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The steamship Helga took part in the first Clare Island Survey of 1909–11; then, refitted as a gunboat, she shelled the centre of Dublin during the 1916 Rising. She later became a troopship and transported some of the notorious Black and Tans to different ports in Ireland when the roads were blocked. Eventually, the new Free State bought the ship while the Black and Tans and RIC men, hardened by their Irish experience, left to continue their rampages among the unfortunate villagers of Iraq in 1922. The Helga thus passed out of the history of world domination and into the quiet desuetude of the Irish Free State naval service.
The aim of this essay is to trace the history of an idea through a series of mutations over a span of about one hundred years. Much of the material is taken from literary sources because it is in these that the potent force of the idea of a national character is most frequently and most memorably realized and it is in the nineteenth century that it becomes a stereotype. The caricaturing of national types was an important instrument of propaganda warfare during and after the French Revolution; the brilliant and savage tradition of Rowlandson and Gillray was carried on through the century, becoming more and more closely bound up with the development of the popular (finally the yellow) press.
He was part of their foreign policy, of the drive to make the USA a cultural presence and to recruit ‘high’ culture to its mission of world-domination. Ulysses became a seminal work because it showed how a broken European culture could be absorbed into ‘modernity’. The reception of Joyce was a politically loaded issue in the Cold War; because of that Joycean studies became an industry, producing a cultural weaponry that remains effective, the Hiberno-Grecian gift that keeps on giving. Classical and Christian echoes sounded throughout the local Irish setting; American academics alerted us to them, annotated them for us. In addition, Ulysses implied the possibility of a structure in history; this was later replaced in the Wake by a history of structures. These turned out to be really one structure, of which Irish history was exemplary, the small world that was a microcosm of all.
Thematically banal, rather tiresomely, even clumsily ‘experimental’, like so much modernist literature that laments and seeks formally to represent loss of contact with the past, and the ruin of the present, it is astonishing how exotic and heartbreaking Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’ nevertheless is. Echoes of the traditional ghost story and of the new science fiction tale are audible to any reader, but the composite that Bowen creates in this instance has a texture and tonal complexity different to anything we find even in those novels, like The Last September (1929), that share common ground with it.
The House in Paris (1935), preceded by The Last September (1929) and succeeded by The Death of the Heart (1938), is one of the three novels in which Elizabeth Bowen most memorably confronted the spectacle of the disintegration of nineteenth-century European civilization in the aftermath of World War I. A Big House in Ireland is the setting for the first; a pension in Paris for the second; a middle-class villa in London for the third. All three houses function as places, conditions, characters almost, and as stages for the enactment of a disaster from which there is only a tenuous chance of recovery. Getting out of these places offers their inhabitants a chance of redemption – but it is no more than that.
In the Preface to A Tale of a Tub (1704), Swift finds a classic way to define the kind of writing that is not classic and the kind of reading that should properly accompany it. Shadowing this passage is Cicero’s declaration in De re publica (The Republic) of the unchanging and everlasting law of right reason. In place of law, Swift gives us modern wit which, we are told, does not travel well. Even ‘the smallest Transposal or Misapplication’ can annihilate it (PW 1.26). Some jests are only comprehensible at Covent-Garden, some at Hyde-Park Corner. All the universal truths about modernity are sourced in its provinciality.
That’s one of Seamus Heaney’s jokes. Once he had become famous, he told jokes, with a nice smirk of irony, about famous people being pestered. He began to be famous in 1966, after the publication of his first volume of poems, Death of a Naturalist. I’ve now known the famous Seamus, ‘Seamus Heaney’, longer than I knew him before the fame, when he was just Seamus Heaney or Seamus Justin Heaney, or Heaney, S. J., as his name appeared on examination lists at schools and universities that we attended together for eleven years. If you were named Seamus, you needed another initial, to distinguish you from the throng of Seamuses that emerged in Northern Ireland in the thirties and forties and have continued to emerge ever since. The name Seamus was the Irish version of James and a signal that the Northern Irish Catholic community was loyal to the Gaelic, and not to the British, account of things.
Many readers share the recognition that the highly specified world of Dubliners threatens, in subtle and disturbing ways, to fade into ghostliness. The twilit, half-lit, street-lit, candle-lit, gas-lit, firelit settings are inhabited by shadows and silhouettes that remind us both of the insubstantial nature of these lives and also of their latent and repressed possibilities. These people are shades who have never lived, vicarious inhabitants of a universe ruled by others. Highly individuated, they are nevertheless exemplary types of a general condition in which individuality is dissolved. The city of Dublin – not just the place but also the cultural system that constitutes it – exercises an almost dogmatic authority over the people who inhabit it, yet what individuality they have best expresses itself in collusion with that authority. Determined by or derived from sources and resources they do not control, Dubliners have acclimatized themselves to a servitude they affect to resist. Their ‘identity’ may be second-hand, but they are sufficiently meek to be glad of it.
On the morning of 30 April 1795, the United Irish agent William Jackson, who was also a clergyman of the Established Church, faced the chief justice, John Scott, earl of Clonmel, in the King’s Bench court on Merchants’ Quay in Dublin to receive the sentence of death by hanging for treason; earlier that day he had been seen vomiting from the window of the coach that brought him there from Newgate Prison. Now he was slumped against the dock, sweating profusely. He rallied for a moment and whispered to his legal counsel, ‘We have deceived the senate.’
Seamus Deane was one of the most vital and versatile authors of our time. Small World presents an unmatched survey of Irish writing, and of writing about Irish issues, from 1798 to the present day. Elegant, polemical, and incisive, it addresses the political, aesthetic, and cultural dimensions of several notable literary and historical moments, and monuments, from the island's past and present. The style of Swift; the continuing influence of Edmund Burke's political thought in the USA; the echoing debates about national character; aspects of Joyce's and of Elizabeth Bowen's relation to modernism; memories of Seamus Heaney; analysis of the representation of Northern Ireland in Anna Burns's fiction – these topics constitute only a partial list of the themes addressed by a volume that should be mandatory reading for all those who care about Ireland and its history. The writings included here, from one of Irish literature's most renowned critics, have individually had a piercing impact, but they are now collectively amplified by being gathered together here for the first time between one set of covers. Small World: Ireland, 1798–2018 is an indispensable collection from one of the most important voices in Irish literature and culture.
It is possible to write about literature without adverting in any substantial way to history. Equally, it is possible to write history without any serious reference to literature. Yet both literature and history are discourses which are widely recognized to be closely related to one another because they are both subject to various linguistic protocols which, in gross or in subtle ways, determine the structure and meaning of what is written. We have many names for these protocols. Some are very general indeed – Romanticism, Victorianism, Modernism. Some are more specific – Idealist, Radical, Liberal. Literature can be written as History, History as Literature. It would be foolhardy to choose one among the many competing variations and say that it is true on some specifically historical or literary basis.
Mary Lavin tells the same story over and over. It is always a story of two lives, governed by love gained or lost. Love may be lost in or through a bad marriage; still, it commands lifelong fidelity, heightened by the socially enforced sexual abstinence that accompanies it. But even a happy marriage can lead to an enforced chastity, a version of celibacy (even though celibacy strictly means the state of being unmarried). The early death of a husband can invoke this chastity/celibacy in the widow as a kind of loyalty to him, to their original marriage vows. Remarriage, or another sexual relationship, has to sometimes be figured as an almost defiant loyalty to oneself. There are many variations on these relationships. Yet the first happiness can never be relived or recaptured, not even in remarriage, although it remains as a ghostly presence, memory or fantasy, in any later state.
The Easter Rising of 1916 has been so effectively revised that its seventy-fifth anniversary is a matter of official embarrassment. Nevertheless, the revisionists are now themselves more vulnerable to revision because their pseudo-scientific orthodoxy is so obviously tailored to match the prevailing political climate – especially in relation to the Northern crisis – that its claims to ‘objectivity’, to being ‘value-free’, have been abandoned as disguises no longer needed. Conor Cruise O’Brien has declared himself to be a unionist and, in that light, his writings can be understood as a polemic in favour of that position.