Declan Kiberd has poured into this huge volume far more knowledge than I can expect to pick back out. I have to say that it took a huge effort to physically read in its entirety, and I had many breaks for other reading, but I was drawn back and onwards because virtually every chapter had its own fascination.
By investigating the many answers to the question – what it means to be an Irish writer – he taps into all sorts of issues that matter to writers of other cultures and languages, in particular those who share the Irish experience of emerging from colonial rule and constructing an independent national identity. It is fitting that two of his final chapters discuss the implications of translation, which shapes relations between colonists and colonised, but also relations more widely across cultural and language boundaries. He makes the curious observation that unlike many other nationalities, the Irish, by adopting the English language as their own, have had the opportunity to be their own translators, with subversive results.
As a review of literature he has accomplished what I think is a mark of the best critical writing, which is to transform the way I read. He has persuaded me to buy writers I had not heard of; for instance, I found a solitary and rather expensive copy of Collected Poems of Thomas Macgreevy on the net and rushed to own it. He has convinced me to read famous names I had ignored, and for example I diverted from his book for a week to read the plays of Sean O’Casey. He has pushed me to read more drama, and in a charity shop I happened upon a copy of Modern Irish Drama, collected by Hetherington, which has proven indispensible alongside Kiberd’s book. He has persuaded me that I have to make a proper effort with WB Yeats, a pet hate of mine. He even turned up a strand of writing by James Joyce which I had failed to consider up to now: his “Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing” which has now arrived on my to-read pile. A critic who makes me want to read more and to read better is, to my mind, doing a good job. English literature had a liberating effect on Wilde: it equipped him with a mask behind which he was able to compose the lineaments of his Irish face. This was to be a strategy followed by many decolonizing writers; and, as so often, it was the Argentinian, Jorge Luis Borges who gave the fullest account of the method. He described the insistence that Argentine artists deal with national traits and local colour as “arbitrary” and as a “European cult” which nationalists ought to reject as foreign. There were no camels in the Koran, he said, because only a falsifier, a tourist or a nationalist would have seen them...
[p49] ... Borges for his part found that being Argentine was either a fate or a mere affectation: if the former, then it was futile to try consciously for an Argentine subject or tone, and if the latter, then that was one mask better left unworn, for it could only be worn in the degrading pretence that the mask actually was the face.
[p49] Wilde refused to write realist accounts of that degraded Ireland which he only partly knew, and he took instead Utopia for theme, knowing that this would provide not only an image of revolutionary possibility for Ireland but also a rebuke to contemporary Britain. “Britain will never be civilized until she has added Utopia to her dominions”, he concluded in “The Critic as Artist,” adding the vital afterthought that “there is more than one of her colonies that she might with advantage surrender for so fair a land.”
[p50] Shaw wrote: “The people of England have done the people of Ireland no wrong whatever... in factory, mine and sweatshop they had reason to envy the Irish peasant, who at the worst starved on an open hillside... the most distressful country has borne no more than her fair share of the growing pains of human society...
[p54]Some of the less sophisticated texts of the early Yeats were attempts to deny civilization and its discontents by escaping to the Happy Islands of Oisin and Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young. Similarly, the short stories of Patrick Pearse often stressed the redemptive strangeness of the child, bearing to fallen adults messages from another world. The paradox was that these texts, which so nourished Irish national feeling, were often British in origin, and open to the charge of founding themselves on the imperial strategy of infantilizing the native culture. What was lacking in them was what Yeats would later call the vision of evil, without which art was merely superficial, unable to chronicle the tragedy of growth and change. ... What the child actually is or wants means nothing in such literature, for this is the landscape of the adult heart’s desire.
[p103,4]The Dublin of Ulysses, an occupied city, exists only on the fringes of Stephen Dedalus’s gorgeous consciousness, for much the same reason that Yeats found it hard to attend to anything less interesting than his own thoughts.
[p118]In such a self charged context, nation-building can be achieved by the simple expedient of writing one’s autobiography, and autobiography in Ireland becomes, in effect, the autobiography of Ireland. To read the autobiographies of Yeats, George Moore or Frank O’Connor is an experience akin to the study of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: it is to be constantly impressed and unnerved by the casual ease with which they substitute themselves as a shorthand for their country,...
[p119]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. It followed that the role which they imagined for themselves had to be announced and demonstrated in the very act of writing ... Both men did not just say things: they also said why these things were appropriate to a national poet. They affected to discuss their own performance with the implied nation of readers... The crucial passages in a book like Moby Dick or Ulysses are written as soliloquy: and the great poems by Whitman and Yeats are based on introspective self-analysis.
[p127]Whitman saw himself as counsellor of president and people: and so did Yeats. Both assumed intimacy with their personal lives on the part of their readers... Both experienced themselves as media for unseen forces which spoke through them, staked their claim as “representative men”, as types of a nation. Yet the traditions which they pioneered were also international, in the sense that they were certain that the conditions which produced them and their poems could be repeated in other places. Yeats was indeed an exemplar to Indian poets like Rabindranath Tagore, as was Whitman to many Latin Americans including Pablo Neruda.
[p129]For most of the nineteenth century ... England and the English had been presented to Irish minds as the very epitome of the human norm. Now it began to be clear that, far from being normal, England’s was an exceptionally stressed society, where vast imperial responsibilities were discharged only at an immense psychological and social cost.
[p135]Some leaguers projected an ideal self-image of the Gael as a descendent of ancient chieftains and kings. Irish Ireland countered the petty “seoinin” or West Briton, who asserted his superiority by imitating English manners, with its own form of invented Gaelic snobbery. Ireland became not-England ... Anything English was ipso facto not for the Irish, ... but any valued cultural possessions of the English were shown to have their Gaelic equivalents. Thus was born what Sean de Freine has acutely called an ingenious device of national parallelism:
• English language – Irish language
• English law -- Brehon Law
• Parliament – Dail
• Prime minister – Taoiseach
• Soccer – Gaelic football
• Hockey – Hurling
• Trousers – Kilt
It mattered little whether these devices had a secure basis in Irish history, for if they had not previously existed they could be invented, Gaelic football being a classic case of instant archaeology but definitely not a game known to Cuchulain... The kilt ... never was Irish; and subsequent historians have shown that the Irish wore hip-hugging trousers long before the English (and were reviled for the barbarous fashion by the new invaders). The kilt wasn’t properly Scottish either, having been devised by an English Quaker, seeking an outlet for unused tartan after the highland clearances...
[p151]The idea that the revival might be a revolt against imitative provincialism ... had been signalled by Thomas Davis in the refrain of his most famous song: And Ireland long a province be / A nation once again. ... this revolt was also a protest against the provincialization of England by the forces of the industrial revolution. The leaders of that revolt saw provincialism as taking one of two forms: the first and more obvious being found in people who looked to some faraway centre for approved patterns of cultural significance, the second and more insidious being found in those who were so smugly self-assured that they had lost all curiosity about any other forms of life beyond their own....what stared artists like Yeats and Joyce in the face: that England had grown smugly provincial in its imperial phase because its citizens had lost the capacity to conceive of how they appeared in the eyes of others...
[p160]The Easter rebels are sometimes depicted as martyrs to a text like Cathleen ni’ Houlihan, but rather than reduce the living to a dead textuality, Yeats at his most daring asserts the power of texts to come to life. As a poet, he invents an ideal Ireland in his imagination, falls deeply in love with its form and proceeds to breath it, Pygmalion-like, into being. It is hard, even now, to do full justice to the audacity of that enterprise.
[p202]Every man and woman had been assigned a part in life: for Yeats, the question was not whether it was a good or bad one – rather, it was whether he or she played it well... Pearse’s own philosophy of Irish history was cyclical: the 1916 Proclamation noted that six times in the previous three centuries national rights had been asserted in arms. Some generations had surpassed others and carried out their life-task, but a generation which shirked the task would condemn itself to a shameful old age.
[p205]To allay the fear of the unknown, even the most innovative may have to present it as the restoration of some past glory... so Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side to validate his ideal of a welfare state ... He saw that in a traditionalist society it is vitally necessary to gift-wrap the gospel of the future in the packaging of the past. This Connolly also did when he presented socialism as a return to the Celtic system whereby a chief held land in the common name of all the people.
[p207]O’Casey was a working class realist who focused his Dublin plays not on the deeds of warriors but on the pangs of the poor... As far back as 1914 ...He reminded James Connolly of his oft-repeated maxim that you could paint all the pillar-boxes green and hoist the tricolour over Dublin Castle and yet achieve nothing, for unless there was a change in the distribution of wealth, you would simply be exchanging one set of exploiters for another.
[p218] ... the playwright was marked forever by his early years as a loyal assistant and secretary to Connolly in the Irish Citizen Army. It was as a socialist orator that he had first developed is rhetorical skills, with the constant repetition of key words and sonorous phrases to create a rhythmical, rolling cadence, mounting towards a crescendo in the closing sentence....As a style it won worldwide acclaim in the 1920s and 1930s, especially among emerging black writers, for whom Langston Hughes spoke when he wrote: “The local and regional can become universal. Sean O’Casey’s Irishmen are an example. So I would say to young Negro writers, do not be afraid of yourselves. You are the world.”
[p221]When Cuchulain is used to underwrite a welfare state, or Christ to validate the process of decolonization, then the donning of historical garb may not be quite as conservative as O’Casey thought. Nietzsche had argued that even modern man “needs history because it is the storage closet in which all the costumes are kept”: such a one notices that none really fits him ... “because no social role in modern times can ever be a perfect fit”.
[p230] From this distance in time, the myths surrounding 1916 and the Somme seem almost identical. In Ireland it was put about that the most creative and promising intellects had been lost in the Rising by a small country that could ill afford such a reckless expenditure of young talent. “Easter 1916” was a primary sponsor of this myth... That was the Irish version of the English tale of a lost generation of brilliant officers cut down in their prime at the Somme. Both narratives had equally little basis in fact. ... James Connolly’s sad prediction came true: the worship of the past really was a way of reconciling people to the mediocrity of the present...
[p247] Ireland produced more than its fair share of conservative rebels, and very few revolutionaries imbued with a vision of an alternative society. After independence, a fear of the bleakness of freedom had so gripped the people that autocracy and censorship were the order of the day...
[p391] ... In Ireland, following a limited form of independence in 1922, the shutters came down on the liberationist project and the emigrant ships were filled not just with intellectuals but with thousands of young men and women. People began to emigrate not only from poverty or the hated law, but also because the life facing them was tedious and mediocre. The revivalists had won: the fathers with their heroes and ghosts from the past.
[p393]Three hundred years from now, Beckett will be remembered more for his prose than his plays, and not only because he wrote some of the most beautiful prose of the twentieth century but also because he was in such texts a supremely religious artist.... The arbitrary undeserved nature of suffering is something on which Beckett meditated in all his writings, and this becomes the attempt to scrutinize and fathom the mind of a God who does not feel obliged to make any clarifying appearance of explanations... Kenneth Tynan once quipped that Beckett had a very Irish grudge against God, which the merely godless would never feel – a line which may indeed derive from the famous moment in Endgame when Hamm and Clove curse their creator: “The bastard! He doesn’t exist!”
[p454/5]It has been jocularly suggested that the English have a class system and talk of little else: that the Americans have a class system but pretend that it doesn’t exist; and that the Irish are the worst offenders of all, since they operate a class system, but won’t tell anyone what it is.