Wednesday 21 November 2018

Tearing apart the nation state with words

History: After Ireland: Writing, The Nation From Beckett To The Present, Declan Kiberd, Head of Zeus, €30.99

Samuel Beckett pictured at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973. Photograph: John Haynes
Samuel Beckett pictured at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973. Photograph: John Haynes
Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director and poet Samuel Beckett, pictured at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973
Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director and poet Samuel Beckett, pictured at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973

JP O'Malley

In 1929, the Cumann Na nGaedheal Government introduced the Censorship of Publications Act; thus beginning a long battle between conservative religiosity and radical artistic creation. "It was as if the nation state was intent on self-harm, even self-mutilation [cutting] off one of the major supply lines which had made independence possible," writes Declan Kiberd in the introduction to After Ireland.

Kiberd is Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. He has penned two other books in this series: Inventing Ireland and Irish Classics. The former book focused on authors of the Irish Revival of 1885-1940.

The latter tome, meanwhile, dealt with authors who wrote in English and Irish from 1600 through to the period of high modernism in the 20th Century. Kiberd's concluding book in this trilogy starts with the premise that only a few years after independence was gained, one elite replaced another: when the old imperial British colonial masters handed power to a theocratic Catholic State in everything but name.

But repression is always a fine catalyst for great works of art. Kiberd's narrative begins in post-war France, assessing the work of Beckett's Waiting For Godot. Beckett left Dublin for Paris in 1937. Exile worked wonders. As Beckett distanced himself from Ireland, he located his writing in a kind of geography of nowhere, outside of history. Writing in French and stripping his prose back to a minimalist idiom enabled the writer to express himself with far more clarity than if he had stayed on his home turf writing in English.

However, Kiberd reminds us there was already a rich tradition of Irish revival writing in place by then. It was in Paris, after all, that the playwright JM Synge had his first meeting with WB Yeats, who advised him to write about the Aran Islands; and it was in Paris that Synge also argued aesthetics with James Joyce, who first made his way there in 1902. Joyce was a mentor to Beckett in Paris, too. Indeed a crisis of identity for the Irish writer played a significant role in driving the modernist European literature movement further into the experimental: with Joyce at its epicentre. Joyce's towering shadow looms over much of this book. Kiberd doesn't directly analyse his but rather connects all the writing he assesses back and forth to Joyce's ideas of mythology and nationhood. This coincides nicely with Kiberd's central thesis: how the mythical and quotidian usually overlap to the point where the two become indistinguishable. From this recurring leitmotif, the book asks one central question of importance: who really owns the collective mythology that binds a nation-state together?

Kiberd subtly suggests that nobody does; believing instead that such a narrative is constantly in flux. Moreover, if the history of 20th-Century Irish culture is anything to go by, artists - and not the State - drive cultural fads, social mores, and shared collective myth and memory.

In the writings of Seamus Heaney and John McGahern, Kiberd points out, there is an element of the sacramental: both writers look to customs of the community, the soil, the process of ritual, and to a Celtic tradition joined at the hip to antiquity and a transcendental other worldliness.

In Kiberd's analysis on the work of Eavan Boland and Edna O'Brien, we see examples of writers who challenged the dominant patriarchal discourse of Irish society: by tackling subjects like female sexual desire, cultural poverty, failed parental love, new age suburbia, motherhood, and exploring the self by looking at traumatic epochs in Irish history.

Kiberd shows us how playwrights like Brian Friel and Conor McPherson explore lack of self-hood, masculine reticence, and an inability to express outward human emotion.

What makes After Ireland such a thoroughly engaging read is Kiberd's enthusiasm for each writer's work he is appraising: most notably in his brilliant dissection of what I would term the grade-A wordsmiths: that is Derek Mahon, Heaney, McGahern, Beckett, Joyce, and Boland. Kiberd eschews ivory-tower jargon; focusing on what makes a good poem, novel, or play truly worth its salt. Namely, the ability of an artist to have human empathy and an appreciation of history; while also having the savvy self-awareness to understand that their work merely takes its place in a greater culture at large. Such art brings comfort in our modern secular world: where spirituality seems to live in a foreign universe of yesteryear.

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