After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present
by Declan Kiberd| Harvard University Press | 9780674976566 | €36 hb | 560pp
review by Rory Brennan
Insightful, provoking, igniting
Too clever by half is a term of disparagement, but here I turn belittlement into high praise. A critic should be too clever by half, should startle with original perceptions and provoke more. The critic must give the writer a kick in the pants, claimed G.K. Chesterton. And the reader needs one too, one may assume. The flamboyantly erudite Declan Kiberd is in the ‘by half’ category; he is no Dr Plod. Plods put things in order, research, classify: that is their role. Nor does Kiberd indulge in academic-speak, which has ways of calling a spade a space rocket. He does use the ugly word postlude in the preface, but we get no more of this. The problem with Kiberd is he is often too clever by three-quarters. His insights run away with themselves. They bubble and boil over. Is this effervescence a virtue, or does it obscure his sharp contributions to our understanding?
Like his Inventing Ireland, After Ireland is a catchy title with little depth. ‘Ireland’ may have been ‘over’ previously—the Normans, the Flight of the Earls, the Act of Union, partition. One resorts to inverted commas to deal with this sort of thing—it merely irritates. Kiberd himself tells us his mother did not like the ‘inventing’ notion either. So, which writers are included? The usual subjects (note ‘subjects’) and a few surprising suspects. Beckett (of course), Frank O’Connor, the forgotten novelist Richard Power, Heaney, Edna O’Brien, Banville, Friel, Derek Mahon, Evan Boland, McGahern. Who are the new suspects? Notably Claire Keegan, Joseph O’Connor and, most surprisingly, the children’s writer Kate Thompson. His suspects are well chosen. Like all readers I will of course argue the case for exclusions that deserve consideration; mine are the deadly Clare Boylan and the laconic, cosmopolitan Aidan Higgins.
Beckett references are sprinkled throughout. I go along with Kiberd in celebrating Joyce, less so with Beckett. I have tried since the age of sixteen (through both ends of a telescope) to find value in his minimalism. His sayings—one cannot call them aphorisms—such as the sun shining on the nothing new, fail better etc. are flat and feeble, yet they are cited here and elsewhere as if they were gems from La Rochefoucauld. Where I concur is that his characters are figures that have staggered out of a post-WWII, post-Holocaust landscape. They struck a timely or time-disjointed chord. Beckett demonstrated formidable courage in defying the Gestapo in occupied France. But that does not give him carte blanche to castigate his family for ‘gorging’ while Europe starved. The Irish have had enough of hunger. Empty Irish bellies would scarcely have helped rout Hitler. Kiberd trots out the weary witticism about on which side were the Irish neutral. This might raise a titter in the seminar, but is all too typical of anecdotes recited with approval here.
The Northern catastrophe is acutely scrutinised in Seamus Deane’s fiction. Kiberd, however, picks Brian Friel’s most harrowing play, Faith Healer, to illustrate his art, the best of a formidable output. He reviews the sexual dilemmas and political paradoxes of McGuinness’s Observe the sons of Ulster marching towards the Somme that make it such a fierce and seminal play. He also dissects the antics of deprived alcoholics in the ‘new kitchen’ drama of Conor McPherson. But Tom Kilroy, the most probing playwright of the lot in his examination of varieties of Irishness, is not in the index. The Index of Church with a capital I is the model that John Banville uses to evoke the repressiveness of 1950s Ireland. In Copernicus’s hesitation to publish his planetary discoveries, he found a metaphor for a stultified Ireland. But Wexford then was not sixteenth-century Poland. There was a cane in the classroom but no rack in the dungeon. The Catholic Church was reactionary, as, sadly, was the Irish-language revival after its initial flowering. Kiberd accepts it was hindered by the tokenism (and futile compulsion) that still fatuously prevails, but not quite that its champions smothered it. Sentimentalism keeping it half-alive/half-dead may express it better. Left to those who loved it, Irish might have flourished with modest support. One of the best essays here is on a heroic publisher dedicated to its endurance.
That balance-the-book economics were inadequate for the new state is self-evident. Keynes pointed out we did the wrong thing very well. Then so did everyone else, he said. Flight from the land was common to all modern states, though ours was manifested in dispirited emigration. The success of the state lay in that it did not turn to dictatorship of right or left and remained neutral in WWII, a diplomatic achievement that alone made independence worthwhile. The success of the IT economy is to be applauded, as are the enriching and invigorating immigrants that assist it. The Irish recession was as much caused by Lehman Bros. as by the folly of politicians we elected.
But to read so many writers, and much of the criticism in this book, we are back in the mire of particularism (a sort of perpetual ‘poor us’). Take the myth, for example, that there was no middle-class or an ‘undeveloped’ bourgeoisie, which a walk through the inner suburbs of any city will show there clearly was. Self-pity is the real Irish vice, not drink. Self-laceration too. Irish writing has not entirely ignored the fact that millions lived happy, fulfilled and reasonably comfortable lives. But writing purges the pain of a society, so the material is necessarily dark. Chesterton is derided for his depiction of an illusory Merrie England, but the accepted narrative of a repressive, abusive, impoverished, puritan Ireland can be just as absurd and misleading. Kiberd’s work provokes. Those extra dashes of insight I mentioned awake, even infuriate, the reader. Kiberd has his apple cart and it is a delight to upset it. Maybe nothing could please him more. He is an engaged writer, as the French say—so engage him.
Rory Brennan is an award-winning poet and former Director of Poetry Ireland.