres of paralysis, and who got the hell out as early as they could. And other echoes between the careers of the visionaries Yeats and Gaudí, one of whom embraced magic and the other extreme Catholicism, in a fraught political and emotional climate where everything from the self to the nation was open to invention.

Declan Kiberd tries in this vast, wide-ranging book to find various contexts in which the literature of the Irish Renaissance can be placed.

To write a deliberately new style, whether Hiberno-English or Whitmanian slang, was to seize power for new voices in literature ... Since there were no clear protocols for a national poet, Yeats and Whitman were compelled to charm an audience into being by the very tone of their own voices, assuming a people in order to prove that they were really there.

Whitman’s and Emerson’s efforts to invent America are regularly placed beside the efforts of Yeats and his friends to invent Ireland. Kiberd looks for Indian and African models for the Irish experience, so that figures such as Tagore and Rushdie, Naipaul and Achebe, Fanon and Nandy float on the surface of these pages.

Kiberd loves playing with paradoxes, oppositions and juxtapositions. Whenever the word ‘periphery’ appears in this book, it will almost certainly, by the next sentence, have become the ‘centre’, and the past the future (‘The past is the only certifiable future we have,’ Kiberd quotes Carlos Fuentes as saying), just as women will become men and vice versa (this is a major theme), Protestants will become Catholics and vice versa (one chapter is called ‘Protholics and Cathestants’) and, of course, England will become Ireland (Chapter 1 is entitled ‘A New England Called Ireland?’). This results in a good deal of fine writing and exciting analysis, but the playing with fixity is, at times, a mask for some very old-fashioned views on Irish nationalism and Irish history.

Kiberd tells us that Clontarf in Dublin is ‘the site of a famous victory by which the Irish had terminated Viking power in Europe’. There is a good reason why there is no footnote here: there is no evidence for this statement. It is the sort of thing which was included in school history books up to the Sixties, but even using the term ‘the Irish’ here is misleading.

In a book so concerned with flux and non-binary systems, such phrases fall with a dull thud. Later, without explanation or justification, Kiberd uses the phrase ‘occupied Ireland’ about Ireland in 1907. This is a phrase which might appear now and again in IRA propaganda, but it cannot be thrown casually into a book full of sophisticated distinctions. Elsewhere, Kiberd refers to the Dublin of Ulysses as ‘an occupied city’. It is hard not to feel that it was occupied by Leopold and Molly Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan and others too numerous to mention. Later, he writes: ‘After all, one of the first policies formulated by the Norman occupiers was to erase Gaelic culture.’ Once again, there is no footnote, no explanation. A few hundred pages earlier, through the medium of Joyce, he had acknowledged that ‘the Irish’ had roots all over the place (he lists Scandinavia, Normandy, Spain, England): how come the Normans, then, were ‘occupiers’?

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