Eve Patten, review of The Cambridge Companion to Modern Irish Culture, ed. Joe Cleary & Claire Connolly (Cambridge UP 2005), 363pp., in The Irish Times (16 April 2005), Weekend, p.13.

“I think that our Irish movements have always interested me in part”, wrote Yeats in 1900, “because I see in them the quarrel of two traditions of life, one old and noble, one new and ignoble”. In similar terms, the quarrel between modernity and its opposite has been expressed, a quarrel which continues, according to the editors of this companion, even as Ireland sheds the last vestiges of de Valeran idealism for “a corporate quickstep on a global crossroads”. But what constitutes “modernity” in Ireland, and what did its evolution counter or displace?

This, more than the perennially troubled definition of “culture”, is the question addressed by Joe Cleary in his stimulating introduction to the book. Rejecting a general thesis of modern consciousness as a product of Enlightenment and industrial capitalism, he suggests that in Ireland, modernity is “stripped of its semblance of obviousness”. Permanently vexed by the contexts of British dominance, the notion of Irish modernity is caught between readings which see it on one hand as imitative of developments elsewhere, on the other as self-generated, and instanced by the dynamic intellectual republicanism of the United Irishmen.

But Irish modernity is not only qualified by issues of internal versus external motivation: for Cleary, its unique consistency resists alignment with broader European and American metanarratives of progress. The anomalous position of Ireland - call it strange, enigmatic, deficient, eccentric – has positioned Irish society as “an uncanny site of the pre-modern or non-modern”, a sublime location of Romantic indulgence and a philosophical laboratory for the interrogation of the “modern” itself. The normal chronology of progress falters in an Irish environment which frustrates. any such timeline in a perpetual juxtaposition - a “traumatic relay” - of reconstituted past and anticipated future.

Written with impressive lucidity, this introduction offers a persuasive updating of Seamus Deane’s 1997 Strange Country, with which it shares a good deal of territory. Acknowledging Deane, and pursuing Field Day’s sceptical take on liberal teleologies of progress, Cleary likewise invests heavily in what he terms “conundrum” theories of Irish mlodernity’s ambiguousness - even under Lemass, a Tiger economy, and a ruthless Americanisation. But he also pushes towards a workable redefinition of the modern which - recalling Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic and a groundswell of diaspora studies - sees the Irish experience of trauma and dislocation as the precocious acquisition of a quintessentially modern “exilic” consciousness. Hence, Irish culture can be seen as a modern and, simultaneously, ultra-modern, anomalous and avante-garde, while sidestepping the dying fall of modernity itself into irrelevance.

This premise dovetails well with those essays in the collection nuanced by contemporary cultural theory. Kevin Whelan’s poetic treatment of a post-Famine culture transformed from the erotic to the neurotic by the devotional revolution forwards, in this vein, the concept of “radical memory”, which emphasises discontinuity and the existence in Ireland’s past - as in the histories of slavery or the Shoah - of “a historical negative space of absolute loss”. But the companion also showcases more conventional evolutionary perspectives. Alvin Jackson’s analysis of the lengthy survival of the Union, and an obscured pattern of negotiation, popular cultural integration and consensus, is accompanied by a critique of historians swayed by a “magpie-like fascination for the tinsel of radical or extreme politics”, and neglectful therefore, of responsible, workaday historiographic gap-filling.

Such methodological juxtapositions are to the editors’ credit in terms of the interest they add for readers. But the companion as a whole wisely draws back from topspin; most of the preliminary essays grouped under “cultural politics” are grounded in solid material and original research. Siobhán Kilfeather on feminisrn, Gearód Ó Tuathaigh on language and Liam O’Dowd on the “historical cyclicalism” which unites unionism and nationalism all provide generous background for students without losing traction on governing themes.

As in Cleary’s introduction, there is a welcome emphasis, too, on precision with terms: Mary J. Hickman’s discussion of diaspora, in particular, brings back rigour to an increasingly blurred category of contemporary commentary.

In the section on cultural practices, there are fine essays by Emer Nolan, who strategically reverses readings of Yeats and Joyce as revivalist and modernist respectively, by Bernard O’Donoghue on Irish language poetry, by Fintan Cullen on the visual arts and by Hugh Campbell, whose survey of Irish architecture provides perhaps the most unexpected reading in the volume of an alternative modern cultural language, “a structured methodical prose”, articulated by the landmark designs (think, Busáras and RTÉ ... ) of Michael Scott and Robin Walker.

There are disappointments too: the contribution on prose fiction seems slack, that on sport rather perfunctory, and there are noticeable silences over those less anomalous areas that have to do with science, law and technology. But in what it does offer, this companion provides a coherent, engaging resource, its inspired cover illustration from Alice Maher’s Irish Dancers adding a subtle visual reminder - from a female perspective - of the contradictions still implicit in Irish modernity.

[Eve Patten lectures in English at Trinity College Dublin and is the author of Samuel Ferguson and the Culture of Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Four Courts, 2004)]

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