Do, Not, Love, Make, Beds

David Wheatley

  • Irish Literary Magazines: An Outline History and Descriptive Bibliography
    Irish Academic, 318 pp, £35.00, January 2003, ISBN 0 7165 2751 0

For a country with one of the oldest book-making traditions in Europe, Ireland was a late arrival on the magazine scene: Tom Clyde’s first example is Swift’s Examiner, started in 1710, ‘written purely for English consumption, and reprinted in Dublin, unchanged, only as an afterthought’. A rash of Tatler imitators gave way to more nationally minded miscellanies by the mid-century, but the first golden age of the Irish magazine was the 1790s. Journals such as Anthologia Hibernica and the Microscope confidently addressed the world of Addisonian Enlightenment and gentlemanly antiquarianism, though pedlars of lost-tribe-of-Israel theories were ten a penny, and an undercurrent of sectarian polemic was never very far away. The combination of diehard Unionism and Gaelic antiquarianism may have seemed unlikely, but the Tory Dublin University Magazine didn’t see why Catholic nationalists should have it all their own way, and in 1834 it published perhaps the single most influential Irish book review ever written, Samuel Ferguson’s attack on Hardiman’s Irish Minstrelsy. The review, which was spread over four issues, criticised primitive cultural nationalism and formed a platform for the soon to emerge Irish Revival. All through the 19th century, Irish magazines provided a public forum for the emergent nation. For every priest enacting Stephen Dedalus’s vision in Ulysses of a never-ending Mexican wave of elevations, consecrations and consumptions of the host (‘Dringdring! And two streets off another locking it into a pyx. Dringadring!’), there will always be a subeditor on a paper like Mr Bloom’s Freeman’s Journal congratulating himself on the headline ‘Ithacans Vow Pen Is Champ’.

In his delightful essay-length book, Fredson Bowers & The Irish Wolfhound,[*] J.C.C. Mays draws attention to the centrality of the parergon or ‘by-work’ in the Irish tradition: the circumstantial accidents of textual presentation often dictate ‘how meaning is realised – ceases to be inert and becomes alive – at a specific time and place’. What does it say about readers of the Kilrush Magazine, for instance, that ‘poetry by Downes, Griffin and Byron’ vied for column inches with ‘articles on the wonders of the turnip’? While admiring the work of retrieval that went into the Irish Academic Press’s recent edition of James Clarence Mangan, I was struck by the fact that a modern edition cannot reproduce the format in which many of his poems originally appeared. In his work for the Dublin University Magazine, the poems were gathered as mini-anthologies of translations which were linked by fantastical swathes of Mangan’s mazy, digressive prose: poetry and prose were coiled around each other to form a strange hybrid genre, a miscellany in the tradition of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.

After the excitement of the 1840s – the decade of the Nation and the United Irishman – things didn’t really hot up again until the 1890s. Yeats had spent long enough stepping over ‘the dirty piece of orange-peel in the corner of the stairs as one climbs up to some newspaper office’ to know what he was facing when he took on Beltaine in 1899 and Samhain in 1901. Around the same time, the country’s first student magazine, St Stephen’s of University College Dublin, was rejecting ‘The Day of the Rabblement’ by a young troublemaker called James Joyce. He wasn’t turned down by everyone: his description of the Irish Homestead as ‘the pigs’ paper’ may have been a way of covering his blushes – early versions of three Dubliners stories appeared there, one of them under the pseudonym ‘Stephen Dedalus’. (Joyce’s quip is usually seen as a dig at Æ, though all three stories had already appeared before he took over the Irish Homestead in 1905, and not, as Clyde says, 1897.) A cardinal point of Joycean myth was the provincial self-absorption of Revivalist Ireland, but the record of a journal like Dana suggests anything but general literary paralysis: as well as rejecting Joyce’s inchoate ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ in 1904, it outspokenly attacked the Church and the Revival, as well as publishing George Moore, an important figure in the Revival. Joyce eventually sneaked in with a wispy ‘Song’ in August 1904, though he still included the editor of Dana, John Eglinton (W.K. Magee), in the rogues’ gallery of his broadside ‘The Holy Office’, published later the same month.

The history of the British avant-garde can be traced in the fugitive magazines whose titles turn up litany-like in Iain Sinclair’s books: the Groseteste Review, the English Intelligencer, Angel Exhaust. The history of Irish avant-garde journals is even more elusive. There was Francis Stuart and Cecil Salkeld’s To-morrow, which lived up to its title, just about, by struggling to a second issue before expiring. Con Leventhal’s Klaxon arrived in 1924 with Blast-like promises of ‘a whiff of Dadaist Europe to kick Ireland into artistic wakefulness’, before leaving the Free State to its slumbers again after just one issue. Deprived of an outlet, the holy trinity of 1930s poetic Modernism, Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin, took their wares abroad, or went into hibernation (virtually giving up poetry, MacGreevy ended up writing for the Capuchin Annual). Clyde’s book is full of references to crestfallen and embittered editorials, and eighty years after the Klaxon, a recent issue of the Burning Bush, a Galway journal, complained: ‘the Burning Bush has been a failure. Having set out to promote "underground” literature and "experimentalism” . . . it soon became apparent that the Revolution of the Word was not suddenly going to materialise in Ireland.’ Leventhal had decided to found the Klaxon when Seumas O’Sullivan, the editor of the Dublin Magazine, cravenly accepted his printers’ refusal to set a review of Ulysses. He was still in jittery mood in 1931, when Samuel Beckett told MacGreevy that O’Sullivan had examined his poem ‘Alba’ ‘longitudinally latitudinally + diagonally for fear of an obscene anagram’, evidently fearing a repeat of Oliver St John’s Gogarty’s ‘Whores will be busy’ acrostic in Irish Society in 1900. Clyde describes the Dublin Magazine as a provincial affair, whose flashes of interest in France and Russia cannot make up for the belletrist horror of yet another essay on Crabbe or Vaughan. His frequent references to the 1950s as a time of stagnation will not go down well with Gerry Smyth, whose study of 1950s journals in Decolonisation and Criticism (1998) went some way to overturning this stereotype, but the editors of the journals don’t help themselves. Patrick Kavanagh wrote: ‘there is practically no literary public in this country and there has never been a literary tradition,’ a fact that must have slipped his mind when he founded Kavanagh’s Weekly with his brother Peter in 1952, a cranky rattle-bag of a journal described by Clyde as ‘a supreme folly’.

In his ‘Whang Editorial Policy’, Mark Halliday lays down the law: ‘Send only such poems/as you would choose in lieu of a cigarette before/execution by firing squad.’ Vast gulags of back issues the world over are populated by poets who may as well have used the matches on their own poems, and the sombre commemorations of descriptive bibliography shouldn’t be confused with a reprieve. Few words conjure visions of decline and fall as ruthlessly as Clyde’s ‘perhaps’, deployed in a spirit of what Disraeli called ‘congratulatory regret’: ‘it perhaps fades a little towards the end,’ ‘perhaps starts to decline after the eighth issue’. Roscrea Writing is ‘full of poems by local people, none of which is any good’ and the Portlight’s second issue pulls off the striking feat of forgetting there had been a first (‘There appear to be two issues numbered "1"’). Banba (1921-22) leavened its Corkeryan nationalism with ‘several cowboy stories’, a hybrid source-hunters will waste no time in identifying as the inspiration for the cattle rustlers of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. Relations with my publisher at Gallery Press, Peter Fallon, will never be the same now I know he was the star attraction of Crab Grass: Poetical Sonatas in 1972, which featured ‘a transparent envelope stuck to a page, with five small pieces of paper inside, with the words "Do", "Not", "Love", "Make” and "Beds” printed on them’.

The number of new titles increased in the 1960s and soared to an all-time high of more than thirty in the 1970s, before sinking below ten in the belt-tightening days of the pre-Celtic-Tiger 1980s. A series of maps shows that in the entire period covered by Clyde, fewer than ten magazines have been based further than a short bus trip from the coast, leaving whole tracts of the country journal-free. While Dublin remains the lodestar, the propensity of Northern magazines to turn into vehicles for Ulster regionalism is much remarked on (regionalism doesn’t really appeal to Dublin editors, confident they occupy the centre of the universe). An overly narrow conception of the literary sometimes gets the better of Clyde, leading him to overlook work salted away in unlikely outlets such as the gentlemen’s almanacs in which Mangan’s earliest work appeared. Lengthy descriptions of Threshold, Fortnight and his own magazine, HU, Northern journals all, leave the space devoted to the Dublin-based Atlantis and the Lace Curtain looking skimpy. Strangely, Clyde seems to think that Icarus fell to earth in 1966, which will come as a shock to the many editors who have kept it airborne to the present day (and since I’ve mentioned Iain Sinclair, I have a vivid memory of an issue he edited in the 1960s whose graphics seemed to consist largely of a cut-and-paste job on a ladies’ underwear shoot).

Clyde’s study finishes in 1985, leaving Krino, the Irish Review, Graph, Irish Pages and the new Dublin Review all still to come, and the world of the e-zine a mouse-click over the horizon. Whatever happens to those precious copies of Roscrea Writing in the libraries of the future, the move to the internet and digitised archives represents a more dramatic shift than anything in this book. Clyde himself may already be feeling the effects: in the latest batch of Irish small magazines to hit my doormat, one title was absent – Clyde’s own HU, whose pre-desktop-publishing format had looked badly in need of a makeover. The thought of a small magazine being put to sleep while its editor writes a history of small magazines would be a perversity too far.

[*] Coracle, 86 pp., £18, December 2002, 0 906 63017 7.