First things first. I started warming up the blogging muscles by creating an ‘About’ page, which I’ve deliberately left unaltered until now, though I’ve looked at it every so often, and noted that the blog and I were moving in a different direction from the one anticipated. This is the original:
This blog tracks the experience of engaging in ‘Irish Studies’ while living in Ireland. Roy Foster, in The Irish Story, warns ‘English and American fellow-travellers’ that it is ‘easier to sustain an old-fashioned and unquestioning belief in Irish history as an apostolic succession of national liberators if you do not live in the country itself’. As an Irish person who found her way to Irish Studies via an interdisciplinary master’s at Oxford, I can’t ignore this challenge from a former Oxford Professor of Irish History. My dissertation focused on Daniel O’Connell, after all, and I published an article which evaluated contrasting strains of nineteenth-century Irish nationalism. Have I subscribed to the sort of ‘sentimental nationalism’ Foster derides, and fallen into the teleological trap? Will living in Ireland alter my historical perspective? ‘Yearofcork’ will follow my journey towards the answers.
I continue to patrol myself carefully, watching for signs of sentimentality, but I don’t find that whatever quantity I possess has altered with living in Ireland. As the endearing Ardal O’Hanlon says in his television series, Ireland with Ardal, ‘Ireland is a real place as well as an imaginary one’. This is more profound than at first sight it appears. The study of history involves discovering the many imaginary Irelands, but of course also entails tracking down some realities. I find I can understand the real Ireland in which I live more effectively as I learn more of the versions of past Ireland. But Foster was surely aiming a blow at those of us who loved Ireland from afar, or at least suggesting that our romance with the country couldn’t survive a protracted and mundane encounter. Curiously, the more I have learned of past and present flaws – the rights of women and ‘direct provision’, for example – the more tenacious my attachment has grown. As for the idea of an ‘apostolic succession of national liberators’, I’m not sure why I ever suspected myself of such a notion. I continue to be fascinated by the heroes and the firebrands, but not for a moment do I see any of them as sufficiently unencumbered by feet of clay to justify a claim to apostle status.
My ‘About’ page has therefore changed. I’m no longer presenting the blog as a quest. This was perhaps naïve, or perhaps done for the sake of form. Either way, the approach has no legs. I’m quite incapable of publishing very raw material; I feel compelled to give each post some completeness of its own. However, the posts have been opportunities to polish up ideas I’ve been brooding over, and their effect may well have been to crystallise responses that would otherwise have remained vague and eventually floated away.
The first of these blogs did indeed pose a question: ‘Is commemoration always political?’ but went on to defend the political colouring of commemoration:
And is that necessarily a bad thing? Reading Roy Foster’s comments on the 1998 official Irish commemoration of the 1798 rebellion, and noting his discomfort at ‘the extent to which professional historians were involved in the repackaging and alteration of emphasis’ (228), I wonder whether there is any firm ground to stand on in this context.
Foster is right to point out failures in adherence to the facts, but commemorations are for all, including those who have no interest in complexity. This is itself a fact. And, in that case, is there no merit in choosing not to highlight those aspects of the past that serve to perpetuate division?
While I would wish to find nothing but accounts of ‘how it really was’ in historiography, from a public monument I welcome a message of hope for the future. Foster laments the loss of focus on the sectarianism of 1798. But what is the point in inveighing against the Irish political class for its choice not to dwell on agrarian violence or sectarian sentiment? Would it not have been irresponsible to emphasise these without an exhaustive accompanying explanation of the events which provoked them and the circumstances by which they were perpetuated?
This is a young nation, but one which spent the nineteenth century under a barrage of negative propaganda from the popular press and the ruling, academic and chattering classes of its ‘mother country’. Are we really not allowed to emphasise the positives in our past for the sake of our present and future?
The next blog, ‘Lest we remember’, continued the theme of commemoration, but with a different emphasis:
The idea that organised remembering presents an obstacle to reconciliation is a familiar one, and is the subject of a recent book by David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical memory and its ironies. Hew Strachan’s review in the TLS argues, however, that ‘collective memory may be more neutral than Rieff allows’, suggesting – with a possibly unconsciously military metaphor – that it can be ‘conscripted’ to amity as well as enmity.
Is collective memory really this passive? I’m reminded of the resonant words of the urgently revisionist history teacher, Irwin, in Alan Bennett’s History Boys: ‘It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember’. The proposition is that, in the case of Britain, organised remembering is a means by which the individual forgets to question the cause of his or her personal loss.
When Dr Helene O’Keefe presented an account of second generation memory of the 1916 Rising in her lecture, ‘Once Removed from Revolution’, she cautioned that such accounts could not be treated as sources, but revealed how close they can, nevertheless, bring us to some of the realities of 1916. She spoke of ‘re-imagined’, ‘diluted’ and ‘inherited’ memory, and noted that people are inclined to impose narrative form on these memories, and imbue them with drama or humour – a tendency which can also be seen in academic or state-sponsored accounts of significant events.
What emerged from O’Keefe’s examples, however, were fascinating insights into ‘the truth as it is felt’. She highlighted, too, the many reasons participants in the Rising had chosen not to pass their memories to the next generation: self-censorship, humility, the imperative of secrecy, gender roles. One of the most touching of these reasons was a desire not to impose the burden of the past on their descendants.
And this is perhaps why the chimeric collective memory is so much more agreeable than the individual sort: it is without the painful trueness of personal experience.
This time, I was analysing and exploring, rather than writing polemic, and I found that making connections between the many sources which had interested me, helped me think constructively about the topic.
In November, I wrote a blog which was very different in tone and content. It came about as a piece of catharsis. I had been recommended a play which turned out to be a most unpleasant theatrical experience, so my writing was fuelled by resentment at having been robbed of an evening. It was titled, ‘Hell is a night with Martin McDonagh’:
I found myself isolated in a roomful of people responding with hilarity to a play built upon a catalogue of brutalities: child torture (several kinds, described in detail, and at the hands of parents, guardians and strangers), child rape (paternal), child murder (parental and stranger) and adult torture (again, a variety: enacted unconvincingly, overheard and threatened). Marvellous. So post-postmodern.
Then there were the laughs to be had from unabashed racial mockery. I don’t think I’ve heard people laughing at ‘chink’ jollity since the seventies, and even then it was only canned laughter; I wasn’t actually in the room with them.
Katurian exhibits a writerly desire that his oeuvre should survive him […]
Katurian’s legacy, however, is stories that are slight and ugly, and he has so little command of language that he misinforms his brother that ‘to aggravate’ means ‘to annoy’. Perhaps this is the author’s double-joke; a wink to those who feel cleverer than Katurian? If so, don’t wink at me. I’m not your friend.
I’ve asked people I respect to share with me the merit of this play, because I cannot see it, and do not want to be left out in the cold. Nothing comes back, however, but the surprise-factor. So I went to the critics, to paraphrase Plato, and got pretty much the same response as he had from the poets. Superb tosh. The emperor is truly naked. Listen to Katy Hayes of the Independent:
What begins as a Pinteresque comedy of menace, two toughs in a room violently interrogating a writer with possible political undertones, repositions itself as a phantasmagoria of creativity.
In other words, ‘Beats me what’s going on, but I’ve heard it’s good, and Pinter writes nasty stuff that people laugh at too. Critical credentials established, vague long word employed, job done’.
By the final act, in which the torturer Ariel threatens to burn Katurian’s stories, I was not only willing him on, but wishing the whole play had hit the flames before it spoiled my Thursday night, and ‘repositioned’ me outside the Cork theatre bubble.
This review allowed me set aside the academic voice, and try a more flippant, satirical one. It was fun to write, but I wasn’t being gratuitously negative; I really see McDonagh’s work as careless, in every sense of the word.
In December, I was reading ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ in preparation for an undergraduate seminar on ‘Politics, Society and History’. Coincidentally, Dr Keohane had given a lecture on Ascendancy culture and the Gothic earlier in the year, so I was interested in what the novel betrayed of its author’s sense of identity, and wrote a post titled ‘Melmoth the Irishman’. These passages reflect this theme:
But the energies of the novel are confused to a degree only readily explicable by the predicament of its author as a minister of the Church of Ireland and a husband and father on the verge of penury. As a Protestant churchman in Ireland, Maturin’s public position is that his is the religion of rationalism and tolerance, but the anti-Catholic bigotry of his narratives gives the lie to the notion of Enlightenment superiority, and there are many passages reminiscent of the rantings of seventeenth-century pamphleteers. In Radcliffe and Lewis, monks are subtle and wicked, but in Maturin their obsession with devilish control can only be accounted for by the fears of a writer who considers his caste threatened by the rumblings of an Irish Catholic majority disappointed by Union and hungering for emancipation.
With regard to belonging, then, Maturin is almost as conflicted as his creature, Melmoth, whose Faustian mission is hobbled by his intermittent reluctance to entrap Immalee-Isidora. Maturin was writing at a time when his class described themselves, and were described by the English, as Irish, though not ‘wild Irish’ or the ‘Irishry’. Much has been written of the ambiguous position of these people: a group apart, whether in Ireland or England. […] Even setting aside likenesses between Melmoth and this despised class of landowners, it takes little imagination to see how well the Gothic idea of the ‘undead’ encapsulates the predicament of Maturin and his peers in the Church of Ireland. Living in – relative – comfort on the tithes of the poorest people in Europe, eating at the expense of those who worshipped by different rites and went hungry to support their own priests, these ministers passed their outcast but powerful status from generation to generation.
This interdependent yet faithless relationship is unconsciously encapsulated in those of Monçada with his parents, the Director, the Superior, the Jew, and most dramatically, the parricide who escorts him from the clutches of the Superior into those of the Inquisitor. The parricide tells him: ‘We must pass life in each watching every breath the other draws, every glance the other gives […]. We may hate each other, torment each other […] but separate we must never’ (187). It could be the manifesto of the Ascendancy and the motto of the Union.
Another novel I was reading over the holiday was ‘Glenanaar’, and this recalled me to a focus which has been much more characteristic of my thoughts on Irish history than that ‘apostolic succession’ of named heroes: the experience of the peasant. My post, ‘The noble helot’, ends with the following paragraphs:
The people eulogised here are an anti-type to the image of the Irish labouring man promulgated by the nineteenth- and twentieth-century British press. For ‘strongly believed’, it would substitute ‘superstitious’; the milk-and-potato diet it would deride as a miserable alternative to John Bull’s bread and beef. To the British, temperance was a Protestant virtue, and whereas Kipling’s theory of ‘muscular Christianity’ made it probable that the English race was ‘hardy and iron’, any sign of strength in the Catholic Irish peasantry was characterised as savagery and aggression.
We meet, in Glenanaar, ‘the innocent, and law-abiding, and inoffensive population’, caught between the ‘yeomanry, who, under the protection of the law, wrought murder and havoc among the innocent; and outlaws, who, against the law, took a fearful and an appalling revenge’. We learn that it is the law itself, ‘so utterly hated by the Irish peasant, as synonymous with every kind of injustice and brutality, [which] set his cold blood aflame’.
Glenanaar gives life to an Irish peasant who is neither brutal nor fawning. He is no stage-Irishman, nor is he a whimsical Paddy. Connors is a believable character who, ironically enough, is best defined by what we mean when we say ‘noble’. Sheehan tells us that ‘no Wordsworth has yet sung the praises of these Irish dales men; but this, too, will come in the intellectual upheaval that we are witnessing just now’. Has this even in the twenty-first century been achieved? I wonder. Sheehan at least made a memorable start.
The next two posts focused on presentations of the Irish in historiography, The first of these, ‘Father of history, father of lies’ concludes:
By this time, Irish workers had built much of Britain’s modern infrastructure and had indeed been castigated since early in the century for their willingness to toil at rates that undercut the English labourer (anyone hear twenty-first-century bells ringing?). Irish men and women had, by 1898, worked their way to prosperity in America and other countries relatively removed from the disabling effects of British discriminatory systems and practices. So why had reality done nothing to dislodge the ancient lie? Well, as Kahneman has proven, we like to ‘keep explanatory narrative simple and coherent’ (199) and we are entirely unaware that good, but discredited, stories are clinging like limpets to our submerged minds. Besides, we’re both lazy and frugal: why discard an heirloom stereotype with plenty of wear left in it?
The second, much more light-hearted, is titled, ‘“The Gerald”: a twelfth-century Trump?’, and begins:
Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1223) didn’t know about DNA, so he wouldn’t have used the same terms as ‘the Donald’ to assert his claim to superiority, but there’s little doubt the Medieval self-publicising scholar also believed that he came of a race of winners and took similar delight, not only in identifying, but in creating losers.
Both of these gave me a chance to play with connections I had been making between recent events, recent reading, and thoughts that had been floating around in my mind for years. The experience of drawing some threads together to make something coherent was enjoyable. It was like concluding an agreeable conversation with a friend, knowing that you would revisit it with pleasure in the future.
My next post was an account of the #editwikilit event, and tracked my participation. I used an up-beat and self-mocking tone, in an attempt to avoid the dullness likely from a blow-by-blow account. Again, the opportunity to flex slightly different blogging muscles was a tonic after an experience which had taken some toll on the nerves. This was followed by the post ‘Of seminars and seminal moments (pompous – moi?), a review of many of the research seminars, symposia and conferences I have attended during this academic year. It was an opportunity to reflect on some of the intellectual riches offered to me at UCC as I come to the end of the taught phase of my studies. In itself a distillation, I don’t quote it here.
Finally, there is a post which was mandated by the skills course from which this entire blog has sprung. It reflects on the mini-conference which showcased the research ideas of my peer group here at UCC. An event of some stress for all concerned, it demanded, I felt, a light touch. Let there be humour.