Frank O’Connor, ‘The Future of Irish Literature’ ( Horizon, Jan. 1942)

Source: ‘The Future of Irish Literature’, in Horizon, Jan. 1942; rep. in David Pierce, ed., Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader, Cork UP 2000, pp.500-03. [Pierce’s notes omitted here.]

Writing about the future of Irish literature is like writing of the future of the Lancashire industrial towns the subject is a question mark.

By Irish literature I don’t, of course, mean literature written by Irishmen. People like Shaw and Elizabeth Bowen will continue to write, and to influence young men and women in Ireland, but that is not what I mean. I have no desire to be exclusive or nationalistic, because, except for reasons which have nothing to do with literature, it doesn’t matter a rap whether a writer is Irish or English. A national literature is one of the luxuries of a civilized people; it is like a national opera; it permits a young man or woman growing up in Cork or Helsinki or Kalamazoo to look at the life about him

through the medium of a racial outlook and philosophy, without his instantly beginning to pine for London and Paris and Rome. It is the only escape from provincialism. It was in this way that we as boys saw The Playboy of the Western World and felt that, after all, life in Ireland was not too bad. It was certainly not in this way that we saw Major Barbara with its Salvation Army and its millionaires; its young dudes and professors of Greek who were also students of comparative religion. That, if we hadn’t armed ourselves against it with an overweening nationalism and racialism, would simply have made us want to get out of Ireland by the first boat. If Shaw were Irish literature, there would be no possible doubt of its future.

Irish literature, as I understand it, began with Yeats and Synge and Lady Gregory; it has continued with variations of subject and talent through a second [499] generation. Is there to be a third, or will that sort of writing be re-absorbed into the main stream of English letters? That problem seems to be fundamental to all regional literatures. A Mistral or a Synge can create one almost out of his head, but obviously it must be maintained in some other way; it must have its inspirations from without and within; the face it presents to the world and the face it presents to its own initiates; its changes of temper, its classic, romantic, realistic, philosophical periods. It must be part of the European system, not a mere folk survival, petrified in some sort of mediæval fancy dress. The death of Yeats made us all ask ourselves precisely how much of that sort of Irish literature was really left.

And first, how did it begin? It did not spring entirely out of Yeats’s head. It was part of a whole national awakening when a small, defeated and embittered country began to seek the cause of its defeat in itself rather than in its external enemy. At the same time, and almost as part of it, began the attempt to revive the Irish language; the co-operative agricultural movement of Plunkett and Æ, the Labour movement led by Larkin in his eagle youth, and the Sinn Fein movement for abstention from Westminster led by Griffith. In those days there were at least half a dozen movements to which any young man of spirit could belong; all of them part of a general attack by the younger generation on the enemies within: the imitator of English ways - the provincialist; the “gombeen man” - a very expressive Irishism for the petit bourgeois; and the Tammany politician who had riddled every institution with corruption. Irish literature fitted admirably into that idealistic framework; it was another force making for national dignity. ‘We work to add dignity to Ireland’ was Lady Gregory’s favourite dictum.

But after the success of the Revolution that framework collapsed, and as happens, I suppose, after every successful revolution, Irish society began to revert to type. All the forces that had made for national dignity, that had united Catholic and Protestant, aristocrats like Constance Markievicz, Labour revolutionists like Connolly and writers like Æ, began to disintegrate rapidly, and Ireland became more than ever sectarian, utilitarian (the two nearly always go together), vulgar and provincial. In the first flush of victory a minister like Mulcahy could bring over from Germany an Army Director of Music, and the Irish Government could allow an Irish engineer to plan the great Shannon Power Scheme. Within a few years it would be impossible to appoint an Irish Protestant as librarian. I have seen Æ, in a fury of despair raise his hands to heaven and shout curses on de Valera. ‘I curse him now, as generations of Irishmen will curse him.’ Æ fled the country. Every year that has passed, particularly since de Valera’s rise to, power, has strengthened the grip of the gombeen man, of the religious secret societies like the Knights of Columbanus; of the illiterate censorships. As I write, even a piece of sentimental Catholicism like Miss O’Brien’s Land of Spices, which, in America, has been a colossal success among sectarian organizations, is legally outlawed in Ireland as being ‘in its general tendency indecent’ - it contains one brief reference to homosexuality. The Film Censor boasts that he has compelled the film renters to change the title of I Want a Divorce to The Tragedy of Divorce. One is not permitted to speak of Birth Control, and the sale of contraceptives is forbidden.

In fact, Ireland has used her new freedom to tie herself up into a sort of moral Chinese puzzle from which it seems almost impossible that she should ever extricate herself, and which young people can only contemplate with fascination and amusement. One minister is reported to have said recently when he was asked whether nothing could be done with our extraordinary broadcasting service, ‘Let them listen to the B.B.C.’ They do! It is part of the general breakdown of national pride that everything the Government touches is believed to be hopelessly corrupt and incompetent, that every appointment is believed to be a ‘job’; and that specified and unspecified groups are supposed to be making fortunes out of the economic chaos produced by the war. That is probably a grossly exaggerated view. The significant fact about it is that there is no idealistic opposition which would enable us to measure the extent of the damage.

Even the Abbey Theatre since Yeats’s death has lost all prestige. Yeats’s own plays, as well as those of Synge and Lady Gregory, have been entirely dropped from the repertory. It is worth while comparing the voices. This is Lady Gregory in 1914:

Often near midnight after the theatre had closed I have gone round the newspaper offices, asking as a favour that notices might be put in, for we could pay but for few advertisements, and it was not always thought worth while to send a critic to our plays. Often I have gone round by the stage door when the curtain was up, and come round into the auditorium by the front hall, hoping that in the darkness I might pass for a new arrival and so encourage the few scattered people in the stalls.

This is Ernest Blythe, managing director in 1941:

It all depends whether the best plays, as you call them, played to decent audiences. As far as I’m [500] concerned, a play’s a failure if it doesn’t ultimately draw an audience. It’s a miserable failure in fact. I don’t think anything’s so discouraging for either the actors or the playgoers as a house that’s more than three-quarters empty. It doesn’t do anybody any good - not even the author.

Small wonder that young men and women are fleeing the country in thousands. In the worst days of the blitz I used to meet them in the passport office; boys and girls who had cleared out of London, Birmingham and Liverpool when the raids began. Now they were shivering with fear lest the British Passport Officer might refuse to allow them back. ‘Oh, anything is better than Ireland,’ they said hopelessly when I drew them into conversation.

When O’Faolain and I began to write it was with some idea of replacing the subjective, idealistic, romantic literature of Yeats, Lady Gregory and Synge by one modelled on the Russian novelists. Superficially, there was a lot in common between the Irish and the Russian temperaments - the comparison has been overworked. And there was probably another, racial element in our choice of models. In one of his letters to Florence Farr, just published by the Cuala Press,’ Yeats says: ‘I have noticed, by the way, that the writers of this country who come from the mass of the people - or no, I should say, who come from Catholic Ireland, have more reason than fantasy. It is the other way with those who come from the leisured classes. They stand above their subject and play with it, and their writing is, as it were, a victory as well as a creation. The others, Colum and Edward Martyn, for instance, are dominated by their subject with the result that their work as a whole lacks beauty of shape, the organic quality.’

There is profound truth in this criticism, though the matter isn’t quite as simple as Yeats imagined. Writers who come from Catholic Ireland do bring with them something of its anonymity; are more impersonal; more identified with their material; they tend to sentimentalize or brutalize it, and rarely does one find a Catholic Irish writer playing with his material as Synge played with his. But that is history, not destiny, as Yeats seems to have imagined. He could have seen the same thing in England of his own day; the Irishmen, Shaw and Wilde, standing above their subjects and playing with them; while Hardy and Lawrence, dominated by their subject, trudged through the mire.

But it is true that the literature of Catholic Ireland (and one needn’t go beyond Joyce to prove it) is dominated by its material in a way in which the work of Synge and Yeats, derived from an abundant personality which found in the old sagas or in the wild life of the Aran Islands symbols of its own emotions, rarely was. Since Yeats’s death, Irish literature has passed almost entirely into the hands of writers of Catholic Irish stock, and, as I’ve pointed out, since the Revolution their material has been very much under the weather.

Take, for instance, the work of Sean O’Faolain. His first novel, A Nest of Simple Folk (the title itself an avowed plagiarism from Turgenev), is a rich, leisurely, lyrical book about life lived at its very simplest among the peasants of County Limerick. It deals with no great events: an abortive attempt at an insurrection (lightly passed over); the transference of a family from country to country town and from country town to provincial city. It has no outstanding characters; indeed, the people he describes are scarcely articulate, yet their little pieties and follies are described with tender sympathy.

His second novel, Bird Alone, set in the same provincial city, is a very different kettle of fish. It is the story of a raw youth and girl whose love affair brings them into conflict with the furious piety and Puritanism of Catholic Ireland and ends in despair and suicide. The little pieties and follies are drawn once more, but now with a definitely sinister turn. The characters have begun to be articulate: to demand a fuller, richer life for themselves, but as their aspiration grows, the sense of the dead weight of his material hangs more and more heavily on the author’s mind, and the book is almost choked by the feeling of anguish and claustrophobia. The nest of simple folk has raised its head out of the mud and been horrified by what it has seen.

In a play which intervenes between this and his latest novel O’Faolain seems to me to have found himself for the first time. Characteristically it is called She Had to Do Something . Turgenev this time is definitely off the map. It is a comedy about a Frenchwoman in just such a provincial town, and her attempts to form a society for herself and her daughter out of the tatterdemalion provincial celebrities; the ‘intellectual’ priesteen; the would-be small-town dandy; the poet who is giving up the job because everyone expects him to ‘have a good influence’. As a play, it may not be a great success, but it is delightful entertainment. For the first time O’Faolain looks at his material through the Frenchwoman’s eyes and sees how preposterous it is, and his laughter echoes right [501] through the play. I felt when I read it in manuscript that it was the first time O’Faolain really wrote as himself, as a personality, not as an anonymous Catholic Irish writer like Colum, but throwing all ancestral pieties to the winds.

In his new novel, Come Back to Erin, a young revolutionary goes to America, falls in love with the middle-aged wife of his step-brother and becomes her lover. She is complex, cultured, subtle; he gawkish, puritanical; a young provincial barbarian. Irish critics profess to lament the long American interlude, but for me, as I am sure, for most other people, it is the whole book. The author of the two brief sections dealing with Ireland seems to me the old O’Faolain who is bewildered and distressed by what he describes; it is only when he reaches America that he begins again to use the full range of his powers; and there we get astonishing sureness; a broad, sweeping outline; comedy and poetry. The nest of simple folk has found its way out at last.

But what of the author? He has grown up in his own material; has learned at last to use the full range of his powers, but what the blazes can he use them on? It is quite clear that, having written the middle section of this book, he would be a fool to go back to the uncertainties of its Irish sections, except with a very different approach. It is also clear what Irish critics dislike. It is no longer regional literature; the writer has ceased to find what is most valuable to himself in Holy Ireland, and cannot translate back into its idiom what he has found outside it. Into that life a cultured Frenchwoman or American - and that means their creator - simply will not go.

O’Faolain’s work provides the typical pattern; the rest of us the illustrations. I have just finished reading another book which drove it home to me. It is the first novel [The Green Fool] by the most remarkable of modern Irish poets, Patrick Kavanagh. In it he describes the life of a country boy in a north of Ireland village which is dominated by an ignorant, good-natured old parish priest. The story begins with an attempt by a group of boys and girls to establish a village hall in which they can meet and exchange ideas. The hall is a symbol of the life they would really like to lead, but which they never can lead because the old village tyrant opposes the licensing of ‘the Anti-Christ Hall’, as he calls it, and there is no one strong enough to defeat him. And so we see the principal character, in love with a decent girl whom he can never meet under decent conditions, masturbating his soul away, until the girl he loves is seduced by the local Don Juan (though, except for this once, his Don Juanism has never been anything but a mental exercise), while the hero settles down in comfort with a cow of a girl who has a little fortune, and the Anti-Christ Hall becomes a cattle-shed.

It is O’Faolain’s second novel; my own second novel [Dutch Interior]; it is Gerald O’Donovan’s Father Ralph; it is A Portrait of the Artist; it is the novel every Irish writer who isn’t a rogue or an imbecile is doomed to write when the emptiness and horror of Irish life begins to dawn on him. It raises in a peculiarly acute form the problem which Yeats merely stated, and it forces one to recognize how false is the superficial comparison with Russia of the last century. Tchekhov, the son of a slave, could write as easily of a princess as of a peasant girl or a merchant’s daughter. In Ireland, the moment a writer raises his eyes from the slums and cabins, he finds nothing but a vicious and ignorant middle-class, and for aristocracy the remnants of an English garrison, alien in religion and education. From such material he finds it almost impossible to create a picture of life which, to quote Dumas’s definition of the theatre, will embody ‘a portrait, a judgment and an ideal’.

It is highly doubtful whether without the whole moral and philosophical background of an awakening nationality the work of Yeats, Lady Gregory and Synge would have been possible at all. Without it a realistic literature is clearly impossible. We have, I think, reached the end of a period.

It is not a time for prophecies. One can say that of any stirrings from within there is no sign, but the war is far from being over, and by the time this article appears its changing fortunes may well have dissipated Mr de Valera’s dream of a nonentity state entirely divorced from the rest of the world. If that happens, and Mr de Valera is obviously very much afraid it will, we shall all have to think again, but in the meantime what can the Irish writer like Patrick Kavanagh do? How is he to compose this fundamental quarrel with his material? O’Faolain’s way in Come Back to Erin is not really a solution, nor, of course, is it intended to be. Inevitably it merely provokes the retort that, once having left it, you would be a fool to come back. That way leads to London or New York, and unless a change comes, that is where it may soon lead those of us who still hang on to Erin for choice.

Theoretically, of course, it is possible for a writer to live in a country where his books are banned, where there are no magazines to print his work, where all power is in the hands of a fanatical and corrupt middle-class, and never, never emerge from his ivory [502] tower. But like Whitman when he saw the oak tree growing alone, ‘I know I could not do it’.

The only alternative to that private world is the public platform. It is the way Spender, Day Lewis and Auden took in England, and it has always been a regret of mine that there was no corresponding movement in Ireland where the need for it was so much greater. Within the past five years there has been, so far as I know, but one play which attempted to grapple with any real problem: Collis’s Marrowbone Lane, which dealt with the Dublin slums. It was rejected by the Abbey Theatre; not, I imagine, on its merits. The only literary periodical which is generally read, The Bell, edited by O’Faolain, has in fifteen months of its existence steadily refused to recognize the war - it is an old dispute between myself and the editor. I am bewildered by the complete lack of relationship between Irish literature and any form of life, within or without Ireland. Blandly, sentimentally, maundering to itself, Irish literature sails off on one tack, while off on another go hand in hand Mr de Valera and the Church, the murder gangs and the Catholic secret societies. It may be argued that they are the business of publicists, not of artists, but there are no publicists, there is no public opinion, and if the artists do not fight who will? And if we don’t fight, and new circumstances don’t settle Mr de Valera’s hash for us, what is to become of Ireland or Irish literature?

Two things must happen if Irish literature is to survive the war. One is that somehow or other a theatre must be established, since the theatre is the only art form that can directly influence opinion, particularly now that the censorship of books is acting, more or less effectively, as a gag on the novelist. Secondly, the Irish writers must be prepared to come into the open; we must have done with romanticism for the next twenty years or so and let satire have its way. Not necessarily a cruel satire, because the Bogey Man in Ireland is far less a monster than he is in industrial countries; but certainly satire; for here he has a chance which rarely comes to him in industrial countries, of smothering all opposition, quietly, good-naturedly, without a struggle.

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