Author Samuel Beckett (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Roger Pic)

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.”

For many, Irish remains a treasured if little-used emblem of national identity.

In Amongst Women, John McGahern offered an unsparing yet sympathetic view of “the warmth and narrowness” of a self-enclosed rural world. It cost him his job as a teacher. Edna O’Brien’s frank portrait in The Country Girls of the “stultifying sterility of village life,” damned by the archbishop of Dublin as “a smear on Irish womanhood,” was the first of her six novels to be deemed “indecent and obscene” by the Censorship Board.

The culture of post-Famine Ireland left the eldest son waiting helplessly to inherit the family farm, and his siblings to scrape by or emigrate. Ireland’s chief export continued to be its people. (Between the 1920s and 1980s, one in every two left the country.) But where hunger and destitution compelled an older generation to leave, tedium, sexual repression, and social immobility drove away a new generation. In Kiberd’s description, Ireland was “the most patriarchal regime in Europe.” 

The result is poignantly portrayed in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! Two actors play a single character (Private Gar and Public Gar) and bring to life the alienation between fathers and sons, and “how little is said in a culture in which so much is deeply felt.” The oedipal (O’Edipal?) stalemate in what Kiberd calls a “lunatic culture” lacked a patricidal playboy with the courage of Synge’s Christy Mahon.

For all the scorn heaped on the Free State, its achievements were real. Born in a short but brutal civil war, it avoided one-party rule, managed a peaceful transfer of power between two formerly warring parties, and put in place the foundations of a stable democracy. Its moralistic conservativism was supported by a deeply Catholic population. If artists and intellectuals found little to admire, it’s rare the intelligentsia cheer for the status quo.

The church’s loss of power happened, as Hemingway said of bankruptcy, two ways: first gradually, then suddenly. Fr. Tom Conroy, the protagonist of Richard Power’s 1969 novel The Hungry Grass, is a sincere priest faced with maintaining spiritual authenticity in a post-independence arrangement built on “a coalition of large farmers, publicans and ward heelers sailing, like new recruits on a pirate ship, under a flag of convenient pietistic nationalism.”

At the same time the church imagined it could control an increasingly secularized and free-thinking population, it stowed its own sins—and crimes—behind a wall of deception and denial. Yet Kiberd points out what many ignore or forget: the church’s power wasn’t gained by ambitious prelates, at least not entirely, but with the blessing and encouragement of a state that from its “impecunious beginnings had used the Catholic Church as a sort of alternative welfare system in everything from education to health care.”

It remains to be seen what will fill the very large vacuum the Humpty-Dumpty fall of the institutional church leaves behind. Kiberd doesn’t share in the delight of secularists and anti-clerics—the fallen away and driven away—at the church’s shattered credibility. He sees the rise of “predatory forms of capitalism” as one consequence, with “few voices, apart from artists and some independent reporters, to offer any probing criticism of the new materialism.”

Éamon de Valera

Kiberd doesn’t identify Americanization as a major theme, but its influence is so obvious that it’s perhaps easy to take for granted. Among the most glaring (and grievous) examples is the late Celtic Tiger, a feline born of the American winner-take-all/loser-lose-all economy. At its height, some boasted that “Dublin is now no different from New York.” Exaggeration though it was, the tumble from riches to ruin proved alike. For the first and probably not last time, Ireland suffered the kind of financial and real-estate bust Americans expect but never seem to learn from, at least for very long.

Financial speculation is only the latest import. Though Ireland distinguished itself as the first nation to vote approval of same-sex marriage, the revolution in attitudes began in New York and San Francisco. Similarly, the civil-rights movement in Northern Ireland took its inspiration from the struggle of African Americans. In the Troubles that followed, when many in the Republic lost interest or chose not to notice, American politicians like Ted Kennedy, Hugh Carey, and Tip O’Neill pressured the British government to seek a peaceful solution. Bill Clinton and George Mitchell guided the process to a successful conclusion.

The growing popularity of Irish noir is built on the hard-boiled American model—in film as well as print—invented by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and carried on by successors like John Connolly. Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the coming-of-age story of a boy in a suburban housing development dealing with his parents’ divorce, resonates more with an American childhood than James Joyce’s. The cynosure of Doyle’s The Commitments is funk artist Wilson Pickett.

Whether hailed as progress or yet another wave of Yeats’s “filthy modern tide,” American-style office parks, housing estates, and strip malls take up more and more space. American corporations employ thousands in back office operations. Rap is joining Elvis and Dylan as a musical staple. “Hip-hop culture,” reported the New York Times earlier this year, is “proliferating across the country.” Country Western music echoes in pubs from Skibbereen to Derry. The widening gyre of American programming spreads across digital media.

Beginning in the 1980s, with the Warner Bros. production of Pat O’Connor’s Cal, Hollywood paid attention to Ireland as never before. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, Terry George’s In the Name of the Father, and Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot all won acclaim and awards. Actors like Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne gained stardom. The American film industry, the world’s most fearsome propaganda machine, has boosted immeasurably Bord Failte’s efforts to promote Irishness to the coveted and profitable status of a “brand.”

For millions of Irish, after Ireland has come America. Kiberd mentions little about the connections between Irish and Irish America, other than that “Irish Americans have written fine novels and scholarly monographs treating Ireland as a stable entity that can be assessed, controlled, and ultimately contained by their ‘objective,’ authoritative analyses.” He adds that group “instability” on racism and slavery “demonstrates how shaky and uncertain is the ground on which every Irish American stands.”

It’s hard to know how wide or narrow Kiberd throws his net. Who are the Irish Americans purporting to offer “authoritative analyses” of a “stable entity”? He names no names, and makes no mention of novels and scholarly works like Thomas Flanagan’s brilliant trilogy of historical novels, or Robert Scally’s penetrating study, The End of Hidden Ireland, or Maureen Murphy’s highly original account of the philanthropic wanderings in Famine Ireland of American eccentric Asenath Nicholson. Maybe these are exempt, maybe not.

A generalization about race that ropes in “every Irish American” echoes the simplistic proposition advanced in academic circles of a shared intent “to become white.” The problem is that the Irish were white-skinned when they arrived, and a majority were English speakers. It was their culture and religion that were the wrong color. They had the option to change or modify their names, assume the majority religion, and use the public schools to speed assimilation, which some did. Under wartime pressure the German community, even larger than the Irish, essentially vanished.

The minute the Irish set foot in America, they went from an aggrieved majority in their own country to a feared, distrusted, and disliked minority in somebody else’s. Between 1845 and 1855, a million Irish—one eighth of the Irish population—landed in New York unskilled, disoriented, many traumatized. Faced with the immediate challenge of reorganization, they built tight-knit networks of parishes, schools, hospitals, orphanages, unions, political clubhouses, and eventually colleges and universities. The intent wasn’t to make the Irish white but to help them stay Irish. Rather than vanish into the albumin of the melting pot, the Irish-American diaspora introduced America to the hyphen.

Kiberd points out that one of the Famine’s dire effects was “reducing so many to silence.” That silence was perhaps even more profound in America, where the old language was utterly useless and letting go of old customs a life-and-death necessity. It’s worth noting that in a centuries-long exodus that carried along millions of immigrants, the single memorable first-person account is Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.

Irish Americans intent on entering the mainstream distanced themselves from the past. Except for Eugene O’Neill at the end of his life, literary masters like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara had next to nothing to say about their immigrant roots. Neither did Flannery O’Connor. Lawyer and art patron John Quinn focused his largesse on avant-garde artists like Joyce and Kandinsky. It wasn’t until the end of the twentieth century that William Kennedy and Alice McDermott turned the nitty-gritty particularity and insularity of Irish America into literature.

Irish-American history has been a woefully under-plowed field by historians in both America and Ireland. Only recently have ground-breaking studies like Irene Whalen’s The Bible War in Ireland, Mark Bulik’s The Sons of the Molly Maguires, and Terry Golway’s Machine Made established how rooted Irish-American attitudes and efforts were in Ireland. The struggle of the newly arrived was to preserve their identity and not be coerced into another. When it comes to race and ethnicity, America itself stands on shaky, uncertain ground. To dig into these complexities and contradictions isn’t to obfuscate or excuse but to help understand.

Kiberd observes that the men and women of 1916 faced the “fear of a lost political and economic sovereignty” but didn’t retreat. They found inspiration in the Irish past and imagined a country that, though small and limited in resources, could take its place among the nations of the world and help evince a freer, fairer post-colonial order.

In the failure to live up to the idealistic ambitions of its founders, Kiberd sees the seeds of Ireland’s cultural renewal. Nationalism of the traditional kind is over but “civic republicanism” is rising in its place. “Rule-bound ecclesiocracy” is giving way to yearnings for true spirituality. Irish intellectuals and artists investigate new meanings of Irishness. “A phrase such as ‘After Ireland,’” he concludes, “may represent an opportunity to move forward rather than the utterance of an adverse judgement.” 

Ireland was hoisted, in Derek Mahon’s phrase, “on the sharp end of history’s cruel decisions.” History was inescapable nightmare to James Joyce; to Seamus Heaney, a bog: “Our pioneers keep striking / Onwards and downwards, / Every layer they strip / Seems camped on before. / The bog holes might be Atlantic seepage. / The wet centre is bottomless.” Heaney’s Irish pioneer is antithetical to Walt Whitman’s American: “All the past we leave behind; / We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world, / Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!”

Today, as Kiberd’s pointed, penetrating commentary makes clear, it is Ireland that increasingly looks to the horizon. Convinced of its decline, America turns in on itself and seeks to be great again as it sinks into the bog.


After Ireland
Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present

Declan Kiberd
Harvard University Press, $39.95, 560 pp.

Peter Quinn, a frequent contributor, is the author Dry Bones and Banished Children of Eve (both from Overlook Press), among other books.

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Published in the May 18, 2018 issue: View Contents
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