Brendan Behan once compared the critic to a eunuch in a harem - he could watch the proceedings, but was good for little else. Samuel Beckett made critic a swear word in a scene of Waiting For Godot. To their mid-century generation of Irish artists, what passed for criticism was often little more than vituperation and abuse. These days things are different.
Irish art is now assessed by professional commentators from academia, cultural journals and the popular press: and many who specialise in its study are not Irish at all. At a conference last weekend on New Voices on Irish Criticism at the Irish Film Centre, Dublin, speakers came from as far afield as Barcelona, Los Angeles and Oxford. The Arts Council, keen to promote high-quality criticism gave its blessing and support.
The rule of the conference was simple: only students or younger literary journalists could offer formal talks. The older voices were there to sit, listen and respond. The major problem facing younger scholars and journalists is the growing casualisation of labour. Twenty years ago it was possible for an aspiring academic to secure a tenured post and publish a first book while still in the mid-twenties.
Nowadays, university departments - like newspaper offices - are filled with youthful freelancers on short-term contracts. Their scope for major publishing projects are curtailed in the monthly task of keeping body and soul together: and this means that few manage to publish theses or books until they’re well into their thirties.
The result has been an impoverishment of our debates: new ideas are not emerging as soon as they might. The conference at the weekend did much to remedy that. Its coordinator, P. J. Mathews of TCD was inundated with offers of more than 80 papers, of which only about 25 could be heard. His own contribution was a spirited critique of those revisionist scholars of the Irish Revival who have insisted on a distinction between the more upper-class, Anglo ethos of The Abbey Theatre and Co-Op Movement on one side, and the more downmarket, popular nationalism of Gaelic League and Sinn Fein on the other.
Mathews showed that - as always in Ireland - the same people animated all these movements, and that they came together after the defeat of the 1893 Home Rule Bill under the slogan of selfhelp. Links were made in the subsequent debate (and long debates were a feature of the weekend) between the 1890s and the 1990s, especially in terms of Mary Robinson’s empowering visits to local co-ops and communities.
Self-help was indeed the nature of the event. Papers by Derek Hand, Teresa Casal and Greg Dobbins seemed to suggest that the revisionist versus nationalist debate is finally over.
Guy Beiner of UCD urged historians, in a powerful address, to use oral sources and move beyond a document-driven scholarship (which tends to reflect the interests of only one side, the winners). The established scholars, who listened, responded with generosity and imagination. Michael Cronin of DCU regretted that so many of the fresh analyses have still to be ventilated in the press or RTE. Most teachers would share his frustration: day in, day out, we are excited by the ideas of the young in classes, yet hear few echoes of them in an outside world dominated by the middle-aged (ourselves included).
Dr. Cronin, who has edited the radical New Graph magazine since the mid-1980s, warned the gathering that none of its then-new voices ever really managed to get a sustained hearing in the mainstream media. She readily conceded that many section editors in newspapers thought of academics as boring - but the papers which we heard at the IFC were anything but that.
A superb panel on Women and Fiction reached a brilliant climax in an analysis by Kathy Cremin of York University on the nature and appeal of the novels of Patricia Scanlan; while Aaron Kelly of Queen’s University Belfast cleverly debunked the oriental-isation of that city in the conventional Troubles thriller.
John Kenny from Galway, in a witty response, noted similar tendencies to auto-exoticism in the novels of 1980s Dublin realists, even to the point where one supplied a glossary explaining words like craic. Kenny himself gave in incisive report on the Irish novel. Wilde proved the most mentioned author of the proceedings, perhaps a reflection of the recent movie and centenary celebrations. Much interesting work is being done on his social contexts: Jarlath Killeen of UCD argued that his cultural Catholicism proved far more subversive than his gayness in 1890s London (a brave contention in these politically-correct days, but one
that prompted some agreement); Noreen Doody of Trinity deftly illustrated the immense influence of Wilde on Yeats; while Gearoid O Flaherty from Kent made a really challenging link between the play Vera and Irish agrarian agitations.
Also from Kent, Paul Delany spoke most movingly about the problems facing today’s Travellers and made some fine links with Synge’s treatment of this group. Some speakers seemed to invent or open up entirely new topics: for instance, David Attis of Princeton probed the links between Science and Irish identity. Others responded vibrantly to current debates: Sarah McKibben of Cornell spoke in fluent, precise Irish (and English) about recent contentions as to whether Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire is an oral performance or a literary text.
Seline McGuinness of Oxford treated all the commemorations of 1898 as a case of The Year of the Undead, while Robert Tobin of Boston probed the ideas of Hubert Butler on Irish neutrality. There was lots more brilliance, unrecordable here, but the proceedings will soon be published in a book; and doubtless a new generation of thinkers will feature in Graph magazine. All to the good . . . especially if editors respond and give youth its fling.
A second conference will be held next year in Belfast, under the sponsorship of Edna Longley, who did much to shape this one. To judge from the levels of interest, there will be many more: the new voices want to be heard, and not just in the halls of academe.
Declan Kiberd is Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at UCD and a co-sponsor of New Voices in Irish Criticism.