Copyright © 1999 by Susan Shaw Sailer, 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 notification of the journal and consent of the author.
On 6 and 7 June 1999, I had the pleasure of interviewing Declan Kiberd in Morgantown where, for the past three days, he had conducted a seminar at West Virginia University, "Translating Tradition: Irish Writing Past and Present." What follows are selections from that discussion. Dr. Kiberd has written four books: Inventing Ireland (Harvard University Press, 1996), Idir Dhá Chultúr (Coiscéim, 1993), Men and Feminism in Modern Literature (St. Martin's Press, 1985), and Synge and the Irish Language (Rowman and Littlefield, 1979). Currently he is working on his fifth book, which explores how Irish writers from the eighteenth into the early twentieth centuries transformed literary traditions to serve their own purposes. Declan Kiberd is head of the Department of English at University College Dublin and a frequent contributor on Irish culture to Irish, British, and American newspapers.
Now this is, of course, a problem that Douglas Hyde dealt with in the 1890s in his lecture on de-anglicization, when in many ways he anticipated post-colonial theory by saying that it is not the same thing to be English as to be anglicized, and that those who were anglicized were very often caught in patterns of psychological extremism. For instance, anti-Englishness was far more virulent, as it still is, among those who were rather anglicized than it was among, say, Irish speakers, who tended to be at home with themselves and therefore easily able to cope with cultural difference. If you go to Belfast at the moment you would often get very virulent anti-English outbursts, say, from a taxi driver who happened to be unionist. So that the pathology Hyde described as pertaining to many Irish people in general in the late nineteenth century is specifically applicable now, I think, to the unionists.
One way to soften it is to think in terms of the Irish language. For example I read a book recently called Mise by a man called Colm o Gaora, an autobiography in Irish by a native speaker from Rosmuc, who was in the Gaelic League, and was also involved in the Uprising against the British in 1916. He made the point that nationalism -- and he was a recruiter for the republicans -- never made headway in the Gaeltacht areas because the people didn't feel any need to prove their Irishness. They were Irish anyway. But when the recruiters went into County Meath and County Kildare, which we still conventionally think of as very anglicized counties, even in their terrain, even in the look of their villages, they got lots and lots of takers. So it=s as if the idea of a flawed mimesis, of an incomplete anglicization, co-exists with an anti-English feeling and has done repeatedly as a syndrome through the last century.
I suppose that what I get around to arguing is that a knowledge of the Irish language might actually prevent some of the xenophobia and chauvinism and, if you like, anti-Englishness, of which certain people in Ireland are sometimes accused. It's also obvious that people who knew Irish would have a better understanding of the roots of the way Irish people speak English, of how Hiberno-English works on a template that is based in the Irish language. Even for people who don't know a word of Irish and speak Hiberno-English, it would give them a greater cultural perspective on the words they use.
Yes, you are right to include England in the question because England has been caught in that second nationalist phase, probably for centuries. But sooner or later it will have to move on. I mean, Fanon's thesis is that nationalism wills its own supersession. There will always be elements in, say, English culture doing that, but first of all, before they can do that, they have to know themselves fully as a nation. Witness the point I made to you earlier: you can't give it up until you know what you are giving up. I think that is probably more true of them than of people in Ireland. Irish people are actually much more relaxed about Europe and the European Union, because they've been able to cope from the basis of what they are. I think one of the reasons a lot of English people have problems with that is because they don't. Mrs. Thatcher obviously was completely convinced that social democracy in Europe was really a kind of Catholic plot sponsored by Jacques Delors and the soft-left liberal wing of continental Catholicism. Even though this is never officially stated in British discourse, there is a kind of sectarian element to the British reservation about Europe, because Europe is seen as primarily Catholic or neo-Catholic in its thinking. Of course, it's easier for people in the Republic from a Catholic background to identify with Europe.
I don't, by the way, see it as a surrender, because it isn't as if there is no other alternative. When people hand over their guns in a situation of surrender, it's because they usually are cornered and are about to be marched away as prisoners. These people would be about to enter government and perhaps become ministers of education, and so on. These are the people who said for years they were going forward with the ballot box in one hand and an armalite [rifle] in the other. In a way, the ambiguity of the current situation is a reflection of the ambiguity of their recent campaigns. So they can't complain utterly about it. My view would be that they have not been defeated, and that that is implicit in the fact that they are about to enter government. Ergo, they should not see the handing over of a few weapons as surrender; they should see it just as part of a process. Now, I'm not an IRA person, nor was I ever a supporter of the IRA or Sinn Fein, so I'm trying to enter the mindset. And I think the mindset would be that this would be a surrender of appalling proportions, an admission of a defeat that never happened and an implicit rejection of comrades who died in the fight. We're talking about macho people who've lived with guns and bombs for many years and who in one way could make the case that if they are to hand over their guns, why don't the British army do so, and why doesn't the heavily armed unionist population, the majority population, do so? So it is a hugely difficult issue.
You asked me why it became an issue now. I think it became that because David Trimble proclaimed it one, and he is the chief minister, in potentia, in the new executive. He is the leader of the mainstream Unionist Party. There are two ways of viewing that proclamation. One is to say that this man, like all unionists, is ultimately incapable of imagining the sharing of power with the minority population, and the closer it gets to that eventuality, the more he invents excuses to postpone that moment. That is a widely held view in the Northern minority population, among many people who are not IRA supporters, and I would feel that there may be some truth in that analysis. On the other hand, it has to be said that Trimble, like all politicians, has a constituency with which he has to deal, and which he has to bring with him. I would believe him when he says that his constituency is just not able right now to bear the spectacle of Martin McGuinness as a minister for education, without Martin McGuinness having been seen to hand over a gun or two beforehand.
Now, the North-South institutions, if you like, would in some way formalize those arrangements and I think they probably will work if people in the North realize they are for their practical benefit and will lead to economic and cultural gains. Some of the elements in the Agreement are much easier to imagine implemented than others. For instance, in cultural terms, the idea of parity of esteem being given to both the Irish-language speaker and the exponents, say, of Ulster-Scots dialect doesn't seem to pose huge difficulties. It might mean endowing, for instance, more chairs and lectureships in the universities in Ulster-Scots, because certainly there's been a lot less academic activity about it than there has about the Irish language. There would be obstacles in other areas, but they wouldn't necessarily even be cross-border obstacles. I think, myself, that education is hugely important if you're to transform Irish society, North or South. In the North, in particular, the opposition to integrated education is massive, and it comes not just from political extremists, it comes from the very hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Some of the Catholic bishops have been quite scathing about integrated schools, despite the fact that everyone knows these integrated schools are an honorable attempt by liberal, decent people to make, if you like, the multiplicity of traditions in Ireland available to their children. So I think there could be problems there.
On the other hand, it's very important to achieve integrated courses in Irish studies in schools, even if the schools retain their sectarian affiliation, especially if the schools retain an affiliation with one or other tradition. It would be imporant that, for instance, school children in nationalist areas would be exposed to, say, the writing of Swift or Yeats or the great exponents of the Protestant tradition in Irish culture, and that, equally, children who attend schools in unionist areas might know a bit about the Blasket Island writers or Gaelic folk traditions, and so on. That kind of work is a logical implication of the Belfast Agreement, which thinks about identity as "Irish or British or both." It would be very important to insist that this flow, and flow very quickly, from the Agreement.
Now, the specific groups you mention are very interesting. I'd say that the position of Protestants in the Republic is now far more respected, understood, and legally protected than it was in the past. Of course, there are far fewer Protestants, and that's a tragedy. But nevertheless, in terms of religious minorities, a lot of Protestant people are active in politics and don't feel any sense of strain. We had three Protestant TDs or MPs in our parliament in the last few years -- and some Jewish ministers in government. We don't notice the fact that they're Protestant or Jewish most of the time, but when a question like this is asked, one does. I think what it shows is that these worries have all but evaporated, the kind of worries expressed by Yeats in the famous speech on divorce in the mid 1920s when he objected, in the name of the Protestants, to the legislation brought in by a narrow-gauge administration. Now, I would say the same about gays and lesbians. I think that the position of gay and lesbian people is far more secure and far more fully understood than it was ten years ago. Ten or fifteen years go, you would still read in the newspapers about so-called queer-bashing, that sometimes a very unpleasant attack had been perpetrated on a gay person in a park late at night. Just a couple of years ago, legislation to decriminalize homosexual activity was passed by the Dáil with no murmur of dissent from any significant social force.
Of course immigrants would also be a test case. Most Irish people are genuinely interested in the culture and values that people bring from Romania, from Turkey, from wherever, but there is an unpleasant undercurrent of racism in some inner cities, in some of the politicians who represent poor people in the inner cities, against people from other countries. It may be that as more overseas people settle in Ireland that will get worse. Personally, I don't believe it, because one of the great qualities of Irish people is their genius for assimilation, their genius for adaptation to other people's cultures whenever they emigrated, but equally, that capacity to take in what seemed initially discordant elements and make them their own.
It's also that overseas there is a demand for Irish writing. It's sexy at the moment to walk into an office in London and proclaim yourself an Irish rather than a London writer. I think that does have large-scale implications. For example, we've seen at one point in the spring of 1998 in London, nineteen or twenty plays by Irish authors simultaneously going on in London playhouses, perhaps allowing the English in an oblique way to explore their own unadmitted national questions but also, I think, appealing with their storytelling art to a community in which storytelling may be beginning to die as a form. So in all these ways writing is much more encouraged than it was and to that extent it is more official than it was.
The point I'm making is, I suppose, that people like Clarke and Kavanagh, by virtue of the position from which they began, were oppositional and were more likely to write satire on a regime that was very possibly going to censor some of their work. The relationship was adversarial. It was more like the relationship of the continental European intelligensia to its establishment, more like the Sartre-Camus approach, whereby the intellectuals saw themselves as the internal opposition in a state. We've gone from that to what I would call a more British style model, where they then seem, at times, to be extensions of the state apparatus as often as they are critics of it. I don't think that is entirely a result of the existence of aosd~na, or the tax holiday for writers, though some people have argued that the tax holiday had the effect of co-opting artists and making them extensions of the body politic, or that a group like aosd~na did that. I don't think that's true because aosd~na has an independent charter which allows the writers to hold what opinions they like or express what opinions they like without necessarily being disciplined by any political group.
But I would still risk the generalization that literature before 1950 was more satirical, more oppositional, more willing to engage critically with the powers that be than it now is. However, I think that's also a global phenomenon because there is an increasing privatization of art and of everything, and the experience rendered in many art works is so personal as to seem an avoidance of the political on occasions. I think, though, in the phrase "to interrogate current state policy," current is the important word there. To me, the great difficulty of contemporary writing in Ireland is in fact to realize the present moment; there are very few books being written about what's happening now. There are lots of books being written about ten years ago, twenty years ago, forty years ago. There is an obsession in Ireland with the recent past and particularly with outing its failures and liquidating its cultural agendas. It's almost as if people can only make themselves feel that they are modern and living in the present by doing this, by looking over their shoulder and producing a book about those earlier themes. But what I really want is an interrogation of the present moment; in the words of Harold Rosenburg, to "excavate the present." I still don't see that happening widely in our art. In fact, the strange thing is, it's happening more in criticism. I wouldn't often say that the critics were in any area ahead of the artists. But I think there are attempts in the criticism of people like Luke Gibbons or Emer Nolan or David Lloyd to try to get a handle on what's going on now in Ireland.
If you contrast that with, say, the days of Sean O'Casey, I mean when one of O'Casey's plays was put on in the Abbey, they had to put a note in the program saying that any gunshots heard during the performance were part of the play and not to be assumed as coming from outside, which showed you just how contemporary the play was. This was a play, of course, that responded to the very recent experience of the war of independence and the civil war. One doesn't see major plays responding to the hunger strikes within a five- or ten-year period. Maybe it takes people longer now to sift the meaning of an experience, maybe you need a whole generation.
More generally, though, I would think of subversive in a wider political sense. The great frustration in my adult life has been the shrinkage in the notion of "Ireland." When I was a boy listening to the All-Ireland Finals in the 1960s on the radio, messages would be sent to Irish people in Brazzaville or Seattle at halftime by the commentators, and you had a sense as you listened to the football game of being part of a global community of Irish people. Now one of the effects of the Troubles and of the revisionism in history writing which followed them was a determined attempt by many Irish journalists and even historians to shrink the identity of Ireland initially just to the Island, to the five-million-odd living on the Island and subsequently to the three and a half million in the Republic, the point being that we should not even claim the one and a half million up North, let alone anybody anywhere else. We should accept, in the words of one of the young writers of the time, the inherited boundaries, and that anyone who tried to move beyond that was guilty of some kind of emotional imperialism.
Now I never agreed with that analysis. I always felt that one must subvert literally that analysis and that the really interesting artists were the ones who refused to accept that shrunken version of Irish identity. I would name both Friel and [SEAMUS?] Heaney as having played a crucial role in that challenge. Friel was pivotal by virtue of his location near the border in Donegal but also because he travelled in and out of Derry across the border every day as a leading member of the Field Day Company. He seemed to epitomize that challenge in almost a physical way by breaching the border many times a day, but he breached it also in his art because that was clearly addressed to people on both sides of the border and was in fact an attempt to imagine a time when there would be no border. This was the meaning of the whole "fifth province" of the mind towards which Field Day worked. So when Mrs. Robinson was elected president in 1990 and achieved that expanded definition of Irishness with her candle in the window reaching out to the diaspora, I felt then that the artistic agendas of Friel and Heaney had at last found a political embodiment.
At the beginning of the century there was too much memory of the past and it was a good, subversive thing to forget a bit of it. In the earlier decades of this state, the family was super important and it was perhaps a good thing to ask some questions about that: how it worked, in whose interests it was worked. Now I would say, though, the problem's almost the reverse: that the family may be in some need of ratification, not necessarily by artists, but by government. The government has tried to implement the kind of liberal laws we have in other developed consumer democracies which increase the freedom of individuals. I think people have got to a point now where they worry that this may be at the expense of social cohesiveness but also of the family itself. One shouldn't forget the subversive value of the family as such: it need not be a tyranny and can often provide a platform from which to confront all kinds of injustice.
That's to escape the Drumcree crisis of recent years. I wouldn't say it's happening yet, but when I was a student in the early 70s, many Northern unionists came to Trinity. I think the southern universities should all mount a campaign now, encouraging the children of Northern Ireland families, irrespective of their background, to study in the universities of the Republic. We have large numbers of junior-year-abroad Americans and Erasmus students from the continent. It would be crazy if we were taking people from all over the English-speaking and non-English-speaking world and not trying to have people from the North of Ireland. Equally, I think students from the Republic should go north. That is happening. There is quite a number of students at the University of Ulster who have come up to it from Dublin because they are particularly attracted by a specific course offered. One cannot overestimate the importance of all this for this reason: In the last twenty-five to thirty years of the Troubles, many children of unionist families have equated getting an education with getting out, literally. Somebody once said that the union has been lost on the golf courses of north Down.
Because, in fact, if unionism itself is to modernize and revise itself, it needs an injection of intellectual and emotional energy by educated young people of the next generation. But they, in the years of the Troubles, went to British universities, whether in Scotland or England, and they tended then to pursue careers in London or Edinburgh. I think that was a huge loss. It was a brain drain to the whole Island. We have to develop policies of university recruitment which encourage people to mingle more. One of the reasons this didn't happen traditionally in Ireland was -- and it's a big difference, say, from university life in Britain or the States -- because people of modest family incomes tended to go to the university nearest their parents' home and frequently to go as day students and commute to the house. That meant that it was harder for someone in the North to go south, although it was possible there because of the British grant system, and that's why people came to Trinity in the 70s. But equally, it was very difficult for people from Galway or Dublin to go to Belfast or Coleraine when they had the option on the doorstep. But it would be extremely useful now that this should happen. I think young people have reached a point where they expect to be away from home when they go to university and would welcome the liberation from parental control that that implies. Also, I think the South no longer wants to co-opt the North. The 94 per cent who voted to admit that maybe the six counties were as much British as Irish and were not necessarily to be reintegrated as a constitutional imperative -- that should have a huge effect in allowing unionists to relax and to feel that no one is trying to dragoon them into anything they don't want to be part of. I think, therefore, I couldn't speculate on a date, and I actually believe it would be wrong to do so.
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