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Irlande Vision(s) / Révision(s)

Martine Pelletier

Revisionism and literature

Edna Longley

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  • 1 See Edna Longley, "Introductory Reflections", in Warwick Gould and Edna Longley eds, Yeats Annual (...)

1I am going to speculate about the existence, theory and practice of "revisionist" literary criticism. To clarify what that is or might be, I will cite some examples of what it is not. And I will finally use some recent fiction and poetry by Northern Irish writers to illustrate how literature "revises" its own clichés. Their versions of Derry and Belfast may serve to highlight the current dynamics between literature and history. I will ask whether the Northern "word cities", to use Burton Pike’s term (Pike, 22), are changing in response to some referent "out there". Is there a sense that certain images, tropes and structures have become exhausted? Can things thought too long be no longer thought? It is fascinating that we do - eventually - recognise cliché as cliché. Yet distinguishing the complex "real thing" from Troubles trash also depends on the referents of the reader, of the interpretive community. If any area is overdue for analysis, it is the reception of Irish literature at home and abroad. Reception is tied in with representation: an issue too often reduced to policing texts lest they should insult the "Irish people". I would suggest that deeper epistemological issues are at stake. Irish literature has always positioned itself in relation to a range of audiences. Yeats’s poetry is shaped by its problematic reception.1 And, since the Irish question often phrases itself as "who speaks?", Irish studies were post-structuralist avant la lettre. Some would argue that this unfixity stems from the abnormal or incomplete state of the nation. I would suggest, rather - and this may be a revisionist or Northern perspective - that it denotes a long drawn out contest over authority, definitions, affiliations, institutions and conceptual frameworks.

2The current argument about Ireland and literary studies is generally healthy. It spices up the increased, and increasingly various, activity since 1970. We may be inching nearer to Yeats’s desire for an Irish-inflected criticism whose rigour, though not always templates, would be international. However, my second point is that "argument" requires more than opposed monologues. Revisionism begins with the very structure of debate. Writing of, and in, the American "culture wars", David Bromwich deplored "a negotiated economy of rival intolerances" (Bromwich, 48). He might - though I hope not - be describing the meanest scenario for "parity of esteem" in Northern Ireland. He certainly describes something I recognise in some intersections between Ireland and literary theory. Here there seems to be little demand for inter-party talks. Polarisation, the shunning of heretics to the point of effacing their names and views, is endemic in a country where, as Yeats said during the Civil War, "politics take the place of theology" (Wade, 690). This compounds the theological differences that underlie other theory wars and consorts with the literary academy’s recent inclination to deny or erode liberal space. The contemporary attack on the Enlightenment appeals to those Irish intellectual traditions which the Enlightenment never fully penetrated.

  • 2 See Colin Graham, "Post-Colonial Theory and Kiberd’s Ireland", Irish Review No. 19 (Spring/Summer (...)
  • 3 Joep Leerssen, review of Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, Irish Review No 17-18 (Winter 1995), 167 (...)
  • 4 Frank Lentricchia, "Ciotóg", Irish Review No. 13 (Winter 1992/93), 56-69 (57).

3Ciaran Brady, in the introduction to Interpreting Irish History, refers to the "crude unreflective empiricism" of the pioneering historians Theo Moody and Robin Dudley Edwards, and looks for "theoretical sophistication" (Brady, 7). But there can be crude or vulgar theory and sophisticated empiricism. Colin Graham, in his review of Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland, notes that the book’s citation of post-colonial theory is hardly up to date. He also notes that while Kiberd likes the idea that Ireland might alter "current models of post-coloniality", he resists the idea that post-colonial theory might alter (rather than confirm) traditional understandings of Irish culture.2 Irish critics have often been narrowly selective in their theoretical models and interests. Conversely, something funny happens to supposedly sophisticated theorists from elsewhere when they enter the Irish orbit. Joep Leerssen observes of Terry Eagleton’s Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: "It is a matter of regret to see an eminent Marxist critic, schooled as few others in dialectics, so badly carried away by national enthusiasm as to forget Lukács" and Benjamin’s calls for rational openness to historical contradictions."3A different example is Frank Lentricchia getting carried away as he arrives at Dublin Airport under the impression that he is Molly Bloom:" Aer Lingus: lingus, linguistics, lingcod, lingthorn, linguini, and, yes, cunnilingus."4 Another American theorist, an exponent of so-called Irish cultural studies, writes of an IRA explosion in London during the Gulf War:" Against January 1991’s globally visible images of smart-bombs, exploding target sites in virtual space stood this Provisional] IRA assertion of a liminal space momentarily controlled by them, a simple actualisation, if you will, of the ideology and dimensionality of Celtic Twilight."(Herr, 220-21) As Yeats might have written, but did not:" I walked out into Downing Street/Because a fire-bomb was in my hand..."This article, or song of a wandering American academic, is also romantically interested (as is Fredric Jameson in Modernism and Imperialism, 1988) in a "hidden Ireland" that secretes "forms of social organisation that predate and resist the corporate control of Fordism".

4Some uses of theory in Irish literary studies compensate for perceived abuses of empiricism in Irish historical studies. Ciaran Brady, for instance, accepts that "irony... - occasionally exercised as an elegant and witty style, but more generally deployed as the plain and understated juxtaposition of the novel and the familiar - became a characteristic idiom of academic historical discourse", one that "enabled the historians to evade some of the most serious epistemological problems afflicting their study". He condemns the "merely sardonic, a facile desire to shock, amuse or deride". (Brady, 26) In his recently published Clarendon lectures, Strange Country, Seamus Deane criticises Moody and F.S.L. Lyons ("one of the more sinuous writers of the revisionist history") for their lack of theoretical alertness to the constitutive role of language. This he regards as more than a sin of omission, since it takes them beyond irony into unconscious or concealed ideology, into bias and bad faith:

The rhetoric of revisionism obviously derives from the rhetoric of colonialism and imperialism. It defines its nationalist opponent always in terms of an irrationality for which it is the saving alternative. It has to deprive nationalism of agency, of self-consciousness, envisaging it as a mystification, a mythology, an impulse by which its adherents are driven; although almost any passage from any revisionist historian would reveal this charge to be applicable to itself, revisionism remains happily ensconced not only in ignorance of its own theory but the more happily so because it regards such ignorance as the badge of its peculiar notion of professionalism. (Deane, 193-94)

5Here Deane implicitly endorses Brendan Bradshaw’s charge that, to the particular detriment of Irish nationalism, historians have deployed a rhetoric that sets professionalism and science against mythology and emotion. On the international front some historians, like some literary critics (rather disingenuously in both cases), are trying to demystify their own authority; but, on Deane’s criterion, any historian would run into difficulties when negotiating conflicting political emotions whether in the past or the present. Deane overrides the difficulties when he thus encapsulates nineteenth-century history for a twentieth-century audience: "the obvious and disastrous failure of [the Union] - harrowingly exemplified in the Famine". Leerssen’s "rational openness to historical contradictions" seems preferable as an intellectual ideal to the populism encouraged by Bradshaw, Deane and Kiberd, who blur the lines between what William Golding terms in "Fable" (a pertinent reflection on history in the light of World War II) "street-history" and "campus-history". But perhaps this is a populism that distrusts the people. Reading Roy Foster’s biography of Yeats, I can occasionally see why his tone might raise hackles. For instance, he writes of Yeats "writing excitedly" when it comes to occult matters or jokes about George Russell’s "increasingly frenetic campaign for the return of the Gods to Ireland". (Foster, 1997, 164) But Yeats can take it. Irish history can take it. The Gods can probably take it. This is one style of narration, quite open about what it is doing: other historians write differently, more reverently, if that is required.

  • 5 At an inter-disciplinary conference, "Stories of Ireland", Queen’s University, Belfast, 30 June - (...)
  • 6 Terry Eagleton, review of Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life, I: The Apprentice Mage Independent, 8 March (...)
  • 7 At a conference organised by Notre Dame University, Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, October 1996.
  • 8 In an inaugural lecture, Queen’s University, Belfast, April 1997.

6Why the fuss? Perhaps we are witnessing a slow-motion reprise (although largely confined to a section of the Irish intelligentsia) of the Playboy riots. There is unease about image and "esteem", about who represents Ireland and how. It took the behaviour of Bishop Casey to make the sit-com Father Ted possible. Will there be any backlash against the heresies of London-Irish playwright, Martin MacDonagh, in his Leenane Trilogy? Or is it a sign of maturity that the plays have been so enthusiastically received by Irish audiences? If the row about historiography indicates that ideologies of history still shape contemporary Irish politics, it may also denote fear that more secular kinds of ideology are taking over the Republic, if not the North. In the 1980s, historiography became the scapegoat for social change that threatened traditional versions of Irish identity, not to mention traditional power-bases. Changing campus history may, just conceivably, have contributed to change on the street. Seeking to reverse that percolation, people who are academics themselves have attacked the academic. Ciaran Brady recently complained that, rather than pionering radical historiographical practices, they resort to ad hominem insult.5 Thus Terry Eagleton says of Lyons that, being "a shade too suburban-English", he might have been called "British Leland ".6 Here ex-English Eagleton hardly seems open even to his own historical contradictions. We are warned to tread softly, humbly on the holy ground of Irish history. Since 1995, Famine commemorations have at times become a vehicle for reinstating highly emotional responses to the past. I have heard someone use the term "post-scepticism" as if this were an achieved or desirable scholarly state.7 Yet, as Foster indicated in his inaugural lecture, The Story of Ireland, historians - I would add, poets and novelists - read that story variously. (Foster, 1995) They draw on the full menu of Hayden White’s tropes: romance, irony, tragedy, comedy. There are also different kinds of irony, as Brady is aware. Irony need not imply detachment or issue as "understatement" (although a form of witty distancing can be a tool for reorienting perceptions). It can be a dialectical means of analysis and theorisation. But perhaps it is such deeper, structural irony that really causes qualms. S.J. Connolly recently argued that you could write the story of Ireland as catastrophic, you could also write it as normative.8 He left the matter ironically, challengingly open. But again, ambiguity may itself be a problem. For all the rebukes to theory-blind historians, the teleological drive of Irish nationalism requires a monologic narrative. Some critiques of Roy Foster assume that he has usurped a quasi-papal national "authority", and then abused it, rather than offered one interpretation of events.

  • 9 At the "Stories of Ireland" conference, see Note 5 above.

7Where there is ironical lack of closure, and where teleology is at least on hold, the way is open to debate. In her study of historiography and theory, The Rhetoric of Historical Representation (1990), Anne Rigney concludes that historians should indeed be more alert to theoretical issues - in The Story of Ireland Foster meets this demand, as does Ciaran Brady in his introduction to Interpreting Irish History - but that their dialogue with evidence remains a crucial discipline. More recently Rigney has differentiated between the various fora in which versions of history are produced, arguing that "critical history", history that asks new questions, is appropriate to the academy where "the historian’s imagination works against the resistance provided by evidence".9 I sometimes feel that the migration of Irish nationalist ideology from history and criticism to theory and cultural studies involves a flight from evidence, including literary evidence, as well as from dialogue in general. Also Northern Catholics, who do not inhabit a post-nationalist or even post-unionist Ireland, are - understandably - a key constituency for counter-revisionism. Ciaran Brady may underestimate the Northern dimension, when he writes: "The gathering debate over the practice of academic history has been related by commentators to the operation of several external forces, to the intractable" troubles "in the North, to the unexpected re-examination of Irish identity that followed upon Ireland’s sudden encounter with Europe, to [a] collapse of consensus [in the Republic]". (Brady, 20) Here he and others separate elements that belong together - the Republic’s sense of itself has been challenged by the North as well as by Europe. And the relation of "revisionism" to making the North "tractable" is a contentious matter. Seamus Deane, as we have seen, conflates revisionism with colonialism and imperialism.

8In Strange Country Deane also makes revisionism cognate with a suspect "cultural pluralism" and "ecumenism". Thus he claims that nineteenth-century racial ideas "survive within the transposed benign discourse of cultural pluralism" (Deane, 97, 97-8), and that ecumenism disguises an economic agenda which finds inconvenient the Northern communities’ "archaic language of difference". (Deane, 97, 63) Here, even in rare empathy with Ulster Protestants, he seems to deny the interpenetration and fluidity of cultures. This is to make culture synonymous with politics, and politics with the current polarisation of the North (which is not absolute). For me, Deane’s conflations distort efforts, not only in the recent past, to make the people of Ireland better acquainted with one another. Sometimes together, sometimes apart, literature and history have been fora for this project since the nineteenth cenury. And the project emphasises internal dialectics rather than the Irish-British axis which obsesses Deane. It is significant that Theo Moody and Robin Dudley Edwards in their founding preface to Irish Historical Studies emphasise how "The Ulster Society for Irish Historical Studies was first in the field, and from the beginning warmly welcomed the advent of the Irish Historical Society." And Brady rightly stresses Sean O’Faolain’s search for "expressions of cultural diversity and dissent" in the dark ages of the mid-century. (Brady, 21, 36) It is certainly bad history to read back this quest as foreshadowing a suspect "revisionism" in recent times. O’Faolain drew Northern protestant writers into the orbit of the Bell, as he did Southern protestant dissidents like Hubert Butler.

  • 10 Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland, subject of a debate at the July 1997 IASIL conference, Goteborg (...)

9To sum up the thrust of Strange Country, Inventing Ireland and other works of literary and cultural criticism that overtly or covertly attack "revisionism": they question readings (of Irish texts and contexts) that stress cultural complexity or internal conflict (paricularly the role of religious differences) in a way perceived to have an anti-nationalist tendency; they write Irish history as literary history and literary theory; they combine a selectively literary reading of Irish history with a selectively nationalist reading of Irish literature.10

10What, more positively, does "revisionism" mean if we apply it to the study of Irish literary texts? Incidentally, I am not shy about claiming a term which I find serviceable on the whole, although I mostly keep it in inverted commas. By analogy with historiography, revisionism implies (1) directly or indirectly questioning or qualifying assumptions which derive from the ideological package that sustained the Free State/Republic of Ireland after 1921 (for a crash course in that ideology, see the Fianna Fáil election speech by the protagonist of Colm Tóibín’s novel The Heather Blazing)’, (2) the introduction of perspectives excluded from the package and also from the package that justified Northern Ireland - the current variety of critical activity abounds in such perspectives; and (3) the resumption of critical and cultural arguments foreclosed on both sides of the border during the 1920s.

  • 11 See Edna Longley, ""A Foreign Oasis"? English Literature, Irish Studies and Queen’s University ", (...)
  • 12 "The Course of Writing in Ulster" (1953), reprinted in (ed.) Tom Clyde, Ancestral Voices: The Sele (...)
  • 13 See Steven G. Ellis, "Writing Irish History: Revisionism, Colonialism and the British Isles", Iris (...)

11Revisionism is a two-way traffic. The revision of unionist assumptions, however, is less marked in the literary than in the historical sphere, since the Irish Revival ensured that they would never achieve dominance. It is not always remembered that there was once something recognisable as unionist literary criticism, personified at the turn of the century by Edward Dowden at Trinity College.11 If "revisionist" criticism is sometimes equated with unionism, it is because Dowden’s resistance to Yeats’s literary nationalism has faded from view. There are still traces in Northern Ireland of the old transcendental hegemony called "English literature", although the school curriculum, in literature as in history has now been localised. During the nineteenth century Eng Lit became a building block not only of British social consensus, but also of the United Kingdom. With Shakespeare as "Anglo-Saxon" jewel in the crown, "English" was supposed to subsume all regional particularities. Yet, revisionist readings of Irish literature might query the assumption that "Ireland" is the natural literary unit. Here the thinking of the Ulster poet John Hewitt (1907-1987) cuts both ways. On the one hand, he attacks a unionism so afraid of Irish nationalism that it distrusted local culture and refused even to define Irishness in its own terms; on the other, he insists that literature from the North might be distinctive in its relation to the rest of Ireland and "these islands" - a phrase he used. Hewitt wrote in 1953: "It is obvious that the geographical situation and the circumstances of racial juxtaposition and intermingling must have had effects upon the literary arts practised in this area, which should to some degree have produced differences from and modifications of the same arts in the rest of these islands."12 I think this might be more obvious today than it was in 1953. And here I also agree with historians, such as Hugh Kearney and Steven Ellis, who find that "the most appropriate context of explanation is... frequently an archipelagic rather than an Irish one".13 So, too, with literary history. In fact, literary criticism can hardly help traversing the Irish Sea. Ted Hughes (himself influenced by Yeats and Graves) is as significant as Patrick Kavanagh for how Seamus Heaney establishes his early style, although the play of affinity and difference runs along other lines. The "Celtic" poetry of these islands involves a range of interconnected techniques and narratives which, of course, include varying relations with the more English dimensions of Eng Lit. Yet, Hewitt’s situating of Ulster’s literary potential within a layered regional, Irish and British Isles framework has never been accepted by nationalist cultural thought as has the dissidence of O’Faolain. Perhaps this is because he balkanises the national territory and throws it open to invasion. None of his writings on Ulster regionalism got into the Field Day Anthology.

12We can usefully contrast Hewitt’s parameters with the nationalist premises of Seamus Heaney’s Oxford lecture, "Frontiers of Writing", and of Strange Country, in which Deane updates the thinking behind the anthology. "Frontiers of Writing" proves how "geographical conscience", to use the phrase in which Yeats congratulated Shaw on John Bull’s Other Island, persists even in the most generous nationalist constructions of "Irish literature". Heaney "attempts to sketch the shape of an integrated literary tradition... in terms of five towers": a "quincunx" of male writerly edifices, with "first, at the centre, the tower of prior Irelandness, the round tower of original insular dwelling". (Heaney, 199) Anyone familiar with these debates will recognise "prior Irelandness" as the return of the omphalos and the fifth province - unhistorical, essentialist, or quint-essentialist, perhaps. What especially interests me is the use Heaney makes of Louis MacNeice, whose canonical fortunes have always been a revisionist test-case. Peter McDonald has noticed the faint presence of MacNeice in the writings of Field Day critics because "his" identity "and its" division "are subject to unexamined critical and political prejudice". (McDonald, 6) On the one hand, Heaney appears to be "redressing" this situation. With reference to MacNeice he speaks of "metamorphoses within all the multivalent possibilities of Irishness, Britishness, Europeanness, planetariness, creatureliness, whatever". Yet this, like Deane’s attack, betrays a certain impatience with the language of ecumenism and "cultural pluralism". And Heaney places MacNeice, together with the pluralist consciousness he might facilitate, "within [my italics] the symbolic ordering of Ireland". (Heaney, 200) It is also slightly bizarre to station him at Carrickfergus Castle: what Heaney dubs "MacNeice’s keep" is leased on distinctly Heaneyan terms. MacNeice’s own fluid "symbolic ordering" runs precisely counter to the castle’s "plumb assured" walls, to quote from his poem "Carrick Revisited". To quote from it again: "Time and place - our bridgeheads into reality/But also its concealment!"

  • 14 At the "Stories of Ireland" conference, see Note 5 above.

13It is no accident that Deane’s "meta-narrative" in the Field Day Anthology and Heaney’s emblematic diagram emanate from Northern (nationalist) sources. Both, in their different ways, have a nineteenth-century air. This extends to the kinds of ex cathedra authority their models of a national literature claim. Perhaps differences between nationalist or "post-colonial" and revisionist readings are partly shown or shaped by choices of text, genre, period. Strange Country, although subtitled "Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790", barely reaches the mid twentieth century. Its main weight is thrown on the nineteenth and Edmund Burke’s influence therein. I will say something later about Deane’s fictional Derry in Reading in the Dark (1996), but the sense of impasse in these lectures fuses Derry with nineteenth-century Ireland. In a spatial as well as temporal synecdoche, the whole country is seen as endlessly trapped between "boredom and apocalypse", its literature between realism and fantasy. The selfhood of the national character, its extrication from hostile stereotype, is for ever deferred. Deane represents Irish writing as a surrogate for the nation, as if all pens would rust, all word-processors fall silent, if united Ireland came into being. There is a similarity with early Christian and early communist ideology. And much of this is told in a rather paranoid style which implies that the same malign agency has been fixing things for the last two hundred years with revisionist history as its press officer: "Britain was not to blame, the landlords were not to blame; indeed blame itself is not to be attributed - except to those who attribute blame... Revisionism legitimates those Irish cultural formations that wish to adhere to the British system, even if by violent means; it refuses legitimacy to those who wish to break from it, especially if their means are violent" (Deane, 97, 187-193) It is interesting to compare Strange Country with another recently published book on much the same period - Joep Leerssen’s Remembrance and Imagination. For instance, with respect to Joyce, Deane dwells on anomie in Dubliners (Dublin is "the world capital of boredom, presiding over the country of the dead"), and asks of the female soliloquies in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake: "Is this the language of enancipation or merely its phantom?" (Deane, 97, 167, 95) In contrast, Leerssen’s more upbeat book, which does not present Irish conditions as utterly exceptional in Europe, refers to 16 June 1904 as "the day when James Joyce brought the Irish nineteenth century to a close". (Leerssen, 223) More recently Leerssen has tried to close the gap between historiography and theory by arguing for the need to historicise representations (including levels of pre-interpretation and how events strike contemporaries).14

  • 15 For publication details of Yeats Annual 12, see Note 1.

14In Strange Country Deane does not work from literature and literary history to wider contexts. Often powerfully, he maps his view of those contexts on to literary texts. This tendency is also to be found in Tom Paulin’s recent book of essays Writing to the Moment, and it is, perhaps, the occupational hazard of all Irish literary criticism. Nonetheless, the effort to define Irish literature in terms suggested by its own practices has sometimes faltered in the face both of nationalist readings and the terms set by international criticism. This especially applies to the mid and late twentieth century. Here any revisionist process pivots on the Literary Revival: too often presented as a homogeneous and finite phenomenon. So, whereas historians might read forward events that nationalist ideology reads backwards from the foundation of the state, a revisionist literary critic is in a more complicated position. He or she has to struggle with nationalist (sometimes sectarian) prejudice against the always-contested Revival. I recently co-edited a number of Yeats Annual which focused on Irish readings of Yeats. In one article, "Getting the North: Yeats and Northern Nationalism", John Wilson Foster finds distinctive quarrels with Yeats in the criticism of Deane, Heaney and Denis Donoghue. My own contribution deals with what I call "Anxieties of Influence and Succession" in the 1930s: Yeats’s negotations with his Irish poet-successors and theirs with him. My research suggested that there was no neat ending to the already multiple Revival, and that the mechanisms of poetic tradition took many twists and turns - some of them across the water. It is revealing that Austin Clarke, who had difficulties in asserting his own aesthetic against Yeats, began to accuse him of reneging on literary Home Rule. Another issue exposed by the study of Irish poetry in the 1930s and "40s is that "modernism" is one of the international critical categories whose operation and history in Ireland has not been fully explored. As with "post-colonial" theory, this suggests the reciprocal work of revisionism that might be done.15

  • 16 See Frank O’Connor, "The Future of Irish Literature", Horizon 5: 25 (January 1942), 59-62.

15Deane calls the Free State, somewhat condescendingly, "the little world that succeeded to the extravagant rhetoric of the Revival and the Rising and the War of Independence and the Civil War". (Deane, 97, 162) This terminology, again dependent on a particular version of history, takes little account of texts and contexts in the period. Most writers of the 1930s and "40s saw the Free State, rather, as an isolationist asylum run by patriotic zealots and" religious secret societies "to quote Frank O’Connor.16 On the one hand, Deane disparages the Free State, as Northern nationalists often do, because they were not involved in its making (he also seems piqued by Ireland’s shrunken importance on the stage of history). On the other hand, he disguises the problems that its Catholic ethos and Gaelic cultural ideology posed for a" pluralist "Irish nationalism. This also indirectly discounts the broader" revisionism "of the Republic’s recent liberalisation. Perhaps Deane, like Declan Kiberd in Inventing Ireland, is more comfortable with the literature of the nineteenth century and the Revival, because" Ireland "can still be discussed as a process of becoming, however stalled. The later literary stages of the twentieth century present a reckoning with what Ireland has become - the Ireland that interests me. Neither Deane nor Kiberd, for instance, has anything to say about Paul Durcan, whose poetry can be construed as revisionist critique.

16Roy Foster’s biography of Yeats is timely. It is a remarkable and revealing fact that Yeats should be as much a focus for literary and political argument as he was a hundred years ago. The dust has not settled, any more than Ireland has, and perhaps that was Yeats’s rearguard desire. Foster’s structuring of Yeats’s life presents it as a continual struggle, on all fronts, to carry his vision forward. In one sense he reads Yeats against the grain of Yeats’s own stylisations. These are anti-revisionist in that they are retrospective and assert the symbolic power of his movement even in defeat. Yeats situated Irish literature within the orbit of nationalism, whether other brands of nationalism liked it or not (because he simultaneously set nationalism within the less predictable orbit of literature). Yet one of Foster’s revelations is that Yeats, at the time of the Ulster crisis had a sneaking sympathy with Unionist fears of Rome Rule. He admits religious tensions that were to occupy him more publicly in the 1920s, more defiantly in the 1930s, and provides a further context for the "living stream" of "Easter 1916":

I often see the life of Ireland today (so full it seems to me of prejudices and ignorances in all matters of science, politics and literature) under the image of a stagnant stream where there drifts among the duck-weed, pieces of rotting wood, a dead dog or two, various rusty cans, and many old boots. Now among the old boots drifting along are a very objectionable pair, Protestant and Catholic bigotry. Some Irishmen object to one or other of those boots so much that they can think of nothing else, and yet we have merely to make the stream move again to sweep them out of sight. (Forster, 97, 460)

  • 17 Paul Muldoon, interviewed by Kevin Smyth, Rhinoceros 4 (1990), 90.
  • 18 Eamonn Hughes, ""Town of Shadows": Representations of Belfast in Recent Fiction, in Religion and L (...)

17Perhaps that is a cue to move North where literature as irresistible force meets politics as immovable object. I am going to look briefly at some versions of the Northern city by writers from Northern Catholic backgrounds. Where literature is concerned, it is even more tautologous than with history or criticism to say that revision, revisioning, is the name of the game. Here I like to quote Paul Muldoon’s statement about the poetic act: "I want my own vision to be disturbed".17 The Northern Irish city, however, especially Belfast, has often seemed petrified in stereotype. This has to do with events, of course, but also with literary troping. Belfast’s literary image as the "Black City" (Longley, 86-108) often intensifies the ambiguity that Burton Pike sees as governing the western archetype of the city: its dark aspect as separation from nature, a Promethean usurpation of God’s creative prerogative, original sin. (Pike, 4-5) In terms of its founding myth Belfast, the city built upon mud, simply ought not to be there. This perception is partly tied in with the dynamics of "country and city" in Irish conditions - another category which demands some intercourse between theory and local particularity. The history of rural Ireland makes "the country" ideologically and rhetorically more powerful, more than a function of post-Darwinian pastoral. Eamonn Hughes has written: "The rural is the site of homogeneous Ireland; the urban is resisted precisely beacuse it is potentially the site of heterogeneous Ireland... It is not so much... Irish nationalism or unionism which is hostile to the city as the underlying conservatism of these ideologies and the forms of identity which they promote".18 Of course Belfast has been resisted more by conservative Irish nationalism than by unionism - it ought not to be there as a city created by Protestantism as well as by Prometheus. Now that Catholics have become more economically and politically powerful in Belfast - Sinn Féin is the largest party on Belfast City Council, Belfast has its first nationalist (SDLP) Mayor - there may be a greater sense of Catholic ownership and hence, in the literary sphere, new kinds of Catholic critique. In considering some passages of prose and poetry, I want to ask whether we can detect shifts of image and focus either within the texts or in the dialogues between them. Some recent fiction dwells on the material transformation of Belfast: a shift from industry to commerce, from Black City to Golden Mile, that figures economic change in realist terms. Certainly gantries, religious texts and even bomb-damage look increasingly déjà vu as literary props. Yet writers also appear sceptical about deeper change, particularly in the light of the stuttering "peace process" and the hatreds it has bared. A more fundamental issue is: what literary structures most persuasively represent the ambiguous city at an ambiguous historical moment?

18To look at literary Derry first. I find a significant dialectic between Reading in the Dark and Michael Foley’s The Road to Notown, both published in 1996. Reading in the Dark revisits the Derry experience that incubated the Troubles. Here black images from the literary representation of Belfast (particularly fatalistic as deployed by the Catholic novelist Michael McLaverty, author of Call My Brother Back) seem to have penetrated the "maiden" city. In one typical atmospheric passage Deane’s symbolic Derry is a "dismembered" body, a dark psychic state:

The dismembered streets lay strewn all round the ruined distillery where Uncle Eddie had fought, aching with a long, dolorous absence. With the distillery had gone the smell of vaporised whiskey and heated red brick, the sullen glow that must have loomed over the crouching houses like an amber sunset Now, instead, we had the high Gothic Cathedral and its parochial house, standing above the area in a permanent greystone winter overlooking the abandoned site that seemed to me a faithless and desolate patch, rinsed of its colour, pale and bald in the midst of the tumble of small houses, unpaved streets and the giant moraine of debris that had slid from the foot of the city walls down a sloping embankment to where our territory began. (Deane, 96, 34)

  • 19 The phrase comes from Stephen Regan’s review of Reading in the Dark, Irish Studies Review No. 19 ( (...)

19This childhood memory reads Derry’s architecture deterministically in terms of industrial and religious oppression, as sunset and winter, an underworld. Besides "crouching", its human analogue is "sullen", "desolate" and "dolorous". And the novel presents the city largely in terms of a single consciousness, a single family, a single tribe - the homogeneity of the country. The text, as much as the community it depicts, seems caught "between modernity and tradition".19 Also retrospective are its fin-de-siècle Celtic and occult features.

20It is not inevitable that mid-century Derry should be rendered in such terms. Michael Foley, like Deane a poet and fiction-writer from Derry, offers a more heterogeneous image of the city at a slightly later period. Foley’s Derry presents a Catholic class spectrum (professionals, "impoverished genteel", "nouveaus", "burgeoning... ghetto"), a house with "a constantly changing population of [Chinese] kitchen staff and waiters". It includes popular culture, and a narrator who challenges the fixed self-image of a working-class Catholic family:

The Herrons were insulted and outraged. The idea of becoming paltry creatures like me! With one voice they rose up to proclaim themselves and their descendants for ever the salt of the earth. Only Hugo was not passionately involved.
"Will yese fuck up," he roared. "Ahm tryin" tay watch ΖCars."
"We’re workin’ class and you’re a middle class creep," Frances shrieked.
"And when you marry and move to the suburbs what will your children be?
"Workin’-class. Workin’-class like me."
bellowed. (Faley, 10)

21Earlier, the narrator has annoyed the Herron family by proposing "a general theory of Irish Catholic evolution - the birth of consciousness in the primeval slime, the move from country to town, the accumulation of capital, the move from slum to swanky terrace...". (Faley, 6) The Road to Notown takes Derry from poetry to prose, from monologue to dialogue, from community epic to sociological fiction, from tragedy to comedy, from fixity to fluidity.

22That comparison does not necessarily imply a value-judgment or an inappropriate model of literary "progress". It does ask, however, whether the perspectives and structures used to mediate the past in these novels are equally persuasive with reference to their own historical moment in the 1990s. And, returning to my point about audiences and time-lags, I find it interesting that English readers recognised Reading in the Dark, but missed The Road to Notown. A word city that evoked Derry of the original Troubles, poetic and Celtic, was even taken by some reviewers as speaking of for contemporary Northern Ireland.

23In turning to the contemporary representation of Belfast, I would stress the importance of Ciaran Carson, both in general, and as a medium between poetry and prose, and perhaps between Catholic and Protestant constructions of the city. Carson places in the foreground the fact that there is a problem with representing Belfast. His poetry does not so much revise the literary troping of "Belfast" as dramatise a locus that can be seen from different angles, written in different scripts, conceived in different mental universes. Its existence in space is vexed by territorial contestation, its existence in time by physical change. And, of course, its existence in language is Heraclitean. While some of Carson’s images reproduce binary divides - so "troubled" a "living stream" of consciousness does not merely repeat modernist metaphysics - his methods also set the fluid, metamorphic city against the fixed city in positive ways. "The Ballad of HMS Belfast" sends the city to sea as its self-named ship. The exotic voyage releases Belfast’s alter ego, its id, its fantasy life, its literary life, its potential life:

On the first of April, Belfast disengaged her moorings and
sailed away
From old Belfast. Sealed orders held our destination,
somewhere in the Briny Say...

We were tarry-breeked and pigtailed, and sailed beneath the
White Ensign;
We loved each other nautically, though most landlubbers
thought we were insane.

We were full-rigged like the Beagle, piston-driven like the
Express; each system was a back-up for the other,
auxiliarizing verse with prose. (Carson, 93, 71)

24One of Carson’s prose accounts of Belfast redeems the city’s origin myth from some of its dark connotations (another account is called "Revised Version"):

Belfast is built on sleech - alluvial or tidal muck - and is built of sleech, metamorphosed into brick, the city consuming its source as the brickfields themselves were built upon... this indeterminate slabbery semi-fluid... this gunge allied to slick and sludge, slag, sleek and slush, to the Belfast and Scots sleekit that means sneaky, underhand, notto-be-relied-on, becoming in the earnest brick, something definite, of proverbial solidity - built like a brick shit house, we say. Yet even this paradigm of honesty has its verbal swamp. Its root is in break, related to the flaw in cloth known as brack... In anger you might come down like a ton of bricks on someone; the victim might shit a brick. (Carson, 96, 72)

25Belfast as verbal rather than moral swamp ramifies out into the language and social idioms of the city. This passage hovers on the brink of fiction, of bringing the language’s speakers to life.

26Poetry influences the kind of novel that Robert MacLiam Wilson has tried to write in Eureka Street. As Carson’s ballad puts it: "each [literary] system was a back-up for the other, auxiliarizing verse with prose". Wilson represents the city as text, as prose, as ramifying novel: "thick with its living citizens... a repository of narratives, of stories". (Wilson, 215) There is a sense of this novel putting the flesh of living - and dying - citizens on a template prepared by poetry. The main narrator lives on Poetry Street. Wilson, unlike Carson, uses omniscient narration, even while telling different stories. And that formal decision is inseparable from establishing ethical and political as well as authorial points of view. Wilson may not be wholly successful in the integrations he attempts to effect. There are contradictions between his "Babel of prose" and his didactic will to see Belfast steadily and whole. History, of course, may still be to blame for failures of any imagined city-centre to hold. But Eureka Street fictionalises the Northern city as a site of heterogeneity in a way that is new and hopeful. Wilson’s approach has been called Dickensian. And since the nineteenth-century novel of Belfast was never written, structural retrospect, in this case, has a fresher feel.

27To conclude. My discussion of these passages has stressed the heterogeneous pole of the dialectic. However, I believe that contemporary Irish literature, which continually transforms our reading of the past, has to be read in its full intertextuality. One revision which may be underway is less stress on the individual author in a cultural and aesthetic vacuum. The intimate dialogues that constitute the literature of Northern Ireland have underscored the intertextuality of writing as living tradition, authors revising one another and themselves. I hope that they will eventually underscore the intertextuality of critical readings. This brings me back to the structure of debate. And here I would merge revisionism into liberalism. Stanley Fish has rejected liberalism as "a brief against belief and conviction" which may have originated in "a weariness with theological battles... real battles: people bled, died, mutilated one another and so on... [a weariness with] the passions of seventeenth-century sectarian wars"; but whose claims to "neutrality" are no longer sustainable. (Fish, 296-97) In the Irish intellectual context it is not liberalism but its denial which both "ensures that contending points of view can co-exist in the same space without ever coming to a final conflict", and makes a final political conflict more likely. Eureka Street might be described as a document of convinced liberalism. On the critical front I would add that real sectarian wars intensify your distaste for academic phoney wars. Here again, revisionist approaches to Irish literature might have wider repercussions. Finally, critical revision over the years will sift the aesthetic value, rhetorical persuasiveness, and historical acumen of the texts I have discussed. I may revise my own opinion of them next week too.



Brady, Ciaran, 1994. Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism 1938-1994. Dublin.

Bromwich, David, 1992. Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Carson, Ciaran, 1993. First Language. Loughcrew, Co. Meath: Gallery Books.

— 1996. "Brick", Belfast Confetti. Loughcrew, Co. Meath: Gallery Books.

Deane, Seamus, 1997. Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

— 1996. Reading in the Dark. London: Cape.

Fish, Stanley, 1994. There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and it’s a Good Thing, Too. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Foley, Michael, 1996. The Road to Notown. Belfast: Blackstaff.

Foster, R. F, 1995. The Story of Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

— 1997. W.B. Yeats: A Life. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Heaney, Seamus, 1995. The Redress of Poetry. Faber: London, 1995.

Herr, Cheryl, 1994. "A State o" Chassis: Mobile Capital, Ireland, and the Question of Postmodernity ", in (ed.) John S. Rickard, Irishness and (Post) Modernism. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.

Leerssen, Joep, 1996. Remembrance and Imagination; Patterns in the Historical and Literary Representation of Ireland in the Nineteenth Century. Cork: Cork University Press.

Longley, Edna, 1994. "Ά Barbarous Nook’: The Writer and Belfast’, in Longley, The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland. Newcastle upon Tyne. Bloodaxe Books.

McDonald, Peter, 1991. Louis MacNeice: The Poet in his Contexts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Pike, Burton, 1981. The Image of the City in Modern Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wade, Allan, 1954. The Letters of W.B. Yeats. London: Rupert Hart-Davis.

Wilson, Robert McLiam, 1996. Eureka Street. London: Picador.


1 See Edna Longley, "Introductory Reflections", in Warwick Gould and Edna Longley eds, Yeats Annual No. 12: That Accusing Eye: Yeats and his Irish Readers (London: Macmillan, 1996), 3-28.

2 See Colin Graham, "Post-Colonial Theory and Kiberd’s Ireland", Irish Review No. 19 (Spring/Summer 1996), 62-7.

3 Joep Leerssen, review of Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, Irish Review No 17-18 (Winter 1995), 167-75 (169).

4 Frank Lentricchia, "Ciotóg", Irish Review No. 13 (Winter 1992/93), 56-69 (57).

5 At an inter-disciplinary conference, "Stories of Ireland", Queen’s University, Belfast, 30 June - 3 July 1997.

6 Terry Eagleton, review of Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life, I: The Apprentice Mage Independent, 8 March 1997.

7 At a conference organised by Notre Dame University, Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, October 1996.

8 In an inaugural lecture, Queen’s University, Belfast, April 1997.

9 At the "Stories of Ireland" conference, see Note 5 above.

10 Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland, subject of a debate at the July 1997 IASIL conference, Goteborg, Sweden, seems particularly vulnerable to this charge. One speaker went so far as to compare the book to A.L. Rowse’s Shakespeare.

11 See Edna Longley, ""A Foreign Oasis"? English Literature, Irish Studies and Queen’s University ", Irish Review No. 17/18 (Winter 1995), 26-39 (29-31); and Eve Patten," A "general crowd of small singers ": Yeats and Dowden Reassessed", Yeats Annual 12, 29-44.

12 "The Course of Writing in Ulster" (1953), reprinted in (ed.) Tom Clyde, Ancestral Voices: The Selected Prose of John Hewitt (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1987), 64-76 (64).

13 See Steven G. Ellis, "Writing Irish History: Revisionism, Colonialism and the British Isles", Irish Review No. 19 (Spring/Summer 1996), 1-21 (3).

14 At the "Stories of Ireland" conference, see Note 5 above.

15 For publication details of Yeats Annual 12, see Note 1.

16 See Frank O’Connor, "The Future of Irish Literature", Horizon 5: 25 (January 1942), 59-62.

17 Paul Muldoon, interviewed by Kevin Smyth, Rhinoceros 4 (1990), 90.

18 Eamonn Hughes, ""Town of Shadows": Representations of Belfast in Recent Fiction, in Religion and Literature 28: 2-3 (Summer/Autumn 1996), 141-160 (151). See also Hughes, "Belfastards and Derriers" (review of recent "city" fiction), Irish Review No. 20, 151-7.

19 The phrase comes from Stephen Regan’s review of Reading in the Dark, Irish Studies Review No. 19 (Summer 1997), 35-40. I disagree with Regan’s view that Deane’s technique successfully achieves a post-modernist sliding between genres and discourses.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1998

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