Review: ‘Two decades of Irish writing: a critical survey’

edited by Douglas Dunn (Cheadle, Carcanet Press, 1975. 260 pp. £5.80)


Morris Beja


This volume is a collection of fourteen essays, by as many contributors, on various aspects of recent Irish writing. (Presumably, the ‘two decades’ of the title refer to 1955-1975.) It is a commonplace to say of such collections that they are ‘uneven.’ or ‘a mixed bag.’ and almost invariably the observation is accurate if trite. Yet often in such a volume one can also detect an overall pattern, a rationale for the selection of both the topics covered and the critics asked to tackle them. That is so in some respects here, but not in all: a mixed bag, again.


A measure of integration is supplied by the fact that the Irish literary scene is still as small as it ever was, so that Patrick Kavanagh is discussed by Seamus Heaney, whose own poetry is discussed by both Seamus Deane and D.E.S. Maxwell, whose essay also discusses Mirhael Longley, who contributes a chapter discussing Louis MacNiece. Perhaps unexpectedly, more is gained than lost by this sort of interplay, and we get a sense of a literary world that is active rather than merely insular.


Nevertheless, another thing that just about all the contributors share is a sense of insularity. One feels after reading these essays that it is not only about Flann O’Brien that John Wain could have written that he is ‘a writer whose subject is not Man, but Irishman.’ There are poorer subjects, and in our century the writers who have presented Irishman have made him seem a theme as complex and multitudinous as Whitman’s American. Yet the critics in this volume seem even more concerned with Irish ‘identity’ and ‘insularity’ (here, the two often seem to go together) than the writers they treat. Thomas Kinsella can assert, as Edna Longley notes, that ‘every writer in the modern world . . . is the inheritor of a gapped, discontinuous, polyglot tradition’; but Ms. Longley herself is troubled by her sense that ‘both the English and American audiences often over-indulge the Irish poet, when they do not ignore him.’ just as Michael Smith’s first sentence in his essay, ‘The contemporary situation in Irish poetry,’ is: ‘I think it is true to say that outside Ireland there is little or no interest in contemporary Irish poetry.’ Moreover, an underlying realization in many of these essays is that much of whatever attention contemporary Irish writers do receive outside Ireland centres almost wholly on their ‘relevance’ to the troubles in Northern Ireland. Seamus Deane, in an opening essay so fine that it sets up expectations that few of the subsequent essays come near fulfilling, observes that ‘Ireland became many things in times of war—Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Saorstat Eireann, Eire, the Republic. It has yet to enjoy a psychological identity belonging to times of peace.’


A certain amount of coherence is also achieved within the volume by the distribution in regard to the topics and writers covered, but there I am afraid that I perceive less balance than distortion. The bias is very emphatically toward poetry, which gets ten essays, while fiction gets four (two of them entirely given over to single writers, Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett), and drama gets none at all. Within that bias the stress is so much on older or dead poets (Kavanagh, MacNiece, Rodgers, and so on) that the title of the volume is probably misleading. Kavanagh is the only figure to be given two essays, one by Michael Allen and another, one of the best in the volume, by Seamus Heaney, but Kavanagh’s importance and influence are so great that the coverage devoted to him does seem justified.


Less explicable are the omissions: among poets, those mentioned not at all or only in passing include Brendan Kennelly, John Jordan, Anthony Cronin, Seamus Deane (although as a critic he is a contributor to the volume), and Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin. Omissions among writers of fiction are even more notable: Jennifer Johnston gets a page, Benedict Kiely a paragraph, Edna O’Brien and Christy Brown nothing at all. In the one essay that would have been able to cover some of these writers, ‘Constants in contemporary Irish fiction.’ Roger Garfitt’s chief enthusiasm is for Francis Stuart, a fact which inevitably colors one’s reactions to the rest of his evaluations. According to Garfitt, not only does Stuart manage ‘to be positive over very much the same ground over which Beckett is negative, but his vision seems to me at once more final in its courage, and more generous, more complete in its humanity, than Lawrence’s . . .’


As if to compensate, the essay by James Atlas, ‘The prose of Samuel Beckett.’ is a fine appreciation—and more than that. In contrast to many of the critics here, who are talking about writers who have received relatively little attention, Atlas must deal with one who has of course been given a great deal; but he is wisely unintimidated by that fact. Although he avoids exploring trivia, he does bring his own insights to elements of Beckett’s career which many other critics have also treated. His essay includes an excellent brief discussion of Beckett’s tradition, especially the connections with Joyce and Proust. Along the way he helps to clarify Beckett’s Ireland—and his France as well, and indeed all the ‘ground over which Beckett is negative.’ as Garfitt puts it. To be sure, Beckett himself helps to clarify, say, Seamus Heaney’s Jutland (in ‘The Tollund Man’)—and his Ireland as well:


Out there in Jutland

            In the old man-killing parishes

            I will feel lost,

            Unhappy and at home.