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Territoires de l'étrange dans la littérature irlandaise au XXe siècle

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Gaïd Girard

Cinquième partie. Politique de l’étrange

Disenchanted Island : From Celtic Twilight to Celtic Tiger

Chris Morash

Texte intégral

1“There are some doubters even in the western villages,” wrote W B. Yeats in the little volume he published in 1893 as The Celtic Twilight :

  • 1 W. B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight 1893 ; rpt. Dorset : Prism Press, 1990, p. 5. The Celtic Twilight(...)

One woman told me last Christmas that she did not believe either in hell or in ghosts. Hell she thought was merely an invention got up by the priest to keep people good ; and ghosts would not be permitted, she held, to go “traipsin about the earth” at their own free will ; “but there are faeries,” she added “and little leprechauns, and water-horses, and fallen angels.” I have met also a man with a Mohawk Indian tattooed upon his arm, who held exactly similar beliefs and unbeliefs. No matter what one doubts never doubt the faeries, for, as the man with the Mohawk Indian on his arm said to me,’they stand to reason1.”

  • 2 Terence Brown, The Life of W.B. Yeats, Dublin : Gill and Macmillan, 1999, p. 19.

2The Celtic Twilight is usually passed over as a piece of apprentice work, “a series of folk narratives in the poet’s own artful versions”, as Terence Brown puts it2 ; and, indeed, it is of a different order than the poems of Responsibilities, A Vision or the late plays. However, there is more to this “artful” little book than meets the eye, for it can provide us with a way of thinking about the place of the uncanny in twentieth-century Irish culture ; ultimately, it should push us to reconsider the way in which we read Irish literature in the age of the Celtic Tiger.

  • 3 Yeats, Celtic Twilight, p. 2.

3Yeats’account of the woman who dismisses the existence of hell (“an invention got up by the priest to keep people good”) and ghosts (“they would not be permitted”), but who believes firmly in “faeries… little leprechauns, and water-horses, and fallen angels” is typical of the apparently artless artfulness of the volume. In its opening pages, Yeats puts the reader off guard by presenting the collection as an entertaining, quirky, collection of anecdotes gathered in the course of his rambles in the West of Ireland. Indeed, he wraps up the prefatory comments added in 1902 with the offhand promise that he will “publish in a little while a big book about the commonwealth of faery, and shall try to make it systematical and learned enough to buy pardon for this handful of dreams3.” That Yeats never did write his “big book” was not simple forgetfulness ; in a sense, it is the point. The book before the reader, The Celtic Twilight, is not “systematical” at all ; its style – anecdotal, oral, contingent, fragmentary – is of a part with its argument. To have written a “systematical” book would have been contrary to the sustained critique of rationalisation and rationality that is arguably The Celtic Twilight’s main project.

  • 4 W. B. Yeats, Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth by W. B. Yeats, Robert Welch (ed.), Harmo (...)

4“When I tell people that the Irish peasantry still believe in fairies, I am often doubted”, Yeats wrote earlier, in 1890. “They think that I am merely trying to weave a forlorn piece of gilt thread into the dull grey worsted of this century4.” The image here of the “dull grey worsted” picks up, of course, one of the images of modernity (albeit a tellingly Victorian modernity) that Yeats will use throughout his life : the spinning jenny, and its machine-made cloth. And this should alert us to the recognition that, as always with Yeats, the argument even in so apparently slight a piece of work as The Celtic Twilight is complex and dialectical in form.

5For example, his old lady who disbelieves in hell and ghosts, but has no difficulty countenancing the existence of fairies, leprechauns, water-horses and fallen angels is doing more than making a distinction between an organised religion that she sceptically sees as an instrument of social control (“an invention got up by the priest”), and a folk religion that appears self-evident – although she is doing that. She also provides Yeats with that double helix of belief and disbelief that he was to develop in his gyres, his cycles of sun and moon, and which gives A Vision its foundational architecture ; indeed, we might go further, and say that this double helix is the genetic trace, the DNA, of Yeats’thought.

6“It is better doubtless to believe much unreason and a little truth than to deny for denial’s sake truth and unreason alike,” he writes a little later on, “for when we do this we have not even a rush candle to guide our steps, not even a poor sowlth to dance before us on the marsh, and must needs fumble our way into the great emptiness where dwell the misshapen dhouls.” Again, the style is the argument ; note the deliberately archaic vocabulary (“sowlth”, “dhouls”), the timeless setting (a marsh at night), and the articles of peasant life (the “rush candle”). Within this rhetorical world, Yeats locates a double helix of “truth and unreason” in which the terms can switch places, suddenly and without warning, in the turn of a phrase :

  • 5 Yeats, The Celtic Twilight, p. 6.

When all is said and done, how do we not know but that our own unreason may be better than another’s truth ? for it has been warmed on our hearths and in our souls, and is ready for the wild bees of truth to hive in it, and make their sweet honey. Come into the world again, wild bees, wild bees !5

7“Truth,” which begins this passage as the opposite of “unreason”, ends up being personified by “wild bees”, an image that suggests the very antithesis of rationality, so that reason merges with its opposite in the almost magical stroke of metaphor.

8It is worth looking more closely at The Celtic Twilight, if only because that book is not really a collection of folktales at all ; it is an extended argument about rationality, belief and, ultimately, modernity. This becomes explicit in the final lines of the last essay of the 1902 edition of the book, originally published in An Claideamh Soluis in July of 1901 :

  • 6 Yeats, The Celtic Twilight, p. 120. [This essay dated 1901.]

“In a society that has cast out imaginative traditions, only a few people – three or four hundred out of millions… have understanding of imaginative things… And so it has always seemed to me that we, who would re-awaken imaginative tradition by making old songs live again, or by gathering old stories into books, take part in the quarrel of Galilee. Those who are Irish and would spread foreign ways, which, for all but a few, are ways of spiritual poverty, take part also. Their part is with those who were of Jewry, and yet cried out, “If thou let this man go thou are not Cœsar’s friend.”6

  • 7 Douglas Hyde, “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland” in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writi (...)

9Here, in a final address to the reader, Yeats makes explicit the “quarrel” that is the book’s true matter. On one side, there is the world of the reader, a “society that has cast out imaginative traditions”, which he equates with “foreign matter,” and which is ultimately modern and secular. On the other side is that “imaginative tradition” that Douglas Hyde defined so clearly the year before The Celtic Twilight first appeared, in his influential lecture “On the Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland.” “I believe it is our Gaelic past which, though the Irish race does not recognise it just at present, is really at the bottom of the Irish heart,” Hyde told his listeners7.

  • 8 Irish Independent, Jan. 2, 1926.
  • 9 Hyde, in Deane, II, p. 530.
  • 10 W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies, 1955 ; rpt. London : Bracken Books, 1995, p. 400.

10The difference between Hyde and Yeats, however, is that in Yeats’formulation, it is necessary for secular modernity to exist so that its opposite – the “Gaelic past” – can also exist. For Hyde, as for others associated with the Gaelic League, the battle lines were drawn much more clearly. By the time he spoke the first words broadcast on Irish radio in 1926, the situation for Hyde was simple : “Eire is not completely saved yet, and will not be until the foreign influence is wiped out8.” For Hyde, speaking in 1892, “ancient Gaelic civilisation died with O’Connell… What have we now left of all that ? Scarcely a trace9.” However, for Yeats in The Celtic Twilight, the past is not dead and Gaelic civilization did not die with O’Connell. Instead, for Yeats time is a matter of location, and as was the case with contemporaries like Synge, travelling to the West of Ireland for Yeats involved more than simply travelling through space ; it involved travelling through time to a past that in turn is identified as a site for belief in the supernatural. “When we passed the door of some peasant’s cottage,” Yeats wrote in his Autobiographies of his rambles in the West of Ireland with Lady Gregory, “we passed out of Europe as that word is understood10.”

  • 11 Yeats, The Celtic Twilight, 1990, p. 4
  • 12 Lynda Nead in Victorian Babylon : People, Streets, and Images in Nineteenth-Century London, 2000 ; (...)

11For Hyde, history is linear (but reversable) ; for Yeats, there is something more complex at work in the structure of time. The Dublin of 1893 may be a world of newspapers and telegraphs, where evidence is weighed and sifted according to the rules of rational debate ; but when Yeats enters the cottage of a story-teller in the Sligo countryside, he finds himself in a world in which “everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet11.” The phrase used by the historian Lynda Nead, in her book Victorian Babylon is useful here : “Modernity can be imagined as pleated or crumpled time, drawing together past, present, and future into constant and unexpected relations12.” Elsewhere, Dipesh Chakrabarty eloquently refers to the “problem of entangled time” as a “timeknot.”

12This idea of “pleated or crumpled time”, or the “timeknot” provides us with a useful framework with which to understand the kind of ripples in time that Yeats evokes in the framing narratives that run throughout The Celtic Twilight. Towards the end of the volume, for instance, Yeats conjures up the ripples in time that he experiences on listening to the recitation of a folktale :

  • 13 Yeats, The Celtic Twilight, p. 119. [This essay dated 1901.]

Last night I went to a wide place on the Kiltartan road to listen to some Irish songs. […] The voices melted into the twilight, and were mixed into the trees, and when I thought of the words they too melted away, and were mixed with the generations of men. Now it was a phrase, now it was an attitude of mind, an emotional form, that had carried my memory to older verses, or even to forgotten mythologies. […] There is no song or story handed down among the cottages that has not words and thoughts to carry one as far, for though one can know but a little of the ascent, one knows that they ascend like medieval genealogies through unbroken dignities to the beginning of the world13.

13The images here, of “generations of men” and of an unbroken ascent “to the beginning of the world”, evokes Hyde’s image of an Irish race living in “the closest contact with the traditions of the past and the national life of nearly eighteen hundred years” ; however, where for Hyde that link has been all but broken, and waited to be reforged (by the work of the Gaelic League), for Yeats the past, in a very real sense, inhabits the present – haunts it, if you like.

  • 14 Stewart Parker, Three Plays for Ireland, London : Oberon, 1989, p. 13.

14This is an idea to which I will return, so I want to give it a name. At the beginning of Stewart Parker’s play Northern Star, first performed in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in November of 1984, there is a stage direction which tells us that the play is set in : “Ireland : The Continuous Past14.” The phrase is an evocative one ; and so it is this notion of “the continuous past” as a condition for the work of the imagination that I want to develop further.

Weber and the Uncanny

  • 15 Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic : A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard, (...)

15I have spent some time unravelling Yeats’double helix of belief and unbelief in The Celtic Twilight because I think that it comes very close to defining the place of the uncanny in Irish literature of the last century. I am using the concept of the “uncanny” here not in Freud’s sense, but in Tzvetan Todorov’s use of term. It appears in his great work of genre theory of the mid-1970s, The Fantastic, in which he defines his central term – “the fantastic” – in terms of two opposing literary genres : the uncanny and the marvellous. The fantastic, whose properties Todorov teases out throughout the book (and whose elusiveness marks, I would argue, Todorov’s own move beyond a classical structuralism), is not so much a genre as an attitude to the supernatural. It lasts, he writes, “only as long as a certain hesitation : a hesitation common to reader and character, who must decide whether or not what they perceive derives from’reality’as it exists in the common opinion.” If, he suggests, the reader decides that apparently supernatural events are, in fact, supernatural, we are in the realm of the marvellous, which Todorov glosses as “the supernatural accepted”, as in the works of H. IP Lovecraft or Maturin. If, on the other hand, the apparently supernatural has a natural explanation, we are in the realm of the uncanny, or “the supernatural explained15”, as he puts it, with the classic example being Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novella, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

  • 16 Weber was born on April 21, 1864 ; Yeats was born on June 14, 1865.

16I want to suggest that the spectrum of belief and doubt that Todorov lays before us in The Fantastic can be understood in the context of the work of one of Yeats’contemporaries, Max Weber16. Max Weber’s concept of disenchantment has been for many years central to our understanding of modernity, and has re-emerged in new formulations in the past decade. It is useful, therefore, to return to the source of the idea, in a late lecture that Weber delivered in 1917, “Science as Vocation” :

  • 17 Max Weber, “Science as Vocation”, in On Charisma and Institution Building : Selected Papers, ed. S (...)

The meaning of science […] is that there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed17.

17If we return to Weber’s original argument, it is no great leap, I would argue, to claim Todorov’s “uncanny” – “the supernatural explained” – as the literature of disenchantment.

  • 18 Mark A. Schneider, Culture and Enchantment, Chicago, 1993, p. cited in Saler, p. 715-6.

18In the uncanny text, the supernatural is evoked, but only so that it can be dismissed. “Disenchanting the world, as a social process,” comments Mark Schneider in Culture and Enchantment from 1993, “involves sorting its behaviour into mundane and magical categories – and stigmatizing the latter, making it a disreputable object of inquiry. We become disenchanted only when this invidious distinction is developed, and remain so only while it lasts ; in its absence, by contrast, the magical and the mundane appear to us as largely indistinguishable18.” The uncanny, as a literary form, performs both the processes of sorting and stigmatizing, and as such performs the work of disenchantment, even as it apparently feeds an appetite for enchantment by treating the supernatural as a legitimate object of inquiry. By contrast, the marvellous refuses to make the distinction between “the magical and the mundane”, creating worlds in which both gravity and angels exist in the same ontological plane. Like Yeats’man with the Mohawk tattoo, the true marvellous tale treats the existence of faeries as a self-evident reality that “stands to reason”.

19Weber, then, provides us with a powerful interpretative language for exploring the supernatural in Irish writing, particularly among those Irish writers who were Weber’s own contemporaries. For instance, Weber asks in Charisma and Institution Building if “this process of disenchantment. has any meanings that go beyond the purely practical and technical ?” He answers his own question thus :

  • 19 Max Weber, “Science as Vocation”, in On Charisma and Institution Building : Selected Papers. S. N. (...)

[…] for civilized man, death has no meaning. It has none because the individual life of civilized man, placed into an infinite “progress” according to its own imminent meaning should never come to an end ; for there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress […] Abraham, or some peasant of the past, died “old and satiated with life” because he stood in the organic cycle of life ; because his life, in terms of its meaning and on the eve of his days, had given to him what life had to offer19.

20This paragraph suggest an entire interpretative schema for reading some of the key plays of the early Abbey. The play that most immediately springs to mind here, of course, is Synge’s Riders to the Sea, and Maurya’s final speech over the body of the dead Bartley :

  • 20 J. M. Synge, The Complete Plays, London : Methuen, 1984, p. 109.

maurya : Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that ? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied20.

  • 21 W. B. Yeats, Collected Plays, London : Macmillan, 1982, p. 86. It is worth noting that authorship (...)
  • 22 L’Échange symbolique et la mort, Paris : Gallimard, 1976 ; trans. Charles Levin, “Symbolic Exchang (...)

21The meaningful death as proof of enchantment is everywhere in the early years of the Irish Literary Theatre. It is there in the group’s first production, The Countess Cathleen (1899), in their first popular success, Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), and it takes on mythological robes in On Baile’s Strand (1904). Each of these plays – and they are only the most obvious examples – are about constructing worlds in which death does have a meaning. In The Countess Cathleen – first performed in 1892, as Yeats was working on the first edition of The Celtic Twilight – the supernatural is explicit, taking the form of an angel who appears in glory at the play’s end, explaining the meaning of the Countess’s sacrifice. In On Baile’s Strand and Riders to the Sea, the supernatural context is more muted ; nonetheless it is present, figured as a limitless sea in both instance. Cathleen ni Houlihan, which dates from the time of the essays added to the second edition of The Celtic Twilight in 1902, could almost be read as a Weberian analysis of the meaning of death in a disenchanted society. The world on which the play opens, in which Michael and his family rationally and pragmatically count the money and calculate the value to be gained from his wedding, is one in which the social (the wedding) and the economic (the dowry) have become indistinguishable ; this world is, however, split open by the intervention of the supernatural, in the form of the Poor Old Lady, whose sole function is to provide an overwhelming meaning for death. “They that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake, and for all that they will think they are well paid”, says the Old Woman at one point21. Indeed, the play almost cries out for an analysis along the lines of Baudrillard’s work on symbolic exchange in “Symbolic Exchange and Death”, which in turn looks back to the work of Weber’s contemporaries, Marcel Mauss, in The Gift, or Emile Durkheim on sacrifice22.

  • 23 Max Weber, From Max Weber : Essays in Sociology ed. and trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright mills, Lo (...)

22Of course, once we have welcomed the spectre of Cathleen ni Houlihan to our firesides, we could extend this analysis to the works of Pearse, to Easter 1916 and its interpretations (not least those of Yeats), to the hunger strike of Terence McSwiney, and to the whole symbolic cluster of the gift of death in the period leading up to 1922. By the opposite token, we could turn to the creatively disenchanted plays of Sean O’Casey, for whom this world, with all its “chassis” and imperfections, is all that is, and is not worth giving up for any supernatural promises ; or we could turn to the prose of Joyce, moving from the mournful disenchantment of Dubliners and the early sections of Portrait of the Artist, to what might be described as the joyful disenchantment of his mature work, for which Weber might well be providing a gloss when he writes of civilized man experiencing “continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, knowledge and problems”. Elsewhere, Weber comments, in what could well serve as a summary of Joyce’s aesthetic : “Art takes over the function of a this-worldly salvation23.”

Enchanting the Tiger

  • 24 Le texte de Cornelius Crowley s’intitule « Cartographie de la fin : la sale histoire de The Whore- (...)
  • 25 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe : Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princ (...)

23In framing a Weberian context, we need to be wary of adopting a coercive teleology, a view of history that would see disenchantment as an inevitable linear process, an irresistible, mechanical march deeper into the iron cage of rationality. Elsewhere in this symposium, for instance, Cornelius Crowley, has argued that what he sees as the demise of romantic nationalism in the early 1980s constitutes “the last gasp of teleological posturing,” and he goes on to construct a teleological map of the uncanny in Irish culture based around demise of a “politics of desire24.” For Crowley, the literature of the Irish Literary Renaissance is an immature literature, while what he sees as the “literature of the ordinary” of the closing decades is the product of a “mature” literary culture. I would distance myself from any such linear teleology – particularly one that finds its endpoint in the early 1980s – for a number of reasons, not least Dipesh Chakavarty’s reminder that “the moment we think of the world as disenchanted, we set limits to the ways the past can be narrated25.”

  • 26 Parker, p. 208.

24In this first place, if it is true that the uncanny is the literature of disenchantment, then we might expect to find that Irish literature, Irish theatre, and Irish cinema would have turned increasingly to the uncanny in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, this has not happened, and the true uncanny is, in fact, comparatively rare in recent Irish writing ; what is common, however, is the marvellous. Indeed, if we were to look for a single characteristic of the major Irish plays of the past twenty years, it would be the sense of being haunted. We can go back to Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster in 1985, where we find the play opening with Pyper, an old man lying on a hospital bed, grappling the ghosts of his dead comrades. “Why does this persist ?” he pleads with them. “What more have we to tell each other ?” A year later, Stewart Parker’s Pentecost – arguably his best play – initially looks like it is going to be conventional Troubles play, in which a disparate group of characters take shelter in a terrace house from the demonstrations of the Ulster Workers’Strike in 1974 ; however, Pentecost turns out to be a ghost story when it becomes apparent that the house is haunted by “our innocent dead,” which the play describes as “our creditors, for the life they never knew26”.

25Indeed, we need not look far for “the supernatural accepted” in contemporary Irish theatre : we can go back to Brian Friel’s Faith Healer and Tom Kilroy’s Talbot’s Box in the 1970s ; we can turn to Frank McGuinness’s Carthaginians ; there is even an argument to be made that Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is a ghost story, in the same sense that Tennessee Williams’Glass Menagerie is a ghost story, in that most of the main characters are dead before the play begins, and yet are miraculously brought to life before us. However, we need not even stretch to this level of interpretative ingenuity to find ghosts on the Irish stage ; they haunt Marina Carr’s work, particularly By the Bog of Cats, and Ariel is first and foremost a ghost story ; and, of course, one of the most successful plays of the 1990s (although in some respects atypical of it author) was Conor McPherson’s The Weir, which is effectively a series of marvellous tales.

26When this many ghosts gather together in one place, it raises a question : what are they looking for ?

*

27There are two possible arguments that could be made here : one would argue for continuity, that the Celtic Twilight still exists, that the faeries and pookas Yeats found in the cottages of Sligo have simply taken up more comfortable addresses on the stages of Gate or the Abbey Theatres. However, I would take a different view. As Ireland became increasingly secularised in the early 1990s, it was almost as if the act of exorcism had been performed too efficiently, and the dialectic of enchantment and disenchantment – the “quarrel” as Yeats’called it – kicked in. And so the Irish theatre – always the most sensitive of divining rods – registered this change (even before it became apparent in institutions such as the schools, hospitals and in public debate) ; it was as if the theatre was desperately trying to bring back the ghosts before they faded for ever.

28The real break with the enchanted past comes not as the product of a teleological progression that ends sometime in the 1980s, I would argue, but as a rupture in the early 1990s – a rupture that continues to surprise us, has yet to be fully understood, and is, indeed, still taking place in 2006. This rupture has a real material existence in the economic and social spheres, which in turn utterly transforms the imaginative construct that is Ireland. In 1893, Yeats could imagine that he could hear the voices of Irish peasants drifting back through the twilight to a “like medieval genealogies through unbroken dignities to the beginning of the world” because he was writing in – and for – a present that looked very much like the past. I am thinking here of the persistence of material conditions that existed in 1893, and which could still be found in various places right up until the early 1990s ; conditions that were not simply a product of history, but which seemed to belong in the past : industrial underdevelopment, massive outward migration, sectarianism, the authority of the Catholic Church, and continuing colonial conflict, to name the main ones. In rural areas, we could add others, including the persistence of ways of ordering the landscape, the built environment, ways of dressing, modes of transport – all of which seemed to belong to an earlier time. In other words, if we use Chakrabarty’s notion of the “timeknot”, or “crumpled time”, up until relatively recently, aspects of the past co-existed with the tangible evidence of modernity in the present.

  • 27 For an analogous argument in an Indian context, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe : P (...)

29In order to understand the significance of these moments of “crumpled time” in the ordering of Irish culture, we need to go back to the late eighteenth century, to the creation of a historical narrative that could read atavistic social conditions not as backwardness or impediments to social progress, but as historical legacy, and hence as a living link to the past27. I am thinking here not simply of a narrative of colonization, but of that narrative of Irish identity that would equate Irishness – and more specifically Irishness as an ethnicity – with antiquity. Throughout the nineteenth century, comparative philologists began building up an argument that the Celtic languages were not simply European, but were, in fact, the oldest pure European languages, the living embodiment of a pure Aryan culture.

  • 28 Ebel Hermann, Celtic Studies, trans. and ed. William K. Sullivan, Edinburgh and London : Williams (...)

30This argument for the living antiquity of the Celts firsts surfaced in the antiquarian writings of Charles O’Connor in the late 18th century, but was later developed by philologists across Europe, including James Cowles Prichard in England, (The Eastern Origins of the Celtic Nations Proved By a Comparison of Their Dialects With Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and Teutonic Languages, 1831), Adolf Pictet in France (De l’affinité des Langues Celtiques avec le Sanskrit,1837) and Franz Bopp in Germany (Celtischen Sprachen, 1839), culminating in 1853 with J. Kaspar Zeuss’s massive Grammatica Celtica. Writing in the introduction to his English translation of Herman Ebel’s Celtic Studies in 1863, the Irish philologist William K. Sullivan summed up the situation when he wrote that Zeuss had “left us the materials by which we may clearly establish that the Celtic languages are pure Indo-European tongue28.”

  • 29 Chris Morash, “Celticism : Between Race and Nation”, in Ideology and Ireland in the Nineteenth Cen (...)

31I have argued elsewhere that this body of work, in which the slippage from language to race takes place so frequently, helps to establish the basis for the dubious notion that there is an Irish “race.”29 However, what is important in the current context is the way in which this highly influential formulation of Irish identity is predicated upon the idea that the most purely Gaelic (or Celtic) aspects of Irish culture are the living embodiment of the past in the present, existing in a moment of “crumpled time” in “the continuous past.” And so, when Yeats sat down in front of a cottage at Kiltartan cross-roads, he was able to hear voices drifting through time like “unbroken dignities to the beginning of the world,” at least partly because there was a discursive formation that made it possible for him to convince his readers that voices from the past – a past which believed in faeries and angels and leprechauns – could live in the present.

32It would be possible to argue that those voices are silent today, because the material circumstances that produced them have been utterly transformed. Ireland is now a country in which GDP has increased from 20 billion euro in 1985, to 148 billion euro in 2004 ; Irish people own more BMWs per capita than the Germans, we have more millionaires per capita than either Saudi Arabia or the United States, we are second only to the Japanese in per capita ownership of PlayStations, we export a sizeable proportion of the world’s computer software and pharmaceuticals ; and farming is now agribusiness. And as for the assumption of Irish insularity – so crucial, for instance, to Yeats’project of finding an “old imaginative life” among the peasantry of the West of Ireland – for the past five years Ireland has been the third most globalised economy on the planet, after Singapore and China. As a consequence, instead of being a culture whose orientation is inward, and to the past (or even a society that is able to imagine that this is the case), Ireland is now a society whose orientation is outward, and to the future.

33These are not simply incidentals ; they fundamentally transform the nature of Irish culture, and consequently they transform the way in which we must read the uncanny and the marvellous in Ireland today. For Yeats writing in the 1890s, Celtic Ireland was synonymous with Gaelic Ireland, which in turn made possible the sense of a continuous past that informed Irish literature and was dependent on a linguistic continuity. What was important here was not simply the existence of an Irish-language culture, but the existence of that culture in tension with an English-language culture. Douglas Hyde’s fear – admittedly a legitimate fear, and one that had a profound influence on government policy in the decades immediately after the founding of the Irish Free State – was that the Irish language would be swamped by English, and would disappear.

34This fear of imminent disappearance, and the concomitant sense of the language locked in what Yeats would call a “quarrel” with English, provided what was arguably the definitive structure of Irish culture. We now know that Irish is not going to be swamped by English. The language has not become the first language of Ireland in the way that Hyde or D. P. Moran might have imagined ; however, numbers speaking the language have stabilised, Irish-language schools are enjoying a boom, and Irish has become one of the recognised official languages of the European Union. At the same time, what has changed in an historically unprecedented way is the structure of the politics of language in Ireland.

  • 30 GDP expressed in Euro, at current market prices. The figure of 100,000 Poles is an estimate ; howe (...)

35In the years 1986 to 1991, there was a net outward migration from Ireland of 27,000 ; in the years 1996 to the most recent Census in 2002 this situation was reversed due to the resurgence of the economy, with a net inward migration of 26,000 – figures that five years later are wildly out of date, showing only 2500 Polish people resident in Ireland, where the latest estimates are now in excess of 150,000, with some within the Polish community suggesting real figures as high as 200,000 and climbing. By the same token, it is estimated that there are anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 men and women of Chinese ethnic origin in Ireland. These figures mean that the number of Irish residents who speak Polish or Mandarin on a daily basis exceeds the Irish-speaking population of the Gaeltacht areas, estimated at just over 62,000 in the 2002 Census, and falling30.

  • 31 “Sutherland urges Irish to adapt to needs of migrants”, Irish Times, Sept. 26, 2006.

36Let me be clear here : I am not suggesting that things should be otherwise. Indeed, I would count myself among those who consider that there are a whole range of reasons – not least ethical obligations – for welcoming a multi-cultural Ireland. At the same time, we need to take cognisance of the ways in which this will impact on the familiar debates within Irish studies, not least those relating to the place of an indigenous folk culture, with its supernatural beliefs, providing the imaginative framework for a literary tradition. In this regard, I would agree with Peter Sutherland, when he told an EU Commission recently that Irish people must “adapt our sense of nationality, which we all feel so proud of, and have to recognize that multiculturalism is part of the future. […] We have to learn that our identity has to be adapted to recognize that we are becoming, and will be, a society with others in it31.”

37At the heart of Irish studies has been language – or, if not language per se, the idea of Gaelic culture. For the past three centuries, that discussion has almost always taken the shape of a familiar binary structure : English/Irish, the “quarrel” of which Yeats spoke in The Celtic Twilight between “old stories” and “foreign ways.” Indeed, even a very recent book, such as Tony Crowley’s excellent Wars of Words : The Politics of Language in Ireland (2005) is predicated on this binary structure, for which it is possible to create a genealogy with continuous links to the fifteenth century, and Crowley does this convincingly. With the arrival of 150,000 Polish-speakers, it is not simply the terms of the binarism that are deconstructed or debated ; it is the very existence of a binary structure itself that is dissolved. In other words, the change is at the level of structure, not content.

38Gaelic Ireland, traditional Ireland, Irish-Ireland – by whatever name you wanted to describe it – was part of a continuous past, the living presence of the past in the present. What is more, this continuous past was more than an idea ; it had a physical form (and “objective correlative”, if you like) in the physical environment, in social phenomena such as emigration, and in the structural place of the Irish language, as the remnant of a past culture, not one culture existing among many, as it is today.

39Yeats – and others – recognised that the structure of Irish culture was the structure of this quarrel ; that the existence of an enchanted Celtic Ireland depended upon the parallel existence of a disenchanted Ireland of “foreign ways”. Indeed, part of the fascination of traditional Ireland was that it was constantly under threat of extermination. That sense of battle – even of a losing battle, as in Matthew Arnold’s classic formulation of the idea in The Study of Celtic Literature (1867) – was part of its structure. The threat of fading was part of the dialectic of disenchantment. It was a fear that could be indulged for many years, because the reality, however shaken, could fall back on a set of material circumstances that confirmed the existence of a continuous past : the cottage at the Kiltartan crossroad. For Yeats, in the 1890s, the peasant culture that connected to the continuous past – to Hyde’s “life of the people extending back over eighteen centuries” – had a local habitation and a home : it was there in the cottages, the lanes, and the fields of the West of Ireland, where he was able to find a life that, materially, differed little from the life of a century, or two centuries.

  • 32 Michael Saler, “Modernity and Enchantment : A Historiographic Review”, American Historical Review, (...)

40By the time we arrive at The Weir and the ghost plays of the 1990s, however, the ghosts live only in the hothouse of the theatre, in a pure aesthetic space that mimics the act of conjuration. Indeed, these plays might be seen as an attempt to recover enchantment as a way of clinging to a sense of historical continuity that is evaporating. There is a sense, then, in which these plays are plays of nostalgia for a time before disenchantment ; or, to use a distinction Michael Saler makes, they are instances of a specifically modern enchantment, which “might be defined as one that enchants and disenchants simultaneously : one that delights but does not delude32.” Unlike the tales in The Celtic Twilight, a play like The Weir does not require that the audience extend a belief in the supernatural beyond the aesthetically bracketed experience of the theatre : it is not about belief, but about the suspension of disbelief. For the audience of an earlier theatre of enchantment, watching Riders to the Sea or The Countless Cathleen, however, the situation was otherwise ; the supernatural had a local habitation among the peasantry of the west of Ireland towards which the action on the stage gestured.

41For audiences of the Celtic Twilight, in other words, the performance on the stage was conjured up a real presence that had a real existence elsewhere in Irish society : it was, in a word, marvellous. For audiences of the Celtic Tiger, the theatre of a modern enchantment conjures up an absence that evaporates in the disenchanted air outside the theatre door – and this in turn has a retrospective effect, changing the way in which we must read the literature of the early twentieth century.

Notes

1 W. B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight 1893 ; rpt. Dorset : Prism Press, 1990, p. 5. The Celtic Twilight was originally published in London as The Celtic Twilight : Men and Women, Dhouls and Faeries in 1893 ; it was reprinted New York the following year. A revised and enlarged edition appeared in 1902, with twenty-one new pieces, most written 1900-1902, and new footnotes for some of the earlier pieces. This version was later reprinted in 1905 and again in 1912. The text used here follows the 1902 edition.

2 Terence Brown, The Life of W.B. Yeats, Dublin : Gill and Macmillan, 1999, p. 19.

3 Yeats, Celtic Twilight, p. 2.

4 W. B. Yeats, Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth by W. B. Yeats, Robert Welch (ed.), Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1993, p. 60.

5 Yeats, The Celtic Twilight, p. 6.

6 Yeats, The Celtic Twilight, p. 120. [This essay dated 1901.]

7 Douglas Hyde, “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland” in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. II, Seamus Deane (ed.), Derry : Field Day, 1991, p. 530-1.

8 Irish Independent, Jan. 2, 1926.

9 Hyde, in Deane, II, p. 530.

10 W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies, 1955 ; rpt. London : Bracken Books, 1995, p. 400.

11 Yeats, The Celtic Twilight, 1990, p. 4

12 Lynda Nead in Victorian Babylon : People, Streets, and Images in Nineteenth-Century London, 2000 ; rpt. New Haven, Conn, 2005 ; p. 8.

13 Yeats, The Celtic Twilight, p. 119. [This essay dated 1901.]

14 Stewart Parker, Three Plays for Ireland, London : Oberon, 1989, p. 13.

15 Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic : A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard, New York : Cornell, 1975, p. 41-42.

16 Weber was born on April 21, 1864 ; Yeats was born on June 14, 1865.

17 Max Weber, “Science as Vocation”, in On Charisma and Institution Building : Selected Papers, ed. S. N. Eisenstadt, Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1968, p. 298.

18 Mark A. Schneider, Culture and Enchantment, Chicago, 1993, p. cited in Saler, p. 715-6.

19 Max Weber, “Science as Vocation”, in On Charisma and Institution Building : Selected Papers. S. N. Eisenstadt (ed.), Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1968, p. 298-9.

20 J. M. Synge, The Complete Plays, London : Methuen, 1984, p. 109.

21 W. B. Yeats, Collected Plays, London : Macmillan, 1982, p. 86. It is worth noting that authorship of this play is disputed, and there is good cause for attributing it, at least in part, to Lady Gregory.

22 L’Échange symbolique et la mort, Paris : Gallimard, 1976 ; trans. Charles Levin, “Symbolic Exchange and Death”, The Structural Allegory, John Fekete (ed.), Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p. 54-73. Marcel Mauss and H. Hubert, The Gift : Forms and Functions of Exchange in Primitive Societies, London : Cohen and West, 1966 (1925).

23 Max Weber, From Max Weber : Essays in Sociology ed. and trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright mills, London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1948, p. 342.

24 Le texte de Cornelius Crowley s’intitule « Cartographie de la fin : la sale histoire de The Whore-Mother ».Voir infra (note de l’éditeur).

25 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe : Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton : Princeton UP, 2000, p. 88-89.

26 Parker, p. 208.

27 For an analogous argument in an Indian context, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe : Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 10-13.

28 Ebel Hermann, Celtic Studies, trans. and ed. William K. Sullivan, Edinburgh and London : Williams and Norgate, 1853, p. vii.

29 Chris Morash, “Celticism : Between Race and Nation”, in Ideology and Ireland in the Nineteenth Century, Tadhg Foley and Seán Ryder (ed.), Dublin : Four Courts Press, 1998, p. 206-213.

30 GDP expressed in Euro, at current market prices. The figure of 100,000 Poles is an estimate ; however, it has not been disputed by the Central Statistics Office (CSO). The latest CSO figures date from 2002, and show only just over 2 000 Poles in Ireland ; by contrast, the CSO figures for the same year show just over 339,541 persons who speak Irish on a daily basis. Source : Central Statistics Office, Statistical Yearbook of Ireland 2005, Cork : Central Statistics Office, 2005, p. 153, 17, 20. The figures for Irish-speakers in the Gaeltacht are from : Tony Crowley, Wars of Words : The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-2004, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 189n.

31 “Sutherland urges Irish to adapt to needs of migrants”, Irish Times, Sept. 26, 2006.

32 Michael Saler, “Modernity and Enchantment : A Historiographic Review”, American Historical Review, June 2006, p. 692-716 ; p. 702.

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