Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2008
Remarking on his own sense of discontinuity and uprootedness as a writer of English, resulting from what he calls the great linguistic rift of the shift from Irish to English, Thomas Kinsella refers to ‘the silence of the nineteenth century’. Joep Leerssen, in his widely acclaimed Field Day monograph Remembrance and Imagination, asserts from the outset that ‘the native tradition in the nineteenth century is almost silent, having been pauperised into virtual illiteracy’. While the use of words like ‘almost’ and ‘virtual’ can be said to leave an ideological escape clause, Seamus Deane leaves his readers in no doubt when he definitively states in his Short History of Irish Literature that Irish ‘was well and truly dead by the end of the eighteenth century’. The direct result of such a claim is of course that, as literature in Irish no longer exists, it is intellectually acceptable to redefine the very notion and nature of ‘Irish literature’. Thus, in his study of ‘Irish National Character 1790–1900’, Deane draws solely on literature in English and claims that ‘the idea of an Irish national character took shape in response to the earlier and aggressive English (or British) definition’. Irish literature of the period as a result becomes a progression from Edmund Burke through the first Celtic Revival and the antiquarian movement, followed by the novels of Maria Edgeworth, the stories of William Carleton, the writings of Samuel Ferguson and Standish O’Grady, and finishes up with W. B. Yeats. In the same vein, Norman Vance, in the introductory chapter of his Irish Literature since 1800, gives a mere eleven lines to the nineteenth century in a twelve-page background section on ‘The Irish Language Tradition’ and refers only to the ‘rescue activity’ of scholars and translators.