Roy Fos­ter

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Af­ter Ire­land: Writ­ing the Na­tion from Beck­ett to the Present by De­clan Kiberd

Af­ter Ire­land:

Writ­ing the Na­tion from Beck­ett to the Present by De­clan Kiberd.

Har­vard Univer­sity Press,

540 pp., $39.95

“Con­fu­sion,” ac­cord­ing to the school­mas­ter Hugh in Brian Friel’s play Trans­la­tions, “is not an ig­no­ble con­di­tion.” Con­fu­sion is rife in De­clan Kiberd’s en­er­getic, imag­i­na­tive, ex­as­per­at­ing lit­er­ary his­tory Af­ter Ire­land, both as a de­scrip­tion of the cur­rent state of the Ir­ish na­tion and as a re­flec­tion of his ex­plo­sively scat­ter­shot ap­proach to Ir­ish cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence. The book fol­lows Kiberd’s ear­lier sur­veys, In­vent­ing Ire­land, Ir­ish Clas­sics, and The Ir­ish Writer and the World; In­vent­ing Ire­land in par­tic­u­lar has ex­er­cised a huge in­flu­ence on a gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents, at once pi­o­neer­ing a syn­the­siz­ing, com­par­a­tive, and in­ter­na­tion­al­ist ap­proach to Ir­ish writ­ing through the cen­turies and pay­ing close at­ten­tion to the for­tunes of the Ir­ish lan­guage. Kiberd is uniquely qual­i­fied to make these con­nec­tions, and has been do­ing so since his markedly orig­i­nal and still in­dis­pens­able study Synge and the Ir­ish Lan­guage (1979), pub­lished nearly forty years ago. Kiberd’s work con­tin­u­ally re­turns to the theme of how the writ­ten word both re­flects and com­pli­cates the idea of na­tional iden­tity. This pre­oc­cu­pa­tion resur­faces in Af­ter Ire­land, though it is not al­ways clear where the ar­gu­ment is go­ing, partly be­cause of the book’s idio­syn­cratic con­struc­tion. Chap­ters of vary­ing length ad­dress in­di­vid­ual works by a wide range of writ­ers from the midtwen­ti­eth cen­tury to the present. These are or­ga­nized by spe­cific work rather than au­thor, so writ­ers such as Friel or John McGa­h­ern re­cur in dis­crete com­part­ments, rather than be­ing the sub­ject of ex­tended study.

The sec­tions of the book are sep­a­rated by brief “In­ter­chap­ters,” bear­ing ti­tles such as “Sec­u­lar­iza­tion,” “Em­i­gra­tion,” “North­ern Trou­bles,” and “Euro­peaniza­tion.” These in­ter­chap­ters are for some rea­son un­pag­i­nated (us­ing the in­dex is a haz­ardous pas­time). They are iden­ti­fied by his­tor­i­cal sub­ject, so one ex­pects the sub­se­quent lit­er­ary stud­ies to sus­tain these themes. Thus an in­ter­chap­ter on the “Women’s Move­ment” is fol­lowed, log­i­cally, by a chap­ter on the poet Ea­van Boland, which does full jus­tice to the heft, in­flu­ence, and ele­gance of her work. But the next three chap­ters of this four-chap­ter sec­tion are de­voted to McGa­h­ern’s Amongst Women, Friel’s Danc­ing at Lugh­nasa, and Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, shift­ing the fo­cus un­ex­pect­edly away from fem­i­nist con­scious­ness.

Sev­eral of the book’s chap­ters (such as the one on Richard Power’s ne­glected novel The Hun­gry Grass and a full-on dis­cus­sion of Edna O’Brien’s The Coun­try Girls) orig­i­nated as in­tro­duc­tions, es­says, or re­views. This may partly ex­plain the ar­bi­trary struc­ture of the book, and why some of the parts bear a rather ec­cen­tric re­la­tion to the whole. Kiberd’s sparkling and prob­ing style goes some way to­ward over­com­ing this kalei­do­scopic ef­fect, but it is not al­ways an easy ride.

There is also the abid­ing dif­fi­culty of “lit­er­ary his­tory,” in that it in­volves his­tory as well as lit­er­a­ture. Much in Af­ter Ire­land con­cerns writ­ers and their works (drama and po­etry play as large a part as fic­tion), but the his­tory of in­de­pen­dent Ire­land is pretty much left aside un­til the rather de­spair­ing “Con­clu­sion,” of which more later. The late Taoiseach Charles James Haughey ap­pears in­ci­den­tally, de­scribed as “un­de­cod­able” (though sev­eral of­fi­cial and le­gal ex­am­i­na­tions de­coded him all too clearly, as op­por­tunis­tic, hyp­o­crit­i­cal, and cor­rupt); the Pro­vi­sional IRA’s cam­paign is re­ferred to in re­la­tion to the po­etry of Seamus Heaney; and the im­por­tance of Ire­land’s mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean Union is in­di­cated, as are the free­wheel­ing years of the “Celtic Tiger” boom and the sub­se­quent hang­over of the fi­nan­cial crash. The sec­tion fol­low­ing the in­ter­chap­ter on “Em­i­gra­tion” con­tains one chap­ter (a cor­us­cat­ing dis­cus­sion of Friel’s break­through play, Philadel­phia, Here I Come!). But im­por­tant un­der­ly­ing themes of eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal shifts re­main un­ad­dressed, as does the re­flec­tion of Ir­ish his­tory and its in­her­i­tances in works that are in­ex­pli­ca­bly miss­ing here, such as Colm Tóibín’s novel The Heather Blaz­ing or Sebastian Barry’s play The Stew­ard of Chris­ten­dom. Tóibín and Barry have a pow­er­ful claim to be­ing the most internationally rec­og­nized Ir­ish writ­ers of their gen­er­a­tion, but they do not merit a men­tion in this lengthy but not ex­haus­tive book. The Booker Prize win­ner Anne En­right is re­ferred to only in pass­ing, though women writ­ers re­ceive com­mend­ably gen­er­ous con­sid­er­a­tion. Kiberd is ap­par­ently de­ter­mined to ad­vance writ­ers who have re­ceived less at­ten­tion or who have ar­rived more re­cently on the scene (Richard Power, Clair Kee­gan, Keith Ridg­way, Éílís Ní Dhuib­hne). This is a laud­able ap­proach, but it leads to some sur­pris­ing omis­sions and em­phases.

So does the wa­ver­ing at­ten­tion to the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ir­ish writ­ers and the Ir­ish world. A dis­cus­sion of Banville’s early novel Doc­tor Coper­ni­cus fol­lows the in­ter­chap­ter on “Euro­peaniza­tion,” log­i­cally enough, but there is no dis­cus­sion of his scorch­ing ro­man à clef about the Haughey years, The Book of Ev­i­dence. But his later work is not ad­dressed, al­low­ing the ques­tion­able state­ment that he avoids “writ­ing di­rect au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,” which is con­tra­dicted by the re­cent pub­li­ca­tion of his mem­oir, Time Pieces. Many of the high points in the book con­cern the Ir­ish the­atri­cal tra­di­tion, so pow­er­fully re­born in the pe­riod that Kiberd cov­ers. The chap­ter on Tom Mur­phy’s The Gigli Con­cert is called “The­atre as Opera,” re­fer­ring to W. H. Au­den’s de­scrip­tion of The Im­por­tance of Be­ing Earnest as “pure ver­bal opera”—a con­cept ap­plied per­cep­tively by Kiberd to Mur­phy’s work in gen­eral. (It might be pointed out that Ir­ish opera is un­der­go­ing its own re­nais­sance, and that one of its re­cent suc­cesses has been an opera ver­sion of Wilde’s play by the com­poser Ger­ald Barry.)

The book be­gins with Beck­ett, who re­mains a con­stant ref­er­ence point, and on whom Kiberd writes with un­forced bril­liance; his forth­com­ing book on Beck­ett as mys­tic is cer­tain to move some goal­posts de­ci­sively in­deed. The idea that many of Beck­ett’s plays re­volve around an “is­sue­less . . . con­fronta­tion with con­science” that is iden­ti­fi­ably and gener­i­cally Protes­tant has be­come some­thing of a crit­i­cal com­mon­place, but it is worth closer in­ves­ti­ga­tion—no­tably in light of the way in which to­day’s au­di­ences have, so to speak, caught up with his plays. Once con­sid­ered for­bid­dingly avant-garde, they now pack the­aters and are beloved by ac­tors and di­rec­tors—a spec­tac­u­larly dif­fer­ent fate from that of Yeats’s dra­matic works. Equally strik­ing, but also ques­tion­able, is the state­ment that Beck­ett be­lieves “noth­ing is fun­nier than un­hap­pi­ness.” But the mat­ter with Ire­land (as Ge­orge Bernard Shaw once put it) hangs un­easily in abeyance. Kiberd is not alone in his de­sire to Hiber­ni­cize Beck­ett, but the idea that the tragedies of Ir­ish his­tory (es­pe­cially the Famine of 1845–1850) haunted his vi­sion more im­me­di­ately than his ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing World War II and in the hos­pi­tal at Saint-Lô is un­con­vinc­ing. Kiberd also spec­u­lates that Beck­ett’s de­ci­sion to write in French was un­der­taken

in or­der to sub­mit him­self to the ex­pe­ri­ence of lan­guage change un­der­gone by so many Ir­ish in the nine­teenth cen­tury, and to have re-pro­cessed early ex­pe­ri­ences in a sec­ond lan­guage al­lowed him to fil­ter out some too press­ing me­mories of his ear­lier years in Ire­land; it was a means through which he would “for­get” much of the past.

This brave no­tion does not seem grounded in any spe­cific ob­ser­va­tion or ev­i­dence from Beck­ett’s life or let­ters; in­trigu­ing as it is, it does not re­place the rea­son given by Beck­ett him­self, “to get away from style.”

Kiberd has his rea­sons for fore­ground­ing the lan­guage is­sue, and this is re­flected in the gen­er­ous treat­ment of Ir­ish­language po­ets such as Michael Hart­nett and Nuala Ní Dhomh­naill; there is also a no­tably high-oc­tane chap­ter on Derek Ma­hon, though Michael Lon­g­ley is an­other glar­ing omis­sion. It is ar­rest­ing to read how Kiberd finds an­cient Ir­ish sagas and he­roes re­fracted in mod­ern drama, no­tably in his bravura treat­ment of Friel’s great play Faith Healer; sim­i­larly, he draws at­ten­tion to the way clas­si­cal ref­er­ences are wo­ven through a de­cep­tively sim­ple novel like McGa­h­ern’s Amongst Women. This breadth of ref­er­ence also il­lu­mi­nates a stel­lar read­ing of Ma­hon’s poem “A Garage in Co. Cork,” though the text of the poem it­self is never given in full, which is a pity. Here and else­where, the au­thor may as­sume that his read­er­ship is as deeply mar­i­nated in the ma­te­rial as he is. Kiberd is widely hailed as a mar­velous lec­turer and teacher, and his ped­a­gogic style in­flects this book, which rev­els in dandy­ish flour­ishes and off­hand gen­er­al­iza­tions. Here, again, the mun­dane his­to­rian may feel an oc­ca­sional im­pulse to protest. The Wildean premise that English peo­ple rec­og­nized that they en­dured fogs only when the Im­pres­sion­ists came to Lon­don and painted them should not be re­tailed as fact. The be­guil­ingly an­tique state­ment that the diaries of the ex­e­cuted na­tion­al­ist revo­lu­tion­ary Roger Case­ment, de­tail­ing his ho­mo­sex­ual ad­ven­tures, were “prob­a­bly forged by the Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties” has been com­pre­hen­sively dis­counted by prac­ti­cally ev­ery bi­og­ra­pher and his­to­rian who has ad­dressed the ques­tion (the rep­re­hen­si­ble use of them by the same Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties to sway the case against his re­prieve is an­other ques­tion).

It was not Beck­ett who re­ferred to his win­ning the No­bel Prize as a

“catas­tro­phe” but his wife, which rather changes the im­pli­ca­tion. On p. 320 we read that

Eoin MacNeill, Gaelic his­to­rian and leader of the Ir­ish Vol­un­teers [be­fore World War I], felt obliged to re­mind his men dur­ing ma­noeu­vres that there was no such per­son as Cath­leen ni Houli­han: just a coun­try and its in­hab­i­tants for which they might have to fight.

But this ex­actly re­verses MacNeill’s in­tended mean­ing; his state­ment orig­i­nates not in an in­struc­tion to paramil­i­taries “on ma­noeu­vres,” but in a rea­soned mem­o­ran­dum that he wrote mak­ing the case against re­sort­ing to arms for the sake of an ab­strac­tion. Here and else­where, there is a ten­dency to em­bel­lish a quo­ta­tion in a way that changes its orig­i­nal mean­ing: thus, in re­peat­ing John Mitchel’s re­mark in his 1859 in­tro­duc­tion to James Clarence Man­gan’s Po­ems that the poet had two per­son­al­i­ties, “one well known to the Muses, the other to the po­lice,” Kiberd ren­ders it “se­cret po­lice,” in­tro­duc­ing a dra­mat­i­cally Cheka-like im­pli­ca­tion. The po­lice in nine­teenth-cen­tury Ire­land may have been dra­co­nian, but they were far from “se­cret.”

This taste for height­ened drama and in­cli­na­tion to­ward paint­ing in bold col­ors and chal­leng­ing as­ser­tions have al­ways made read­ing Kiberd a plea­sure; the verve, in­sight, and imag­i­na­tion of the crit­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions in this book lie at the heart of its ap­peal. But there is a trou­bled note of in­ter­ro­ga­tion too. In a sting­ing con­clu­sion about the state of the na­tion, he re­turns to Beck­ett, the power of the imag­i­na­tion (and imag­i­na­tion sup­pressed), and “a cul­ture that fed on ab­sti­nence.” By con­trast, Kiberd be­lieves that lit­er­ary and artis­tic re­flec­tions of what he calls “Tiger Ire­land” (the years of eco­nomic boom bridg­ing the last fin de siè­cle) amounted to an eva­sive fail­ure, with writ­ers turn­ing to the re­cent or re­mote past in­stead of nail­ing down the present. (Two very dif­fer­ent ex­am­ples of this ten­dency to glance back­ward are Frank McCourt’s best-sell­ing mis­ery mem­oirs and McGa­h­ern’s sub­tly in­flected nar­ra­tives.) A good deal of re­cent writ­ing (Donal Ryan’s nov­els, Paula Mee­han’s po­etry) might be in­voked against this. Kiberd also sees, in an age of glob­al­iza­tion, an avoid­ance of the theme of glob­al­iza­tion by Ir­ish nov­el­ists, de­spite Ire­land’s in­ter­na­tional fash­ion­abil­ity. Above all, he be­lieves that the self-fash­ion­ing im­pulse of the nascent na­tion-state, so pow­er­fully ev­i­dent at the time of the lit­er­ary re­vival of the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, had been ex­hausted by the time of late-twen­ti­eth­cen­tury pros­per­ity. He posits that in­tel­lec­tu­als and artists were ig­nored by the pow­ers of the state, and for their own part with­drew into a kind of in­ter­nal ex­ile—ex­ac­er­bated, he points out, by the way that the IRA “helped to dis­credit the lan­guage of ‘pa­tri­o­tism’ by their ca­sual slaugh­ter of civil­ians.” Kiberd also men­tions the de­cay of the scan­dal-rid­den Catholic Church’s so­cial and moral au­thor­ity (re­sound­ingly con­firmed by the re­sults of the re­cent abor­tion ref­er­en­dum), and the loss of eco­nomic au­ton­omy to the cen­tral au­thor­ity of the Euro­pean Union af­ter the 2008 crash and bailout; rail­ing against the takeover by multi­na­tional com­pa­nies and agr­i­cap­i­tal­ism, he quotes the of­ten-de­rided 1943 speech of the Taoiseach Éa­mon de Valera call­ing for a re­vival of tra­di­tional ru­ral and re­li­gious val­ues, which Kiberd un­con­vinc­ingly cred­its with an “in­sur­rec­tionary in­ten­sity.” At the same time, he de­liv­ers a thought­ful el­egy on the fate of the na­tion-state and de­cries the ef­fects of aus­ter­ity. Un­like most Ir­ish in­tel­lec­tu­als, he seems wary of the ben­e­fits of EU mem­ber­ship. Re­new­ing the project of na­tional in­de­pen­dence, he be­lieves, re­quires a new re­vival, sin­gling out cul­ture as the road to self-recog­ni­tion, in the man­ner of Hyde, Yeats, and Pearse a cen­tury ago.

Much of the work sur­veyed in this book, and some of the ma­te­rial it leaves out, sug­gests that a process of self-ex­am­i­na­tion may be hap­pen­ing, if not ex­actly in the way that Kiberd pre­scribes. Like Ray­mond Williams or Richard Hog­gart in a very dif­fer­ent era, he is de­ter­mined to place the prac­tice of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism at the cen­ter of the cri­tique of na­tional life. Iron­i­cally, this echoes the pre­cepts of Matthew Arnold, usu­ally a de­monic fig­ure for na­tion­ally con­scious Ir­ish in­tel­lec­tu­als be­cause of his stereo­typ­ing of “the Celt” and his highly se­lec­tive view of na­tional cul­tures. Con­fu­sion can take many forms—es­pe­cially in a coun­try where, as Hugh in Friel’s Trans­la­tion also re­flects, to re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing is a form of mad­ness.

Brian Friel at home in County Done­gal, Ire­land, 2011

Seamus Heaney, Dublin, 1977

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