Liam Harte, review of Ella O’Dwyer, The Rising of the Moon, in The Irish Times (22 March 2003)

Details: Liam Harte, ‘The Prison House of Language’, review of Ella O’Dwyer, The Rising of the Moon, in The Irish Times (22 March 2003), Weekend Review.

Sub-heading: As critical credentials go, Ella O’Dwyer’s are rarer than most. How many other literary or cultural critics can personally “attest to the authority of  Foucault’s work, having spent years imprisoned in the Victorian time warps of Brixton and Durham”? [Available at Irish Times Archive.]

Sentenced to life in 1986 for conspiracy to cause explosions in England, O’Dwyer found solace and inspiration in the works of Samuel Beckett and through them began to explore the themes of history, language and power in Irish culture. The result is The Rising of the Moon, a fiercely combative analysis of the obstructed and fragmented nature of discourse in post-colonial societies, written from an avowedly republican perspective.

Foucault, according to O’Dwyer, got it right. In colonised societies “a circle of surveillance called empire” imposes silence and anonymity on the subject psyche, blocking the expression of a national voice and vision. In the case of Ireland, she maintains that “empire-speak” has infiltrated the national consciousness at such a deep level that it has impeded our entire mode of expression. In fact, the imperial mindset “has so entrenched itself in the home offices of Dáil Éireann and in Irish culture that obstacles arise in sighting its location and framing its boundaries”.

Historical revisionism has compounded this cultural impairment by denying the “truth” of Ireland’s history, thereby thwarting the pursuit of the Republic proclaimed in 1916 and defined in the constitution of the First Dáil. The challenge for modern republicans, therefore, is to return the nation to this foundational ideological path by regenerating the historical “moments of vision” embodied in the 1798 and 1916 insurrections and the 1981 hunger strike. Only then, O’Dwyer asserts, will we witness the ultimate delivery of the true Republic.

As this brief synopsis indicates, The Rising of the Moon is republican cultural criticism at its most agitational. O’Dwyer pulls no polemical punches: she endorses the legitimacy of the IRA’s 30-year campaign in the North and denounces successive Dublin governments as lackeys of British imperialism. Her application of colonial discourse theory to Irish literature is equally uncompromising, based on a crudely dichotomous, teleological view of Anglo-Irish relations: “Two histories unfold themselves in the relationship between England and Ireland: one the story of war and the other the story of vision.”

The result is a strident form of “Brits Out” lit crit in which works of imagination are unproblematically read as a set of discourses to be decoded, their meaning reduced to a function of either imperial oppression or anti-imperial resistance. O’Dwyer’s reading of Michael Farrell’s Thy Tears Might Cease is a case in point. The novel, she argues, is “a register of the national psyche, an index to conflict” in which “neither hero nor nation come into their own”. Not only is this dogmatic interpretation lacking in sensitivity to textual detail, it also runs counter to her earlier injunction “to resist enclosing a given work in an enframed isolated interpretation”.

Such unrefined critical practice extends to other aspects of O’Dwyer’s thesis, including her undifferentiated usage of the terms “colonialism” and “republicanism”, neither of which is clearly defined. The former seems to be conceived as a homogeneous, trans-historical phenomenon, while the latter is treated as if it were a stable, unitary ideology rather than one that is protean and contested, as Iseult Honohan shows in her authoritative book on the subject, recently reviewed in these pages. Incidentally, Ulster unionism is the missing piece of this ideological jigsaw, being nowhere mentioned in the text.

This is not to say that O’Dwyer’s argument doesn’t deserve serious and sustained engagement, however hostile one might be towards the politics she espouses. In doing so, however, one is struck by a fundamental irony. While urging others to recognise and resist their ideological dupery, she fails to examine the assumptions upon which her own thesis rests. Thus she writes as if the recent IRA campaign has not tarnished the nobility of the original republican ideal; as if republican nationalism can necessarily win the allegiance of an increasingly diverse Irish citizenry; as if the new world order of globalisation and transnational governance has no implications for the fate of republicanism in Ireland and elsewhere. These are assumptions that a self-reflexive critical republicanism must surely interrogate if the progressive potential of that original 18th-century vision is to reinvigorate 21st-century Irish culture.

[ Liam Harte lectures in the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages at the University of Ulster. The Rising of the Moon: The Language of Power. By Ella O’Dwyer, Pluto Press, 161pp, £18.99 ]

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