Seamus Deane, Introduction to gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day Co. 1991) - Introduction.

Source: The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day Co. 1991), Introduction.Vol. 1, pp.xix-xxvi.


There is a story here, a meta-narrative, which is, we believe, hospitable to all the micro-narratives that, from time to time, have achieved prominence as the official version of the true history, political and literary, of the island’s past and present. [p.xix; note.]

It is, for instance, useful to see that Irish writing in English - to take just one important element in the history - is not confined to the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. It has a history marked by continuity and discontinuity and it may be that both these features remain puzzlingly present when we speak of a ‘tradition’ of Irish drama which includes Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Shaw and Wilde. The ambivalence is even more pronounced if we posit a connection between Joyce, James Clarence Mangan, the Irish oratorical tradition and Laurence Sterne. It may be that Sterne’s connection with Joyce is as frail as, say, that of Congreve with the dramatists just named. By including Sterne and omitting Congreve we emphasise the fictive nature of any tradition that asserts continuity while acknowledging its need to do so. There are obvious repercussions for the canon of English literature if a canon of Irish literature establishes itself by repossessing some of the standard “English” names - Swift or Sterne, Burke or Wilde. But that is, in fact, a secondary issue. There is no attempt here to establish a canon. Instead, what we show is an example of the way in which canons are established and the degree to which they operate as systems of ratification and authority. Part of the significance of this work for us has been the recognition of the power of the English canonical tradition to absorb a great dea] of writing that, from a different point of view, can be reclaimed for the Irish tradition. Such acts of annexation and reclamation are integral to the assertion of cultural authority and confidence, but the assumptions on which they are based are frail indeed. Therefore, we [xix] consider ourselves to be engaged in an act of definition rather than in a definitive action.

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Because it is a selection from a mass of material, an anthology, no matter how comprehensive it may try to be, implies the existence of a body of writing that could, were it all to be made available to readers at a single moment, truly be coincident with the subject anthologised. This unhappy implication is bound to make an anthologist restless for, once accepted, it has punishing consequences. Among these is the simple sense of an anthology’s necessary incompleteness. But, worse than that, there is also the sense that the incompleteness is defined in relation to a specifiable and knowable subject - in this case “Irish writing” - which another, quite different or heavily modified selection of texts would represent more accurately. I must confess straight away that I am free from the unease created by such considerations. The work of putting together the anthology was itself an exercise in dismantling them, in escaping from their coercive and disheartening power. For all that ever was or may be written which might, by whatever criteria, be included under the rubric ‘Irish writing’ does not, by virtue of that, become part of the subject of our inquiry. Sheer inclusiveness is not, of itself, a virtue or even an advantage. Selection is not made from a preordained ‘tradition’; it is selection which ordains the tradition(s). The subject of our inquiry and selection here is one that has been created and recreated in a variety of ways over the centuries and this anthology is one further act of cultural creation in that mode, one way of envisaging the forces and ideas that have governed the development of the always putative subject “Irish writing” over 1,500 years. What it does is to re-present texts in relation to one another and to demonstrate, sometimes in detail, sometimes by no more than a general indication, how that constantly changing interrelationship provides for us the nexus of values, assumptions and beliefs in which the idea of Ireland, Irish and writing are grounded.

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It is important to do this now because the political crisis in Ireland, precipitated in 1968, but in gestation for many years before that date, has exposed the absence within the island of any system of cultural consent that would effectively legitimise and secure the existing political arrangements. There has rarely been in Ireland any sustained co-ordination between prevailing cultural and political systems; indeed, when this has existed, its oppressive nature and function has always been visible. The fact that Ireland has been colonised through conquest and invasion several times and in several ways is obviously central to an explanation of this phenomenon. The island was conquered by pre-Christian invaders, Christian missionaries, the Normans, the pre-Reformation English, the Elizabethans, Cromwellians and by the Williamites. It was dominated by imperial England and it remains, to the present day, in thrall to many of the forces, economic and political, that affect the United Kingdom in its troubled post-imperial decline. But other, internal conquests took place as well, deriving from and modifying the supervening realities of colonial rule. Versions of Ireland and its history and culture were created by many groups within the island - colonists and colonised - in attempts to ratify an existing political and economic system or to justify its alteration or its extinction. The failure of these cultural versions to achieve hegemony in alliance with the political system is more remarkable in a European country than it would be in those parts of the world that have been subject to European domination. That is part of the interest of and reason for this project.

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The anthology does not propose that we have here an exemplary instance of either a ‘national’ or a ‘colonial’ literature or body of writing. It does propose that the interchange between these conceptions of writing, more violently and frequently effected in Ireland than in most European cultures, demonstrates the configurations of power within a society that consistently has refused to accept their force or yield to their allure. What is exemplary, then, is [xx] the extent to which, in Irish conditions, canonical forms have not been established and, because of that, how clearly the purpose of such canonical forms is exposed.

Historians of limited philosophical resource still long to answer the question, “What really happened then?” More modestly, this anthology asks the longer, less abrasive, question: “How, in the light of what is happening now, can we re-present what was, then and since, believed to have been the significance of what ‘really’ happened?” It also makes a difference which “then” is chosen to be re-presented. Today, medieval Ireland may seem a more innocent, more purely scholarly choice than nineteenth-century Ireland, but it would be odd indeed were we to find that in this century historical scholarship had achieved a degree of political innocence hitherto unknown. It is part of the received wisdom that the Irish past has been (mis)interpreted by historians who had a cause to plead and an axe to grind. It is equally the case that this anthology, like the works it presents to the reader, is at the mercy of the present moment and, also like them, derives its authority (such as it is) from that moment.

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A practical consideration in any anthology is the inclusion of material not readily available or widely known. This perforce has been taken into account here, although the consideration raises issues that go the heart of the project. It would be perfectly easy to construct an anthology of Irish literature that would rehearse the achievements of those who have gained world-wide reputations - Swift, Berkeley, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Burke, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Joyce and Beckett. These could be interwoven with writers of lesser repute - for example, Francis Hutcheson, Tom Moore, Mangan, George Moore - and, in addition, those whose work is in the Irish language could be included - Ó Bruadair, Ó Suilleabháin, Ó Cadhain, Ó Riordain. Such an accumulative procedure has been avoided (although all these writers are indeed to be found here) because it merely reproduces the idea that there is a hierarchy of authors and of texts that is, so to speak, there, needing only to be illuminated under one light to show us in what ‘Irish literature’ or ‘Irish writing’ truly consists.

Such a procedure fails to deal with the formation of such a hierarchy (for it does, in interestingly varied echelons, exist); it ignores the process by which the categories of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ authors are formed and reformed, by which writers are appropriated to different ‘traditions’, and it fails to acknowledge how such appropriations have a profound impact on their reputations with different audiences. The reputation of Mairtín Ó Cadhain within the Irish-language tradition is important; within the English-language tradition, it does not exist. Louis MacNeice for long has been an English thirties’ poet with an Irish background; today he is being recruited as an Ulster poet. His reputation to a large extent depends on his felt presence for a particular group or generation. Institutional forces play their part too. Most of the “major” Irish writers have for decades been accommodated within the tradition of English or British literature. Sometimes they are loaned out for exhibitions of International Modernism or are reclaimed for study within the discipline called “Anglo-Irish Literature”. Large cultural-political investments are involved here, and the publishing industry, both in the United Kingdom and in Ireland, has played and continues to play an important role in producing and reproducing these writers for various audiences and under different banners. This is an inescapable feature of the whole system in which writing and the many categories of judgement and forms of classification are established. What the system disguises - often from itself - are the grounds on which these discriminations are based. Some are clearly commercial; others are more complex and subtle. All have a bearing upon both the work and its reception by a given audience. Writing is a system that produces audiences as well as works of literature.’ [p.xxi; ... &c.]

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Before romantic nationalism was born in the late eighteenth century, it was easier than it is [xxi] now to think of writing as something which included but meant more than “literature”. “Polite letters” embraced philosophy, history and many other forms of discursive writing. When literature began to separate itself from other forms of writing, it based its extraordinary claims for itself on two mutually exclusive assertions - not a worrying consideration for literary people, who rather pride themselves, and with reason, on the brilliance with which they can be incoherent about the nature and claims of their chosen avocation. On the one hand, national, vernacular literatures, institutionalised in university departments and courses, were the articulators of the “national tradition”. If Englishness or Irishness were to be sought, literature would provide it. Yet the greatest national literature, in being essentially English or Irish, also would be universal. It would be a local instance of the ‘human spirit’ in one of its standard modulations - tragic, comic, heroic, pathetic, and so on. There may be a suspicion of contradiction here, but it can be no more than that since the transition from the written work to the national essence to the human essence is such a mystificatory process that it would be vulgar to make such a commonplace objection. Yet, while claiming this, and, in the twentieth century proclaiming it in evangelical tones (F. R. Leavis in England, Daniel Corkery in Ireland), literature also announces the doctrine of the autonomy of the work of art. The relationship between literature and politics, asserted at one level, is denied at the other. The relationship, of course, is disguised, not broken; but it was (and still is) disguised as broken. In a country like Ireland, where nationalism had to be politically opposed to the prevailing power-systems, there was a serious attempt to create a counter-culture and to define it as authentic to the nation. In doing so, it used historical and archaeological scholarship in a tendentious and polemical fashion. For this, it was rebuked. It distorted the facts of history and reduced literature to propaganda. The rebuke came from groups equally anxious to assert some other position against nationalism - unionism, liberalism, internationalism. The political animus informing all these non-nationalist groups was concealed as much as possible, and the most frequently worn disguise was, in history, the pretence to “objectivity” and in literature the claim to “autonomy”. Both words had the magical appeal of not being polemical or political; both were against “propaganda” which pretended to be either history or art. The modern destruction and deconstruction of author(ity) is not attractive to the cultural-political establishment in Ireland because the defence of authority, understood as the status quo, is such a pressing matter. In this anthology, we do not devote ourselves to the truism that all writing is profoundly political. We are concerned, rather, to show how this is sometimes openly acknowledged and at other times urgently concealed. Consequently, we have adhered to the eighteenth-century convention that many forms of discourse are “polite” and that literature is one of those forms. The historical achievement, whereby literature attained for itself such a privileged status, is acknowledged and, at times, inspected; but the defence of this status is left to those who have the philosophical resource to show when, where and why a given text can be named as literary and another as not literary. It can be done, of course; but the ground for such naming is political. That does not make it any the less complex.

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We are concerned, then, to re-present a series of representations concerning the island of Ireland - its history, geography, political experience, social forms and economy -over a period of 1,500 years. The interrelationship between materials widely separated in time is not always apparent at first glance, but it is part of the organizational structure of the anthology to show how such interrelations run athwart the chronological sequence. The opening excerpt deals with the figure of Cú Chulainn. Much later, we see this figure resurrected by Standish O’Grady and then by Yeats and Pearse. Few would any longer accept those readings as other than enabling versions of the hero-figure, designed to fulfil a specific purpose for those later writers. [here mentions Ian Adamson, cultural historian of the Ulster Defence Association’] [...] But Surely what is understood here is the felt need for mythologies, heroic lineages, dreams of continuity; in short, the need, expressed by different generations, in individual ways, to colonize historical territory and repossess it.

Certain figures have attained an almost symbolic presence in Irish writing. [...]

The figure of Cú Chulainn is now very small in the Irish Republic, but in east Belfast he looms larger. [...]

It is, therefore, impossible to find an era, a group, or an individual in possession of a set of beliefs, ideals, or assumptions that scholarly investigation could not show to be flawed or distorted. The English republican ideal of the seventeenth century lived on in the Irish eighteenth century in the writings of Toland, Molyneux, Hutcheson and others, even though the conditions for its survival had long since disappeared in England and had never existed in Ireland. This does not permit us to consign their works to the lumber-room. [...; xxiii]

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Nationalism even found a way of converting every past failure and defeat into a proof of the indomitable spirit of the Gael and a warrant of future success. [...]

It is in the two languages of Ireland that the history of power and powerlessness I most deeply inscribed. [... xxiv]

What has to be translated [in the early Celtic revival], according to current advanced opinion, was more than individual texts - although these were difficult enough to establish. with them there also had to be translated the spirit that informed them. The English language of translation would have to find some way of embodying the intensity and strangeness of the Irish language. The result would be a language that would retain the most characteristic features of both. [...; xxv]

When colonialism is successful, it reconciles the colonised culture to its own. When it is unsuccessful, it enforces itself by violence - slaughter, confiscation, the demonising of those who resist it. Nationalism, cultural or political, is no more than an inverted image of the colonialism it seeks to replace. It too is an act of translation or even of retranslation. The assumption it shares with colonialism is the existence of an original condition that must be transmitted, restored, recuperated, and which must replace the fallen condition which at present obtains. It is not necessarily true that something always gets lost in translation. It is necessarily true that translation is founded on the idea of loss and recuperation [...; xxv].

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[ Deane concludes with remarks on Ireland’s reputation as a place where ‘political violence and literary arts flourish together’, and remarks that the aesthetic ideology that claims autonomy for a work is a political force that pretends not to be so’; he invokes Coleridge’s idea of “reconciliation of opposites”, apparently to explain the marriage of art and literature, and claims that in this linkage, “art ... is given priority even in this close-knit family”. He ends with references to the “achievement of Irish people” and the “fecundity” of readings alternative prompted on each page’ [xxvi] - presumably of the present anthology. ]

1. The sentence is quoted in Edna Longley, The Living Stream, 1994, p.36.

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