Inventions and Revisions

Review by

Michael Malouf

Columbia University

Copyright (c) 1997 by Michael Malouf, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the notification of the editors.

Review of:

Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland . Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 653 pgs. $35.

  1. When W.B. Yeats asks "Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?" in his 1938 poem "The Man and the Echo," he is reflecting on his part in a cultural revolution which came to an unambiguous fruition in the Easter Rising of 1916. Fifty years later the contemporary poet Paul Muldoon responds to Yeats's famous line with the cynicism: "If Yeats had saved his pencil-lead / would certain men have stayed in bed?" (Selected Poems , 134). This debate over the role of the art and the artist in society is central to many contemporary postcolonial societies. In Inventing Ireland , Declan Kiberd attempts to comprehend the distance from Yeats's romantic nationalism to Muldoon's postmodern irony by tracing the affinitive relationship Ireland has with other postcolonial countries who have felt the vicissitudes of political independence. As part of the Converges series edited by Edward Said, Inventing Ireland surveys Irish literature and culture from the 1870s to the present in order to show how each generation has reconceived its national culture and identity. It is Kiberd's thesis that with the loss of their language during the nineteenth century the Irish have had to continuously re-invent themselves in the twentieth. Thus, it is possible for the "Ireland" conceived by Yeats's revival to be re-written by later generations as a distant and very different cousin.

  2. Cursed with the misfortune of being a white European settler colony that has been a member of the European Community since 1973, Ireland was an anomaly in early postcolonial discussion and received little attention, for example, in the landmark text, The Empire Writes Back (1989). The situation has changed in recent years with the creation of a native body of criticism that has helped to introduce Ireland as a precursor to the postcolonial societies of the second half of the twentieth century. In contrast, Kiberd, a professor of English at the University College, Galway, suggests that Ireland should no longer simply congratulate itself as a 'model' to these societies (enacting first-world presumption as a result), but should learn from them as well. The idea that postcolonial criticism offers a useful method for reading Irish cultural history is evident in his thesis about the role of language. This argument (which has appeared most recently in Joseph Lee's Ireland: Politics and Society 1912-1985 and in the plays of Brian Friel) suggests that the loss of the Irish language had as much to do with the Irish themselves jettisoning the tongue for the promise of social advancement (especially in America) as it had to do with punitive measures by the English. The resulting crisis of identity has only been resolved through a glorification of a past that even most recent historians declare difficult to know in its entirety. Kiberd's idea of an Ireland that has been "invented, " then, is a statement about the reading of history in a postcolonial setting.

  3. Irish attitudes toward their own history resemble many of the complexities of other postcolonial societies. Since independence, there have been three main strains which are akin to the phases of decolonization described by Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth . The first is a sort of fundamentalist, bourgeois strain associated with Eamon de Valera (who instituted these attitudes as part of the 1937 constitution), which identifies Ireland as a Catholic country founded on vague patriotic principles such as family values and the unity of the island's thirty-two counties. The second, more militantly republican, version involves acting on these principles. Because both are remnants of the Civil War over the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty signed by the Free Government, they each have a stake in preserving an uncritical history of the struggle for political independence, most notably the rebellion of 1916 and the Irish revival founded by Yeats. The third strain of historical writing is identified with the so-called revisionists, including scholars such as Conor Cruise O'Brien, F.S.L. Lyons and Roy Foster, whose work originated in the 1960s to counter the myths and excesses of an anglophobic nationalism. Proud of their "realism" in the face of sacred truths, these historians saw themselves as necessary correctives to an overweaning nationalist pride; but they also understood that Irish anglophobia must be overcome to win acceptance into the EC and to woo future multinationals and American tourists. Still, while denying any political partisanship, some have gone so far as to deny the term "colonial" outright, preferring instead to see Ireland as a small European nation like Norway or Sweden -- rather than having allegiances with Algeria or India. What they have neglected in their pursuit of the facts, according to Kiberd, is the undeniable reality and usefulness these nationalist histories have had to generations of people.

  4. In terms of reading Irish culture, revisionists have had to use a crowbar to force a distinction between politics and art. This influence is evident in the essays of Seamus Heaney and, most recently, in Dermot Bolger's introduction to the Vintage Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction (1995) where he sees the designation of "postcolonial literature" as a "decomposing chicken" unfairly "foisted upon the backs of younger writers" (xiii). Bolger's attitude is one that imagines a kind of postmodern "end of history" where the issues of colonialism can be--or should be--relegated to the previous generation as an anachronism. The revisionist view of history is summed up by Muldoon: "For history's a twisted root / with art its small, translucent fruit // and never the other way round." Within this revisionist scope, the Irish revival of Yeats, Synge, and Lady Gregory has been perceived as an anomaly (how on earth could the fruit come before the tree?) propagated by a bourgeois class who found in a disappearing Gaelic culture a source for self-promotion. Wary that nationalist sentiment is necessarily sympathetic with IRA terrorism, most revisionists conclude that the revival, despite its admiration from other cultures, is an embarassment.

  5. It is through this ideological mine-field, a revival uncritically celebrated by nationalists and dismissed condescendingly by revisionists, that Kiberd steps most nimbly and expertly in his book. Kiberd usefully borrows from Fanon his theses on the nationalist and liberationist phases of political independence in order to critique "narrow-gauge" nationalism while not falling into the opposite, equally reductionist, camp. According to Kiberd, the "invention of Ireland" resulted partly from Matthew Arnold's attempt to create Ireland into a "little England," the repository of an emotional life foresaken in the process of empire-building. Within this Oedipal paradigm Kiberd's method seeks to "write back" to England by showing how inventions of Ireland have contributed to concepts of "Englishness." This allows him to stretch the definitions of the postcolonial artist so that Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw are seen as expressing the contradictions of the writer from the periphery living in the metropolis, and the seventeenth-century Gaelic writer Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating) is referred to as the "Edward Said of his era." Kiberd brings together disparate texts that critique English justifications of imperialism-- from Shaw's Saint Joan and Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest to Céitinn's Tri Biorghaoithe an Bhais (which was a response to Edmund Spenser's racist View of the Present State of Ireland ). In his analysis of the age of Shaw, Wilde, and Yeats, Kiberd's scope is wide and varied, devoted to showing how once revolutionary texts where translated into a docile 'revival' that was safe for public consumption.

  6. In a page taken from Fanon, Kiberd argues that it was through the use of archaic forms that the revival was able to broach modern radicalism. Against revisionists who criticize the 1916 uprising as the work of "deluded poets," Kiberd shows how revolutionaries like Arthur Griffith, Patrick Pearse, and James Connolly cloaked the principles of a modern, independent, welfare state in the garb of the past. It is the strength of his criticism that this association of the "archaic and the avant garde" (as Terry Eagleton describes it), is made not just for Joyce's Ulysses but for the breadth of Irish culture during the revivalist period. Through this expanded reading of culture and society, Kiberd is able to see Yeats as a revolutionary--not of the strident romanticizing sort propagated by nationalists--but as a poet whose own style embodies the desires and doubts of an entire revolutionary period. In his strongest reading of all, Kiberd reads Synge as a syncretic artist whose work stands as a model for a new kind of Irish--and postcolonial--artist who can blend the best of the Continent with the native culture. Kiberd is able to make the revival respectable again by noting both the movement's limitations as well as its raw visionary potential which, when it was set in motion, had a seismic effect throughout the British empire.

  7. However, Kiberd is not able to overcome the difficulty which every Irish historian faces, and that is how to explain what happens to this potential once independence is achieved. Like most socialist republicans, Kiberd believes that the integrity of the revival was lost with the abandonment of the socialism by the first republican government and the subsequent conservatism (some would say fascism) of the de Valera regime from 1936 into the 1960s. It is when he no longer has a commanding personality like Yeats or dramatic events like the more recent "Troubles" upon which to focus that Kiberd's fast-paced, anecdotal style becomes more of a survey than analysis. This is not helped by the inclusion of italicized "Interchapters," which are designed to give an overview of the political and social climate of the era to be discussed in the following chapters but which only create a muddle. They suggest a jarring division between politics and art which is especially awkward in a text that argues against this view by revisionist historians and old-school literary critics. This division becomes more amorphous as certain artists tend to show up in the italics, while chapters like the fine "Periphery and the Center" have less to do with specific artists as they are examples of sociology. The interchapters act as a supplement to the narrative structure Kiberd imposes on Irish history, a structure which ultimately runs counter to the theory he presents of Ireland as an "idea" which is always uncertain of itself. In his desire to preserve textually a distinction he argues against theoretically Kiberd reveals an ambiguity about the actual relationship between politics and art: he is, like the revivalists, cautious of the revolutionary potential his own work suggests.

  8. By relegating the Northern writers Patrick Kavanagh and Louis MacNeice to the "periphery" of an interchapter Kiberd misses the influence these writers have on contemporary artists from the North. In fact, what is regretably missing from his survey is the Ireland imagined from Belfast. He devotes attention to Heaney and Friel, and while he is more critical of the former than most American or English critics seem capable, Friel's work (especially Translations ) becomes a kind of touchstone for his own analysis. Yet one has to wonder why the Field Day organization--which was crucial to revitalizing debates on Irish culture in the 1980s and which Kiberd took part in--is only mentioned in passing.

  9. Nonetheless, it is to his credit that Kiberd is neither a revivalist nor is he offering yet another version of "what happened on Easter, 1916." His analysis is designed to be contrapuntal, in the sense described by Said in Culture and Imperialism as "an alternative both to a politics of blame and to the even more destructive politics of confrontation and hostility" (18). As a result, he is able to conclude his work with practical suggestions for Ireland's spiritual and economic recovery with provocative ideas that clearly emanate from his analysis. This type of criticism usefully expands the dialogue -- both inside and outside academia -- on the nature and meaning of Irishness in this century. My only reservation is that the book, in its nearly 700 pages, will exhaust most of those readers for whom these suggestions would be most helpful. If so, it would be a shame; as events in the North last July made clear, it is time that the Irish-Anglo stalemate was seen by a third perspective other than that of the United States. By emphasizing that Ireland has a lot to learn from other postcolonial societies, Declan Kiberd's Inventing Ireland is a valuable contribution to Irish--and British--studies.

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