Saturday 18 November 2017

How humble books wield great power

The written word has influenced individuals and nations throughout history.

Conor Cruise O’Brien's States of Ireland is listed in The Books That Define Ireland
Conor Cruise O’Brien's States of Ireland is listed in The Books That Define Ireland
Noel Browne

John-Paul McCarthy

The most romantic account of the power of the humble book is still probably John Henry Newman's description of the way a stray line from St Augustine smote his Protestantism hip and thigh.

After digesting the church father's polemics against the early Christian heresies, Newman suddenly began to see "the shadow of a hand upon the wall" of his faith.

Other less gifted readers have described a more fluid process at work.

The American literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote about the rhythms of reading and explained that originally "influence ... was a word intended to express a mystery. It means a flowing-in... historically the image is an astrological one".

In their endlessly diverting and enjoyable book, The Books That Define Ireland, Tom Garvin and Bryan Fanning make time for Newman's apocalyptic model of reading and for Trilling's dreamier approach.

They show how Paul Blanshard's The Irish and Catholic Power, Conor Cruise O'Brien's States of Ireland, and PS O'Hegarty's Victory of Sinn Fein all exercised a profound and immediate influence on their audiences. Each of these three books proved as wounding in their different ways as Augustine's work.

John Hume famously wrote of O'Brien's sophisticated analysis of unionism in 1972, that if it was accepted, "his case will sentence another generation in the North to the terrible violence we have come through". Read in the dry light of the present day, Hume seems to have come perilously close to suggesting that unionism in and of itself was a cause of violence.

O'Hegarty's account of the revolutionary era left many readers speechless, if only because this old school Cork City Fenian's portrait of the IRA seemed to have channelled Dryden's insistence that it was "the scum, That still rise utmost when the nation boils".

We get some sense of the power of this indictment when we remember that the author's own brother was the unpredictable leader of the Cork City IRA. O'Hegarty still hovers like a watchful parent over contemporary debates of the "violence works" variety.

Garvin and Fanning also offer summaries of some slow literary burners. It would take decades, for example, before Fianna Failers fully grasped the implications of Tomas O Croimhthain's An tOileanach, his memoir of island life that showed the vacuity at the heart of the nationalist cult of the countryside.

Two other editors might have put Mairtin O Cadhain's fiercely anti-romantic, Marxist polemics in this slot, Cre na Cille being a more powerful work than anything produced by the Blasket writers.

But composing one's own counter-list is half the fun of these kinds of books. (This elementary point rather eluded Nicholas Allen in his unpleasant evaluation last week, even if the need to emphasise Fintan O'Toole's books in his Irish Times review did not. An old war horse like O'Toole probably saw through the flattery, though).

When contemplating unionist books, then some of us would have replaced ATQ Stewart's The Narrow Ground with Arthur Aughey's high-powered critique of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Under Siege, still one of the most intellectually demanding political critiques of the past 20 years.

We would also have to make space for Lord Bew's Ideology and the Irish Question, a leather-bound copy of which was presented to Taoiseach John Bruton by his civil servants on his 48th birthday in 1995.

(Tony Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, had, by contrast, to make do with Michael Farrell's The Orange State, that deathless polemic from 1976 that dwelt on the "impossibility of any lasting solution while the Northern state persists...").

This book contains as much admonition as it does erudition. There 's a level-headed account of Noel Browne's Against the Tide, where the inapt comparisons with Orwell are balanced away with generous doses of James Deeney, Browne's one-time subordinate at the Department of Health who did a lot of the donkey work for which Browne was more than happy to take the literary curtain call. In the end, Browne proved an invertebrate radical – he rejoined Fianna Fail in 1954 – and his spot might well have gone to Hubert Butler, the Kilkenny essayist who wrote so stylishly about the Catholic Church's fascist tendencies, the disastrous Supreme Court endorsement of the Ne Temere decree on mixed marriages in In re Tilson, Infants, and on the fate of the children of Drancy.

Other would-be listers with an interest in gender equality might take a chance in a few years and just print some of the Supreme Court's judgments in the SPUC line of cases, one of which in 1989 ended with a court order barring the "publishing or distributing or assisting in the printing, publishing or distribution of any publication ... providing information to persons (including pregnant women) of the identity and location of and the method of communication with a specified clinic or clinics where abortions are performed".

Sinister syntax for a sinister sentiment, but as Irish in its way as Pearse or Corkery.

Sunday Independent

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