Anthony Roche, review of Irish Writing in Transition, 6 vol. (Cambridge UP 2022)
in The Irish Times (9 Sept. 2022)

[Source: ‘Irish Literature in Transition: A near-perfect reading of Ireland’s great writers’; available online [accessed 02.10.2023]. Sub-heading: This ambitious project spans four centuries to put Ireland’s literary history into context.

Bibl. details: Claire Connolly & Marjorie Howes, gen. eds., Irish Literature in Transition, 6 vols., (Cambridge UP 2020) - Vols. 1700-1780; 1780-1830; 1830-1880; 1880-1940; 1980-2020.

This is a remarkably ambitious project, taking the temperature of Irish literature from 1730 to the present in approximately 2,400 pages.

The seven editors – Moyra Haslett, Claire Connolly, Matthew Campbell, Marjorie Howes, Eve Patten, Eric Falci and Paige Reynolds – have selected their contributors from pioneers in the field (such as Andrew Carpenter, Ian Campbell Ross and Helen M Burke in the 18th century) through mid-career scholars (the majority, including the editors) to some exciting young contributors. I would question the use of “Irish literature” in the title, however, since all but six of the 120 chapters are on Irish writing in English.

In volume one, Jonathan Swift is contextualised in new and interesting ways. Declan Kavanagh gives a “queer” reading of Gulliver’s Travels that foregrounds Swift’s wild, passionate creatures, the Yahoos. What becomes clear is the sociability which attended 18th-century writing.

Prominent among Swift’s “circle” was Mary Barber. Her volume of poems is prefaced by Swift’s remarks to Lord Orrery: “She seemeth to have a true poetical Genius, better cultivated than could well be expected, either from her Sex, or the Scene she hath lived in, as the Wife of a Citizen.” Aileen Douglas notes that Barber was the “instigator” of these remarks, writing to Swift and requesting his intervention.

The most extraordinary literary “circle” was a family, the Sheridans. Thomas Sheridan founded the first theatre in Smock Alley and, as Conrad Brunstrom shows, claimed it could be a National Theatre for Ireland. His wife, Frances Sheridan, published a sentimental novel, The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph (1761). Amy Prendergast argues that the novel’s romantic intrigue, the heroine caught between a philandering English husband and an amorous Irish lover, stands for the complexity of relations between Ireland and England.

There is no mention of Frances Sheridan’s three plays nor of those by her famous son Richard Brinsley. But a daughter, Elizabeth (Betsy) Sheridan, also published a novel whose theme of sisterly friendship (as Moyra Haslett points out) is inflected by shared political loyalties around the Irish Volunteers. Nothing better indicates the intense sociability and networking of 18th-century Ireland than this extraordinary family.

Waiting for Yeats
Two major historical events occur in volumes two and three: the Act of Union and the Great Famine. There are virtually no big names in 19th-century poetry (it’s all one long waiting for Yeats). The one exception is Thomas Moore, whose Melodies assured his fame but also drew the accusation that this Irish social climber was fashioning his reputation in English drawing-rooms. Jim Shanahan shows, however, that Moore clung to his Catholicism, which meant “there were a limited number of public positions he could be appointed to”.

The novelist Lady Morgan, author of The Wild Irish Girl (1806), claimed in her Memoirs (1862), as Nicola Lloyd notes, that she had been “caricatured to the uttermost – abused, calumniated, misrepresented, flattered, eulogised, persecuted”. Raphaël Ingelbien points out how inimical to realism the 19th-century Irish novel is. Maria Edgeworth wrote to this theme in 1834, saying it was “impossible to draw Ireland as she now is in a book of fiction –realities are too strong, party passions too violent”.

Daniel O’Shaughnessy shows there was more Irish drama in the early 1800s than first meets the eye, and Dion Boucicault makes a welcome appearance late in volume four. Although Shaun Richards concentrates on the three most famous Irish plays, he also examines Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859), “an inter-racial romantic melodrama set on a slave-holding plantation in Louisiana”. The suicide of Zoe, the octoroon, “suggests the iniquity of slavery”. But when the audience in London noisily raised objections, Boucicault quickly came up with a new, happy ending.

This discussion of The Octoroon resonates off the moment in Claire Connolly’s introduction to volume two when she discusses Maria Edgeworth’s The Grateful Negro. Given the title, it is hardly surprising to learn that Edgeworth’s story “is not an anti-slavery tale as such”. These remarks about slavery at the beginning and the end of volumes two and three will prove prescient, I think, in relation to Irish Studies.

And so to volume four, which has the unenviable task of covering the rich period of the Revival and beyond in just under 400 pages. Four writers qualify for their own chapters.

Joseph Valente, in Ageing Yeats, attempts to move critical debates about the poet’s politics on from fascism to representations of disability, where Yeats’s public pronouncements about the perfect human body are undercut in the poetry by lines about the “wreck” of his increasingly frail body. Lauren Arrington reveals Lady Gregory’s political views developing over time from a marked ambivalence about 1798 to the ringing affirmation of Cathleen ni Houlihan. In Gregory Castle’s account, Synge’s imagination is drawn to disappearance, from a culture to a character; Deirdre’s last line, “I’ll not be there”, applies no less to the dying playwright.

Priestly vocation
Enda Duffy’s piece on Joyce has my favourite title – Drumcondra Modernism – and notes how Stephen Dedalus makes the decision not to pursue a priestly vocation while walking through Drumcondra and, one presumes, in some proximity to Archbishop’s House. Nicholas Grene links Wilde, Shaw and Yeats as “London Irish” and reveals how much of Yeats’s career as a playwright was pursued in London.

Elizabeth Bowen’s name is repeatedly invoked in volumes four and five, and chapter titles obsessively identify the Ascendancy/big house novel as the preferred locus of Irish fiction. Bowen is a superb stylist, a complex writer, and deserves her place. But it should not come at the expense of an equally important novelist such as Kate O’Brien, who came from the Catholic upper middle classes in Limerick rather than the Protestant big house. The only reference to O’Brien’s nine novels is the ritual and repeated mentioning of The Land of Spices (1941) solely on the grounds that it was banned.

The exception is Mark Quigley’s essay on Seán O’Faoláin, Elizabeth Bowen (inevitably), Liam O’Flaherty and Kate O’Brien. Here Bowen and O’Brien are accorded equal status, and Quigley’s fine analysis of O’Brien’s Mary Lavelle (1936) concludes that her novels “provide an especially resonant model for Irish fiction in the later 20th century”.

Volumes five and six traverse the 80 years from the start of the second World War through Brexit. Authors who began their careers in the 1930s are bumped up. Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett are central to chapters by Nicholas Allen and David Wheatley, which make clear how much O’Brien’s critical stock has risen in recent years. The two great novelists of the period, John McGahern and Edna O’Brien, are well represented. The seismic impact of The Country Girls in 1960 is recorded, but volume six also pays attention to more recent novels such as 2015’s The Little Red Chairs in a chapter on Violence, Trauma, Recovery by Christopher Langlois.

Brian Friel manages to hold his own, from the still-fascinating phenomenon of the two Gar O’Donnells in Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) through Translations and the founding of Field Day in 1980 to the five brave Glenties women of 1990’s Dancing at Lughnasa. The first half of Seamus Heaney’s career bulks large in volume five but gets shunted into a siding in the post-1980 volume, where he is paired with Eavan Boland (getting equally short shrift) in one of a series of eight-page codas.

The critical emphasis in volume six definitively shifts away from authors to issues of political and social significance (in line with recent developments in the subject). As Emilie Pine points out, the Ryan report on the systemic abuse of children in Irish institutions “is one of the most important publications in the history of the Irish State, but it is also one of the least read [since it] runs to 2,600 pages”. Pine and her research team cracked the report wide open with a digitisation project that made important connections, joining up the dots of who did what.

The thing one most expects in a volume about the contemporary is new work, new names, and nothing delivers like Anne Mulhall’s Inward Migration and Irish Literature. She focuses on “fiction and poetry produced in the last decade by migrant writers of colour in Ireland such as Ifedinma Dimbo, Melatu Uche Okorie, Ebun Joseph Akpoveta, and Oritsegbemi Emmanuel Jakpa”. The sixth volume increasingly moves its gaze away from the past to a future where Ireland has never been more in transition.

This is an extraordinary achievement, a hugely enjoyable and instructive read. It does not leave Irish Studies as it found it, instead renovating and extending the subject.

Anthony Roche is an emeritus professor in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin

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