Rónán McDonald, ‘A break for the borders’, review of Liam Harte & Yvonne Whelan, eds., Ireland Beyond Boundaries: Mapping Irish Studies in the Twenty-First Century in The Irish Times (14 April 2007), Weekend Review, p.11.

[Irish Studies: This collection is concerned with shifting boundaries and borders, those around Irish studies and those around sub-disciplines within it.]

The first few essays chart the institutional histories of Irish studies in America, Australia and Canada reminding us that its origins lie in conversations between traditional disciplines, like English and history. This sort of Irish studies was more multi-disciplinary than inter-disciplinary. Friendly neighbours borrowed the occasional cup of sugar, but the fences stayed intact.

Yet like extreme sports and pornography, Irish studies has both soft- and hard-core versions. In recent decades Irish studies has sought to tear down the disciplinary barriers of English, history, sociology and the arts, to foster an ever-permeable, self-reflexive area of enquiry that is, as Liam Harte puts it in his introduction, in a “continual state of deconstruction”. As this tell-tale locution indicates, this sense of Irish studies is closely connected to the heavily theorised, sociological convulsions that passed through the Anglo-American humanities from the late 1970s. Study of the arts swung leftwards, perhaps by way of compensation for the setbacks suffered by the Left under the Thatcher and Reagan administrations. Distinctions between high and low culture were dismantled, the autonomy of the conventional disciplines probed and perforated, interest in race, gender, ethnicity and the cultural mechanisms of oppression burgeoned. As Shaun Richards emphasises in his essay on Irish studies in Britain, this was a thermal on which Irish studies soared, especially taken together with the sense of political urgency fostered by the Troubles.

There were many, particularly in history faculties, who scorned the new political alliances, especially when post-colonial theory arrived in the 1990s. Even though there was scoffing and barracking, one could argue (unlikely though it might seem) that Irish studies has been characterised by silence and consensus on crucial fronts. Those hot clashes in the 1980s and 1990s between so-called “revisionists” and “nationalists” often obscured the absence of a deeper battle between radical and conservative ideas. Perhaps this is why, in search of some decent right-wing opposition, leading Irish critics have repeatedly engaged with the 18th-century conservative giant Edmund Burke. The absence of a cultural right surely has something to do with the particular complexities of “tradition” and “modernity” in Ireland, a relationship that several of the essays here treat.

Part One is devoted to institutional Irish studies globally, Part Two to critical assessments of various strands and themes. Mary E Daly’s essay ambitiously charts recent Irish historiography, while also suggesting that history and cultural criticism remain methodologically sequestered in important areas. Ironically, other essays in the collection demonstrate Daly’s diagnosis. A strength of the collection is its range, bringing into play sometimes marginalised subjects such as Lance Pettit’s essay on media, Gerry Smyth’s on music, Harte and Whelan’s on geography and Mike Cronin’s on sport. Most of the essays are themselves extended critiques of existing academic work on each topic. For all the variety, however, one often intuits shared underlying assumptions, especially in the essays written by the cultural critics. The politically engagé approach that we associate with Pluto Press comes close, on one or two occasions, to sniffiness about existing critical works that are deemed reactionary or theoretically unsophisticated (which usually amounts to the same thing).

Aesthetic judgements are not necessarily naïve or hopelessly old-fashioned. It would have been good to see more recognition that the international academic trends that have buttressed Irish studies have subsided or been absorbed. The so-called theory wars are over. Does the recent talk about new aestheticism, new humanism or new pragmatism have anything to teach Irish studies? Such questions cannot simply be dismissed as reactionary reflux. After all, there is nothing more orthodox than aging iconoclasm. The truly transgressive position could now lie in a critique of inherited cultural radicalism, in dissent from dissent. After all, even if Irish studies can, with profit, “deconstruct” the various cultures of Ireland, it also has a crucial role as their interpreter, their evaluator and their custodian.

[ Rónán McDonald’s book, Death of the Critic, will be published later this year by Continuum Press. He lectures in English at the University of Reading and is director of the Samuel Beckett International Foundation. His Cambridge Introduction to Beckett came out earlier this year. ]

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