Hugh Kenner, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1983), 367pp.

“Warning” [Chap. 1].
‘What an Irish Bull is we all know: when three cows are standing in a field the one that is sitting down is an Irish Bull. These are encountered daily in any part of the sland where the hand of man has never set foot. Of more consequence by far is the’Irish Fact, definable as anything they will tell you in Ireland, where you get told a great deal and had best assume a demeanor of wary appreciation.’ (p.16.)

‘[I]n some pre-literate culture, for instance in Homeric Greece, unpestered by scribes, could it possibly occur to anyone to reject a narrative because it was inaccurate? For what could accuracy mean? Not only is what they’d need to match the tale against no longer there; the tale itself, once told, is no longer there either; and as recent a past as yesterday afternoon is no more than what the speaker of the moment says it was, and only so long as he’s talking. Three different talkers, three different evanescing yesterdays, each one paced by a different sequencing of spoken flowers. (Hence the seven birthplaces of Homer.) / Though by no means pre-literate, in Ireland they remain on the whole unintimidated by literacy’s pretensions, and notably [17] by its pretense that it can attach impersonal value to getting things “right.” Its skills, those are widely possessed, and.deemed not without value; being forced to acquire them is what put the fear of the Lord and the leather into many a rapscallion, and galoots you’d have said would not amount to anything can get money writing yarns to be, read in America. But black and white is tricky stuff entirely, the lad who scribbled it is not showing his face, you’d want your solicitor at your side before you’d be entangling yourself with it at all. What? Oh yes, as sure as I’m telling you. A sinister disproportion between the free flow of gab and the bleached simulacrum a writer lays before us after a time of keeping unnatural silence upstairs, this is something that Swift discerned and his countrymen continue to suspect. Swift well knew how much you can get away with in print that nobody would tolerate face to face. You can even advertise - he did this once that a pestilent man is dead, and put him to unspeakable trouble proving he is alive. Though suspicious of paper instruments, they will take frigid pity on somebody entoiled in efforts to decipher one, and place Irish Facts in plenty at his disposal.’ (pp.16-17.)

‘For who is this that [22] comes treading on my dreams? Brian O’Nolan, who made misinformation into an art form, so thoroughly led astray, an investigator from Time magazine that the issue of 23 August 1943 presented as Time-checked fact such allegations as these: - that O’Nolan spent his days “busy with many matters of state”; - that he had “informally beaten World Champion Alekhine” at chess; that on a quick visit to Germany in 1933 he had “met and married eighteen-year-old Clara Ungerland, blonde, violinplaying daughter of a Cologne basket-weaver. She died a month later. O’Nolan returned to Eire and never mentions her.” It is still unclear what taxonomists should do with this man. His achievement exceeded T. L. Peacock’s (what does anybody do with him?) and in turn it seems exceeded by his abilities. He was Brian O’Nolan the minor civil servant (”matters of state”!), “Myles na gCopaleen” the barfly columnist, “Flann O’Brien” in 1943 the author of one published novel, and, whatever his name, in the year of the interview a lifelong bachelor. He was also, as Time editors did not suspect, the greatest living virtuoso of the Irish Fact. “Cologne basket-weaver,” indeed. Des Moines oystershucker? Later “O’Brien” claimed to have been the sole author of the “Interview” with John Stanislaus Joyce, father of the novelist, that turned up among James Joyce’s papers and was published in Paris in 1949. “We could not wait to draw the corks, we slapped them against the marble-topped counter. ... The Turkish bath came into my mind and there 1 went after having any God’s quantity of champagne. Oh dear, dear God, those were great times.” [See ftn., infra.] That “O’Brien” had the talent to write it is beyond doubt, though how in that case it found its way into the novelist’s files has never been clearly explained. To have made the undisprovable claim to have written it would have been equally good fun, especially after it had begun to be cited, as it is to the extent [23] of four footnotes in the standard biography. There dances before the mind an ideal academicism, manipulated from Ireland, founded wholly on items of fictitious data that have had their origin over pints of porter. / Though they have not so far as is known metastatised to that extent, the Irish Facts which infest all talk and all written memories have demonstrably effected some permeation into all areas of sober scholarship. [.../] As to why this maddening ostentation of the pseudo-fact should seem an Irish speciality, there is no better explanation of human variousness than Swift’s, worth quoting verbatim:

There is in mankind a certain * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Hic multa
disiderantur

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * And this I take to be a clear solution of the matter.

To which we need only append the no doubt accurately reported words of a possibly non-existent Dublin toper: “And so say all of us, Jack.” (pp.23-24.)

Ftn: ‘“1nterview”: Maria Jolas, ed., A James Joyce Yearbook, Paris, 1949. Mme. Jolas has assured me it was among J.J.’s papers, and Prof. John V. Kelleher is convinced (on “O’Brien’s authority and others”) that “O’Brien” wrote it; and how these allegations are to be combined is unclear. The man Prof. Kelleher suggested might have taken the MS. to Paris denies having done so. Though I quoted it myself in 1956 (Dublin’s Joyce; recte 1955) I now judge it too vivid to be true: what a miraculously accurate transcriber, for those days before tape! Prof. Ellmann alludes (759) to questions J.J. had his friends put to J.S.J. during the 1920’s [sic], but such notes on these as I’ve seen are bare fact-lists.’ [ back ]

The Three Provinces
‘[...] Such are the masterpieces of International Modernism. None ef them, and certainly not Ulysses, can be claimed for the literature of its author’s native country: no, they define a tradition of own, accessible to whoever will master the English necessary to read them; or, if skill with English be native, the detachment. What you must be detached from is the set of expectations you acquire in absorbing a national literature. If you chance to have grown up on Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, you will need the knack of setting them aside. Ulysses is especially explicit Bunyan, Pepys, Addison, Carlyle, Pater, Newman: the centuries-long march of English prose. It treats that as culture-bonded, hence alien to, Dublin, though the mannerisms can be synthesised at will (pages of demonstration). This claims in effect that Saintsbury’s History of English Prose need no longer be part of the seven centuries’ nightmare from which Irish writers once felet powerless to awake: no, the ludicrous chronicle of a costume party.

Such a prospect affronted the soul of F. R. Leavis, who had no use for the Cantos, grew wary of The Waste Land, and for all his admiration of much of Ulysses excluded it (rightly) from the Great Tradition that had passed through George Eliot. Not having imbibed that tradition can offer advantages. Of the readers of Ulysses known me, the one most at ease in what he reads is Swiss [Fritz Senn]. (p.29.)

‘The Irish story is more complicated. Plenty of the reading matter and acting matter they produce seems intended for natives alone, but Irish writers have always been naggingly aware that Irishmen do not as a rule buy books, have never bought them, have even inherited a tradition whereby to write when you might be talking is an unnatural act. Books in England are sacred objects, exempt from the io-percent Value Added Tax: not (until 1 April, 1982) in Ireland. And sensing that written words can even be dangerous, the Republic employs pretty active censors, who in addition to keeping out Playboy [ftn.: No, not The Playboy; they had their fuss about that long ago], contraceptive advice, and tons of quick-turnover porn, have interfered with some poets and with nearly every major prose writer save, oddly, Joyce. Such a large Dublin bookstore as Fred Hanna’s prospers on American visitors. This points up a second fact, that Ireland keeps informal colonies beyond the seas, in spch places as Boston on what used to be called “The New Island”. Much of the Irish writer’s public resides abroad, where it welcomes a look at him. Oscar Wilde went on display before Colorado miners, and Yeats earned “a roof for Thoor Ballylee” in New York, New Haven, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City. A different public resides in England, where what is salable to connoisseurs of the quaint is sheer Irishness; to develop an idiom redolent of that was the earliest of the skills Yeats learned.

Finally, the management of English in Ireland is inextricable from ongoing revolution, no end in sight. A faction has been holding for nearly a century that English wants not mastering [32] but expunging, in favour of a native Celtic tongue. This tongue is called “Irish”, and after fifty years’ of principled indocrination through every school in the Repub lic (one of the first-reader words being gunna, “gun”; it’s for instance on page 19 of a friky primer called Seo Leat by Máiréad Ní Ghráda, all about Donall, Seán Maire and dog Spota), Irish is now spoken by some tens of thousands out of five million. Still, it is the official language, sustaining Dubliners whose cause and recreation entail scenes in government offices where they demand to be served, as their right, in Irish. Having engineered a satisfying fiasco, they write fervid letters to The Irish Times, in English.’ (pp.32-33.)

‘Early in the century other factions included the Nationalists, who wanted Home Rule with no strings, and the Unionists, who thought the connection with England might be renegotiated but needed preserving. Nationalists derided any proposal to embellish the English leash with a rhinestone collar. Unionists were apt to echo genteel English literary opinion, especially when they were sure what it was. Extreme Nationalists thought you wasted your time and the nation’s with anything save improving political consciousness, whether by marching-songs or by portrayals of the pure and holy folk in the Galway and Kerry fields.

Pure and holy folk were Catholic of course, as were most Dubliners, though in Dublin Catholic was apt to denote less a state of supernatural conviction than a web of secular allegiances. (Likewise Catholic and Protestant in the North today are shorthand for intricate sociologies, a thing the outside world comprehends imperfectly.) But public opinion-defined as what people think other people think-was manufactured in Dublin, where the newspapers came from, and public opinion could more or less identify the chief personnel of the Irish Literary Revival as (i) Protestant, (2) non-Dubliners, in fact (3) based at landed estates in the West; hence (4) identifiable as “Anglo-Irish”: a Nationalist bête noire.

Lady Gregory, a flagrant case, was all of these. So was George Moore after he quixotically ceased to be Catholic. Moore’s cousin Edward Martyn, though almost grotesquely Papist, otherwise filled the bill. W. B. Yeats was born in a Dublin suburb but [32] identified his roots with Sligo in the West; gossip, moreover, could scatter him to the winds, situating him on Lady Gregory’s estate at Coole, where rumour made him a virtually permanent houseguest, and in the same breath dismissing him as a Londoner since he always seemed to enter Dublin from that direction. J. M. Synge too was Dublin-born, but of a line of Protestant missionaries; he had moreover lived abroad, and in Paris, altogether too long for Nationalist tastes.

James Joyce though: Catholic; a Dubliner; non-landed; not by any stretch of the imagination Anglo-Irish: he ought to have filled the bill. But James Joyce, good God, had no manners, thought Ibsen was a dramatist, thought he himself was a genius, even thought Irish politics a waste of time. He’d also run off with a girl to Trieste or someplace. Every faction, including the small one around Yeats, excluded James Joyce, which was a mistake. It’s an intricate story, best entered, like the story of Troy, in the middle. No one knows where to find the beginning. A high point near the middle is nicely marked by the flourish of tin trumpets. We’ll start with those.’ (pp.32-33.)

‘[...] Irish underwent the advantage [87] of any tongue that was perceived to be on its way to extinction: like the American Indian languages, it was studied. It is not an easy speech to pick up by ear; Frank O’Connor distinguished two dialects, Back-of-the-mouth and Toothless. Many found its intricacies beyond them, and one man even pronounced them beyond the power of the human brain. That was Yeats’s mentor John O’Leary, which may help excuse the poet’s willingness to merely dabble. It is a language in which you cannot so much as say “yes” and “no”, but instead the equivalents of “It is that” and “It is not”. There were amateurs to be charmed by such details, and philologists, often German, to be fascinated. Both classes of erithusiast might be encountered hallooing after natives among the Inishmaan rocks. Or vou could study Irish more rmally (J. M. Svnge did) at Trinity College, where they wer not encourageing anybody to talk to Gaetochata peasants unless for the purpose of converting them from Romish superstition. [...]’ (pp.87-88.)

The Lore of Irish
[On the Deirdre tale]: ‘There had been an early concentration on Ossian son of Finn, by 1889 the hero, “Oisin”, of Yeats’s first major poem. This was because when the Scotsman James Macpherson published his “Ossianic” fustian in 1763 and started a craze, he had been at pains to deny any Irish connection, having worked, he said, from epic poems written in Scotland in the third century. [see ftn.] So when the first wave of Celtic enthusiasm swept across Europe (and Napoleon took his Ossian with him to St. Helena) Ireland was excluded from the glory. / No Irishman with learning or without it proposed to take such an insult lying down, and by mid-century enough philological expertise was available, much of it German, to sustain the activities and the publications of learned bodies in Dublin, which sponsored many pages of dogged translating. The Irish Archaeological Society (founded 1841), the Celtic Society (founded 1847), the Ossianic Society (1854-1861), and their roster of scholars - O’Donovan, O’Curry, O’Daly, Walsh, Conellan, O’Looney, Standish Hayes O’Grady - had their work cut out for them. For if it was not true that, as one Englishman had asserted, the mythology [92] of the Celts resemled that of the Hottentots, or that the Irish in particular had no tincture of cilivsation till the Normans did them the favour of subduing them, then Irishmen needed this knowledge as much as the world at large.’ (pp.98-99.)

Ftn.: Though Macpherson and his books have faded away, Boswell’s Johnson denouncing a scoundrel stays vivid, and it’s arcane knowledge now that Macpherson’s folly went up on a scrabbly foundation of real Gaelic ballads. (His Dar-thula and Nathos are Deirdre and Naisi.) We may connect his need to fake a Celtic Homer with the exactions of a public that would not have known how to get interested in fragments. (p.98.)

‘During several decades, 1857-1880, Sir Samuel Ferguson (1810-1886) published sprightly volumes of “versions from the Irish” which had an effect, though many no longer sound Irish at all. Ferguson tantalises. Away from Irish he can seem to parody Gray:

“Delicious Liffey! from thy bosoming hills,
What man who sees thee issuing strong and pure,
But with some wistful, fresh emotion fills,
Akin to Nature’s own clear temperature?”

Close to Irish, he can be stage-Irish jaunty, as in the version of “Pastheen Finn” Yeats twice rewrote -

“Oh, my fair Pastheen is my heart’s delight,
Her gay heart laughs in her blue eye bright,
Like the apple blossom her bosom white
And her neck like the swan’s on a March morn bright!
Then, Oro, come with me, come with me, come with me!
Oro, come with me, brown girl sweet!
And oh, I would go through snow and sleet,
If you would come with me, brown girl sweet! ...”.

But once, in “The Fairy Thorn” - written, so Malcolm Brown tells us, in his twenty-third year - Ferguson virtually invented what soon passed on Yeats’s page for the verse effects peculiar to an Irish soul. Though Yeats for some reason omitted “The Fairy Thorn” from his 1900 Book of Irish Verse, he had quoted it with enthusiasm, almost entire, in his first published piece of prose, an appreciation of Ferguson he did for The Irish Fireside when he was twenty-one and Sir Samuel Ferguson just two months dead. Both he and AE (so Austin Clarke reported on AE’s authority) got their best music from the way of its “internal assonances”, in which Ferguson was imitating a complex of Irish verse effects:

“Get up, our Anna dear, from the weary spinning-wheel;
For your father’s on the hill, and your mother is asleep; [93]
Come above the crags, and we’ll dance a Highland reel
Around the Fair Thorn on the steep.’

This haunts with its density of consonance and assonance-hill for instance is part of the wheel-reel cluster, and of dear and weary echo one another from the second and fourth strong beats in their line, so do, less obviously, crags and dance. Later Fairy remembers dear and weary. And that hypnotic, elusive rhythm with its arrested fourth line - has anything like it been heard in English before? Only music can explain such seeming invention on the part of a minor though industrious poet. Ferguson had, as the Celts say, “a chune in his head”, not anything counted by syllables. More than once he lost its spell and lapsed into doggerel but not in a stanza like this: “TheyIle enchantment seizes them; the four girls all in green stay entranced through the night, immobile, bowed beside the Fairy Hawthorn in its lonely rowan grove. By morning the four are three. No more than the child in W. B. Yeats’s The Land Heart’s Desire will gay truant Anna be seen by mortals again. Yet as such versification can elide into doggerel (and Ferguson’s more than once does, within this very poem), so such ma re glancing through the glimmer of the quiet eve,

[ “ ...] Away in milky wavings of neck and ankle bare;
The heavy-sliding stream in its sleepy song they leave,
And the crags in the ghostly air [...].”

The enchantment seizes them; the four girls all in green stay entranced through the night, immobile, bowed beside the Fairy Hawthorn in its lonely rowan grove. By morning the four are three. No more than the child in W. B. Yeats’s The Land Heart’ Desire will gay truant Anna be seen by mortals again. Yet as such versification can elide into doggerel (and Ferguson’s more than once does, within this very poem) [...].’ (pp.93-94.)

‘Natives can sometimes beuraly forsstand a weird either [Wakese]. “Myles na gCopaleen”, whose column in The Irish Times was as frequently in Irish as in English in the early 1940’s, would occasionally vex his Gaedhealach following with passages like: TAIDHGIN: Thí bhas tócuing abamht boots, Sur. SUR THARBHAIGH: Iú cean teil dat tú de Diuds. Eabharaighbodaigh thiar ios undar airést. Aigh bhil títs iú tú bí dioslógheal. Cbhuic meairts! - which is English spelled by Irish rules, and says, TEAGUE: They was talking about boots, Sir. SIR HARVEY. “You can tell that to the judge. Everybody here is under arrest. I will teach you to be disloyal. Quick march!” His Irish readers would have grinned knowingly too at the bod in “Eabharaighbodaigh”, which means ”penis”; also at bodaigh, the plural of bodach, “prick”. The paper they were grinning over is the staidest in the country. “O’Brien”/0’’Nolan, an old hand in the bureaucracy, was indulging what may be an unexamined genre, Civil Service Humour. [...]’ (p.114.) Note further: ‘Durtaigh disloigheal Reibeal aighris dogs’ (here p.201.)

The Mocker [Flann O’Brien]
‘Was it the drink was his ruin, or was it the column? For ruin is the word. So much promise has seldom accomplished so little. ’The promise showed early. A northerner like AE and Kavanagh, in fact born (1911) in County Tyrone, syllables which educated Dubliners are apt to enunciate with slow disdain, the bilingual O’Nolan did not go to school until the family settled in Dublin when he was twelve, but six years later was a freshman in Joyce’s old university. His B.A. subjects were English, Irish and German, his Master’s thesis was on Irish poetry. Classmates looked to him as the most brilliant fellow around. / At twenty-eight he rewarded their confidence with At Swim-Two-Birds, that that was 1939, a bad year for a comic novel to get noticed. Despite praise from Graham Greene it sank like a stone. [...]’ (p.321.)

‘If At Swim-Two-Birds was a prolonged college joke, the ability it demonstrated seemed to promise a masterpiece.

Then in 1940 O’Nolan had very bad luck. He finished a new book, which the publisher of At Swim-Two-Birds turned down. And he commenced a funny column in the Irish Times. For twenty-five years the column used him up.

Mr. [Anthony] Cronin again: “Brian became somehow fixed at a time of brilliant promise and pyrotechnical display, unable to shake off the reputation for prodigious cleverness he had early acquired. This reputation was transplanted from the hothouse confines of U.C.D. to the equally pernicious atmosphere of intimately acquainted Dublin. His humour became the currency of its denizens, the mode of his column their manner of response. [...] And by a curious but inevitable inversion he became their creation. [...] The fate of the licensed jester had befallen him. He existed in and through the response and understanding of his audience.” His public nom-de-plume, “Myles”, was even the name by which friends addressed him. He wore a wide-brimmed black hat and a dark gaberdine and looked like a gangster, crossed with a tiny priest, his pallid face “ageless in a childish but experienced way”. A great future lay behind him. (p.323.)

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