Terence Brown, review of The Cambridge History of Irish Literature ed. Margaret Kelleher and Philip O’Leary, eds.,
in The Irish Times (1 July 2006)

Details: Terence Brown, ‘A tradition from fractured history’, review of Margaret Kelleher and Philip O’Leary, eds., The Cambridge History of Irish Literature, in The Irish Times (1 July 2006), Weekend.

It is an affectation of a certain kind of reviewer to adopt a tone of authoritative omniscience as an overall judgment on a work years in the making is delivered from on high, following an all-too-brief acquaintance with its contents (such reviews often highlight minor errors, or list exclusions, as if such misdemeanours could justify the juridical tone). For a variety of reasons such a rhetorical pose would be more than usually absurd in relation to the two volumes currently under review.

For one thing this new history of Irish literature encompasses writing in five languages (if we include Ulster-Scots along with insular Latin, Norman French, Irish and English) and has under its purview textual, theatrical, cinematic and indeed oral matter that has been produced in Ireland, or indeed about Ireland, from early in the first millennium AD to the year 2000. It would be a foolhardy reviewer who would imply critical competence over such a field, especially since the contributors to this multi-author work are all highly professional specialists in their disciplines. More importantly, this is not the kind of work which can be judged as one might a monograph or a specific study by several hands. For though it is a work which can be read following its chronological pathways through the centuries, as this reviewer has done, it is also a kind of textbook, which will acquire its full meanings in use, as scholars and students turn their attention to particular chapters or topics as occasion warrants (the editors tacitly acknowledge this aspect of their production as they supply at the end of each of the volumes helpful guides to the main subject areas discussed; in 15 chapters in volume I and 12 chapters in volume II; and they print their Introduction at the beginning of each volume as if to recognise that some readers will want to use only the second volume, which covers 1890-2000) and begin to develop their own work in the light of its findings and perspectives.

It should perhaps be said that the editors and some of the contributors do in fact go some way towards inviting such an inappropriate response to their work. For in their introduction the editors promise to deliver “an authoritative chronological history” and refer to the volumes in hand as providing “a comprehensive overview of the Irish literary tradition as it has achieved expression over the centuries in both Irish and English”. And some of their contributors do fall into a slightly Olympian manner as they deliver critical judgments, especially risky in the case of living poets, novelists and playwrights, where careers are incomplete and by any reckoning the jury is still out. It is as if the monumentality of the editors’ project, the sense of occasion it engendered in some of the scholars invited to participate, affected rhetoric and critical stance.

Very understandable, it can perhaps be acknowledged, since the publication of these two volumes is indeed an occasion, and one to be recognised for the very considerable achievement it represents, and warmly celebrated. For what these two volumes tell us is that a critical mass has been reached in Irish Studies whereby sufficient up-to-date scholarship now exists in many fields to allow a work like this to be produced (and basing my view on the work in those areas where I am qualified to comment, to a high degree of accuracy and reliability).


This was not the case until quite recently. Indeed for many years in the 20th century such an enterprise would have been well-nigh impossible. It would not have been thought feasible for scholars of Irish writings in the Irish and English languages to have shared space when basic disagreements about what constituted Irish literature seemed to prohibit collaboration across disciplines. International scholarship, as Declan Kiberd implicitly reminds us in a lively introductory chapter in Volume II, when it attended to Irish literature in English, concentrated on the major figures and there were simply too few academics in the Irish universities at work on the lesser figures or the less obviously interesting periods to allow for detailed works of synthesis such as many of the chapters in these volumes are. The publication of this history would suggest that arid controversy about Irish and Anglo-Irish literature is largely, and happily, a thing of the past. And now the pioneering work of such scholars as Ian Campbell Ross on 18th-century Irish fiction and Andrew Carpenter on Tudor and Stuart and 18th-century English-language poetry (both scholars represented here by their convincingly authoritative chapters in Volume I) has been complemented by the work of younger scholars from home and abroad who bring new perspectives to familiar topics, such as Spenser and other Renaissance writers in Ireland or on the role of Romanticism in Irish writing.

In Volume I these subjects are dealt with, respectively by Anne Fogarty and Claire Connolly, in chapters that are marked by bracing independence of outlook combined with conscientious appreciation of current, exciting scholarship on both subjects. In their chapters one senses subjects still in the making as new research makes definitive judgment premature and uncertainty a scholarly stimulant. That sense also informs Christopher Morash’s fine contribution on Irish theatre history and Margaret Kelleher’s on the literature of the post-Union period, where she manages to enliven a literary period until recently assumed to be a trough in Irish creativity as the country sank into colonial dispossession. Some chapters indeed are the fresh-minted product of the recent intensive researches of the scholar involved, as for example that by John Wilson Foster on The Irish Renaissance, 1890-1940: Prose in English, in Volume II, of which more anon.

In a thoughtful contribution in Volume II Colin Graham offers a meta-critical reflection on Literary Historiography 1890-2000 (it stands in apposition to Clare O’Halloran’s valuable chapter, Historical Writing; 1690-1890, in Volume I, suggesting critical theory may have replaced historical reflection as a normative discourse in a postmodern Ireland). There he implicitly offers a sophisticated way of accounting for the Cambridge History’s structure (partly attributable, one supposes, to the exigencies of the academic marketplace with its increasing focus on the modern), with one volume devoted to about 1,400 years of literature and another to a mere 110. He writes about the early years of the Irish Literary Revival, when in the context of the prevailing historically minded climate O’Halloran writes about in her contribution, anthologists sought to determine the overall shape of the Irish literary achievement. He argues: “The Revival was caught between an assertion of the wealth and significance of Irish literature over the centuries and the impulse for the new, which was never entirely specific about what was being revived . . . this meant that literary history was to become an ideological battleground”. Now the Cambridge History may be much more certain in scholarly terms about what precedes its close-up focus in Volume II on 20th-century Irish writing, than, for example, Yeats ever was in the 1890s as he assembled his anthologies of Irish prose and poetry, but Graham’s observation encourages us to consider how it is the product of its own moment, and how it is infused with its own ideology. The moment of its production, as the two editors reckon it, is one when “Irish culture is experiencing unprecedented visibility and acclaim on the world stage”. Much of that attention is directed to the writingsin prose, poetry and drama in English that since the 1960s have amounted to what can be characterised as a second literary renaissance in the country (with Heaney’s Nobel laureateship of 1995 an endorsement that paralleled that of Yeats and his movement in 1923).

The editors rightly judge that their project must give that extraordinary profusion due prominence. But they are also concerned that all the international attention given to that phenomenon (some of it based on arguably superficial responses to possibly inferior works) may have a distorting effect as we try to think about our literary inheritance more historically. So historical perspective must be afforded by the scholarship on English-language writing of Volume I and of the early chapters of Volume II. And they also know that the last 40 years has seen a remarkable capacity for Irish-language literature not only to survive but to flourish in what would seem to be the unpropitious circumstances of continual decline in the numbers speaking Irish on a daily basis in the Gaeltacht. Thinking about Irish literature must therefore include that phenomenon too (illuminatingly explored in excellent chapters in Volume II by Máirín Nic Eoin and Louis De Paor) and allow scholars to come to terms with a literature that still in modern times, as it has done for centuries, finds expression in what are now deemed the two national languages.

Accordingly, their work as a whole gives very proper attention to writing in Irish and English, interweaving chapters on Gaelic and on English-language literature (with translation from the Irish a recurrent aid) following the work’s first chapters which carefully, and very usefully for the uninitiated, assess current knowledge of literature and its production in medieval Ireland.

The effect of this organisation of the text is to encourage the reader to discern the existence of a tradition (a term the editors themselves deploy, as we saw above) across centuries of fractured history whose primary characteristic is a complicated interchange between two languages. And this embedded intent may derive some of its ideological force from the fact that numbers of the volumes’ contributors work within a historical paradigm rooted in theories of the colonial and the post-colonial, in which hybridity is a valorised category. Certainly the outlines of such a tradition do credibly emerge as the reader makes tracks through the 1,400 or so pages of fairly dense text that constitute this massive work, but it is one where hybridity is more often than not identified in a process whereby English-language writing is seen to bear the impress of Irish linguistic, folkloric or literary practice (where Irish writing is affected by external influences, in the accounts provided here, it is mostly European influences that are noted) and not the other way round. And to be fair the editors in their Introduction make clear it was the impact of Irish- language writing on English that they hoped to highlight in their work, while disavowing “a unitary or teleological ’meta-narrative’”. So, in the spirit of that disavowal, in an enterprise that has drawn on the talents of so many scholars, not all of whom share historiographical and theoretical assumptions, the opportunity is afforded for a reader to read against the grain, as it were, of the History’s main implicit purport.

Indeed, this may be one of the most satisfying aspects of a remarkable editorial and publishing contribution to current Irish Studies. It offers the opportunity for creative debate.


I am thinking especially in this regard of the History’s treatment of English- language realist prose fiction, often treated as somehow the also-ran to thoroughbred successes in Irish poetry, drama and fictional experimentalism. Margaret Kelleher, in her chapter, gives us detailed analysis of how, in the post- Union 19th century, “numerous Irish-born authors ventured into the Victorian literary marketplace with their versions of the stock genres of the period”. Among those stock genres as the century wore on was the realist novel. Volume II, in the chapter by John Wilson Foster, who unearths the novels of many minor figures who were at work as literary realists when Joyce was deconstructing that literary method, and in that by George O’Brien which surveys later prose fiction, much of it conducted in similar terms, reinforces a sense of realism as a hardy perennial; one that has flourished and flourishes still in Irish soil as it does throughout the English-speaking world, to the chagrin of literary experimentalists and theorists everywhere.

Curiously, Matthew Campbell, in his prosodically sensitive essay on 19th-century poetry in English, adds to this sense of how great a purchase conventional realism had in that period as in our own, when he foregrounds William Allingham’s realistic, novel-like poem in repetitive rhymed couplets, “Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland”, at the expense of Samuel Ferguson’s epic imaginings, “Conary” and “Congal”, that so inspired Yeats (as he was inspired too by the epic poetic prose of Standish James O’Grady, whom AE reckoned the father of the Irish Literary Revival, but who is afforded only brief analysis in the chapters by O’Halloran, Foster and Graham ).

One might even be tempted to hint that this emphasis on realist writing is itself something of a distortion even as it gives us grounds to interrogate the History’s dominant purport (and the fact that Joyce’s and Beckett’s experimental fictions have their impact vitiated somewhat by reason of editorial organisation, as assessment of them is dispersed across several chapters with Finnegans Wake only briefly adverted to, adds to this temptation) were not the balance corrected by Patrick Crotty’s magisterial assessment of Yeats as poet in his chapter on poetry in English from 1890-1940 in Volume II. There, the grandeur of what he deems “a uniquely capacious 20th-century achievement” serves as reminder that all literary histories, even ones as layered and complex as those contained in these splendid volumes, must reckon on their contingency in face of the experience of major art.


The Cambridge History of Irish Literature, Volume I: To 1890, 723pp; Volume II: 1890-2000, 682pp. Edited by Margaret Kelleher and Philip O’Leary Cambridge University Press. €230

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