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An intimate and yet distant affair: the Irish love of English literature

Claire Connolly


Students in the Leaving Cert class of 2020 with a passion for reading should follow Connell, writes Claire Connolly

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Normal People: Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal)

Normal People: Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal)

Normal People: Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal)

When I was 16 or so, the career guidance teacher called each of us up to the desk to discuss our plans for life after school.

A nun, she was unusual among the others in that she dyed her hair and had a lurid taste in lipstick. God knows, I have thought of her terrible home-dye efforts from time to time in lockdown. But what brought her back to mind in the last few weeks was watching Normal People on TV.

I liked English at school and wanted to study it at university. My plans were no more developed than that.

My career guidance teacher leaned forward in her chair and informed me I could study English at University College Cork or University College Dublin or, she trilled, sounding out every syllable, I could pursue "Pure English", to be found "only in Trinity College Dublin".

What on earth was Pure English? The whole thing seemed alien and terrifying and the next academic year I enrolled for an arts degree at UCC, where I had a relative who could help find me a flat.

In an early episode of Normal People, Connell and Marianne talk about their plans after school, confiding their ambitions in a moment of intimacy. Connell is shy and unsure and Marianne urges him to pursue his love of English literature instead of the career-focused degree for which he has already applied.

But where? "Come to Trinity," says Marianne.

Trinity is not only Ireland's oldest and most highly-ranked university, it is also among the first universities in the world to teach English. Its curriculum included English language and literature for the India Civil Service exams from 1855. By 1858, the President of Queen's College Belfast could congratulate TCD for its speed in "having organised a department for the special instruction of young men" wishing to serve the empire.

The introduction of English to Trinity came about a generation after the establishment of first chairs of English in England - first, University College London in 1828 and then in 1835 King's College London.

The University of Edinburgh can claim to be the world's oldest English department: it began to offer courses on 'rhetoric and belles lettres' nearly 250 years ago.

It was the politics of empire that got English, as a discipline, on its feet. Thomas Babington Macaulay's Minute on Education in 1835 is remembered for its clear statement on the value of training Indians up in English values, including its culture. And Gauri Viswanathan's Masks of Conquest (1989) paints a picture of English literature as a subject that developed through, with and alongside British rule in India.

One consequence of these earlier developments was that children across the empire came to internalise English sounds, sights and landscapes. Post-colonial writers such as VS Naipaul and Lorna Goodison have complained they learned William Wordsworth's I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by heart long before they ever set eyes on the familiar English flower.

In Ireland, we knew what daffodils looked like - but still appreciated the schoolmaster Hugh's reply in Brian Friel's Translations, when Yolland asks him about Wordsworth: "I'm afraid we're not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant … We tend to overlook your island."

These days, we defend the discipline of literary study on the grounds of its ability to shape character and express humanity, but sometimes forget that these very claims were part of an imperial effort to refashion distant places in the image of England.

Yet, in cultures the world over, that were once part of the empire, English literature tells a story of change, adaptation and new growth. The rebels reading Shakespeare in the GPO are one part of that story.

It is as if Normal People wants us to reflect on Ireland's intimacy with English literature and our distance from it.

In Irish Literature in Transition 1940-1980, Margaret Kelleher has written about the ways in which the English literature syllabus of mid to late 20th-Century Ireland came to vibrant life in the generation of Irish writers who attended secondary school once fees were abolished in 1967. English literature as a school and university subject has its own, complex history in Ireland.

In my own university, UCC, the first chair of modern English was held by the anti-treaty republican William Stockley. One student, Sean O Faolain, remembered admiring his professor's "low-slung, high-powered car" but described Stockley's lectures as the product of "a mind resembling a lady's sewing basket after a kitten had been through it".

A rather more serious approach to literature was advocated by Stockley's successor, Daniel Corkery, Professor of Modern English from 1931 to 1947. Corkery disapproved of the hybrid tradition of Irish writing in English and sought a return to the verities of the Gaelic tradition.

As an academic, however, Corkery encouraged student interest in Anglo-Irish literature and introduced some modern authors to the curriculum.

In Sally Rooney's novel, Connell finds himself in a "state of strange emotional agitation" brought on by reaching a crucial plot turn in Jane Austen's Emma, just as the library closes for the night. Will Mr Knightley marry Harriet rather than the heroine, he wonders, and is it "intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another?"

"But there it is, literature moves him."

To be moved is to be left on uncertain ground. It is as if Normal People wants us to reflect on Ireland's intimacy with English literature and our distance from it. Rooney's remarkable ability to make Connell and Marianne seem like normal people derives at least in part from her reading of Jane Austen, Henry James and DH Lawrence.

In Ireland, we have made and continue to make English our own - not only in Trinity but in the other excellent departments of literature on the island and in the wider community of authors, readers, buyers and booksellers that make the country one of the best places in the world to be an admirer of literature.

There will be many among the Leaving Cert class of 2020 who love reading - and some, like Connell, who would like to study English at university but worry about jobs and their future careers.

They can at least know that their uncertainties about English have a richly veined history, that literature's capacity to move us is a matter of gaps and silences as well as palpable realities - and that there is no such thing as Pure English.

Claire Connolly is Professor of Modern English in UCC and is co-general editor of Irish Literature in Transition, 1700-2020 (Cambridge UP)

Sunday Independent