Declan Kiberd is the author of incisively thoughtful, sometimes provocative studies of Irish literature. After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present is the latest in a trilogy that includes Inventing Ireland and Irish Classics. Like the others, After Ireland offers a rich and expansive understanding of how, despite its political and cultural travails, such a relatively small island earned such an outsized role in the making of the modern imagination.
Kiberd’s “central contention” is that since its inception, the Irish state has “proved unable to contain or embody the very idealistic ambitions of the nation,” a failure sealed by the immolation of the “Celtic Tiger” in the aftermath of 2008’s financial collapse. Amid the ashes of political and economic disillusionment, Kiberd observes, culture takes on new prominence “as a means of alerting people to the crisis and embodying the unstilled longing for expressive freedom.”
In tracing the “gradual expiry of the national project,” Kiberd identifies eight major themes, including secularization, Europeanization, and the women’s movement, which he briefly examines in short “interchapters.” He brings these themes into focus by analyzing specific texts by writers impatient “with many forms of traditional nationalism.”
It’s possible to argue about who is included or left out. (To my mind, Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, John Montague, and William Trevor deserve a place.) But to quibble with Kiberd’s choices is not to question his scholarship and insights. The essays sometimes feel like discrete book reviews shoehorned into overarching categories. I’m not sure how Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha fits under the theme of the women’s movement, or Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls under “a neutral Ireland.” But the novels Kiberd has chosen are uniformly insightful and well written.
Kiberd gives a prominent role to writing in the Irish language. The near-fatal blow of the Great Hunger (1845–51), which emptied the thickly settled Irish-speaking areas in the south and west, did what the long, grinding imposition of colonial rule hadn’t. Irish, Europe’s third-oldest written vernacular behind Greek and Latin, the repository of myths and memory, was reduced to a remnant tongue. By the 1890s, when the Gaelic League began its campaign to revive the language, “there were only six books in print in the Irish language.”
The Irish Free State’s decision to make Irish a mandatory requirement for students and civil servants rendered it a burdensome qualification instead of a living and essential language. Máirtín Ó Cadhain, the author of the modern classic Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay) lamented that Irish texts were mostly fit for “credulous schoolchildren and pre–Vatican II nuns.” He wondered at how strange it was to work in a language that might be dead before he was.
For many, Irish remains a treasured if little-used emblem of national identity. For others, like poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, it is a vibrant and powerful form of expression, at once a present voice and a connection to the past—“the corpse that will not stay dead.”
In 1943, Éamon de Valera, the taoiséach (prime minister), made a much-ridiculed speech that offered a vision of a country of home-based industries and villages filled with “athletic youths and happy maidens.” Kiberd, however, credits de Valera with “a deep underlying radicalism” that opposed the obliteration of communities by capitalism run amok. If de Valera or his successors had offered a program to create a viable rural economy, the Gaeltacht might have been strengthened and enlivened, but they didn’t and it wasn’t.
Kiberd identifies the failure of the Free State to revive Irish as part of a larger failure to build on the legacy left by heroes of the 1916 uprising like Padraig Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh, who thought independence was as much a cultural as a political achievement. “It was the bleakness rather than the exhilaration of freedom which struck most writers in the 1920s and 1930s,” Kiberd observes. With the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act, Seán O’Faoláin, who once espoused “revolution or death, was lamenting the death of the revolution.”
In exile but not silent, Joyce stayed in Paris, where he was joined by Samuel Beckett. Kiberd reads Waiting for Godot not only as a reflection of the loss of meaning in postwar Europe, but as Beckett’s “warning to Ireland” of the pernicious effects of repression “in the tradition of Joyce’s coded attacks on censorship in Finnegans Wake.”