Emer Nolan, ‘Making a Meal of the Mainstream’, review of Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture by John Wilson Foster, in The Irish Times (210 March 2002), Weekend.

Source: The Irish Times online; accessed 29.03.2010.

John Wilson Foster has published many books on topics including Ulster fiction, nature writing and the Titanic. Indeed, this collection of essays, reviews and lectures seems to justify its own existence by constant reference to these earlier volumes. Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture is filled with allusions to Foster’s other books, to his own projected or abandoned works and to details of his career. This may try the patience of all but his most zealous fans. The reader might only be inspired to persist if he or she were already sympathetic to the extraordinary view expressed by Edna Longley in the foreword that “if Irish literary and cultural criticism has taken off since the 1970s - and it has - John Wilson Foster is one of the main reasons”.

One problem is that not even Foster seems to believe that such a large claim could be sustained on the basis of the evidence provided here. In his own preface, Foster suggests that conditions in the 1990s explain the “cultural anxiety and partisanship” on show in some of these essays; he admits that a few of them “may now seem old-hat, if not foolish and over-reactive”. This seems bravely to anticipate his harshest detractors. However, Foster lets himself off the hook with the rather baffling remark that such pieces are nevertheless “captions to the Irish Zeitgeist”. He excuses himself from revisions by suggesting that “one cannot continuously bring criticism up to date in order not to be historically wrong-footed”. This may be convenient enough for the author and for the publisher. But Foster apparently wishes to disavow some of his earlier political opinions. These included the fear that even the new article 3 of the Irish Constitution, amended as part of the Good Friday Agreement, contains an unacceptable threat to unionist identity. Surely he then owes it to his readers to comment more fully on recent developments in Ireland?

Although the subtitle promises something rather comprehensive, most of the chapters in this collection circle around Foster’s key preoccupations. Essays on Tomás O’Crohan, Tim Robinson, Strangford Lough and on the image of the blackbird in Irish culture combine his long-standing concern with the natural world with his literary interests. Foster is especially concerned to rescue various groups of Irish people that he believes have been “excluded” by Irish academic criticism, guided by its “nationalist” biases. His list of the previously marginalised includes female and gay writers. Such writers do not feature here in any detail, with the exception of an essay on Oscar Wilde’s attitude to science. This particular recuperative project sits oddly with Foster’s clear hostility to those “ideologues in the American university literature classroom” who promote Gender or Gay Studies. Irish scientists and naturalists must also be saved from the condescension of posterity. Foster laments Irish indifference or hostility to Irish combatants in the first World War and to Irish men who served in the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the Royal Irish Constabulary. He notes W. B. Yeats’s failure to acknowledge the imperialist and unionist sympathies of his patron Augusta Gregory’s son Robert, killed in Italy in 1918, in the celebrated elegy “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”. In general, Foster deplores Yeats’s lack of interest in the war as a theme for poetry; but he goes further in perceiving “behind that aversion a broader Irish recoil from reality and obligation”. In fact, for a critic who dislikes the supposedly homogenising tendencies of “mainstream” Irish criticism, Foster indulges in a fair degree of off-the-cuff stereotyping himself. For example, in the script of a pre-performance talk on a play by Conor McPherson, he announces that while aggressively buying rounds of drink is “very Irish”, real emotional honesty is “not so Irish”. Apparently, it is the unexpected appearance of the latter in an Irish pub that “helps to make The Weir an Irish play of unusual psychological depth”.

A good deal of the critical language here would be appropriate enough for such occasions, but should surely have been tightened up for a book. For example, at one point Foster nonchalantly confesses that despite his interest in the United Irish rebellion, Wolfe Tone is “a figure who up until now has sat in my blind spot, who has not been visible in my rear-view mirror”. It is hard to see to whom such revelations are of interest, even in a rear-view mirror. While we might be inclined to allow a degree of self-importance to an established critic, Irish Academic Press has certainly indulged him rather generously on this occasion.

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