Can Corkery make a comeback?
Angela Bourkereviews Daniel Corkery’s Cultural Criticism: Selected Writings, Edited and with an introduction by Heather Laird, Cork University Press, 292pp, ¤39
Sometimes, if the design is good enough and the title well enough chosen, you can judge a book by its cover. Gerard Dillon’s painting Evening Star, now in the Crawford Collection in Cork, is on the cover of Daniel Corkery’s Cultural Criticism: Selected Writings. An outdoor scene in the west of Ireland, it shows whitewashed cottages with a sea inlet in blues and purples behind. In the foreground, three white hens peck in front of a stone wall where a man leans, in cap and braces, his face and hands reddened by the setting sun.
Dillon’s vivid colours and trademark bold patterning tell us that this book will explore the territory of what it means to be Irish, but we understand too that it won’t be the land of the John Hinde postcard.
Much is familiar, certainly. A nationalist refrain runs through Corkery’s writings, often condescendingly sectarian or sexist. Yet these pieces, mostly in English, with just a couple of reviews in Irish, are so cranky and unapologetic, so energetic and opinionated, that it’s hard not to take them on their own terms, and surprisingly easy to admire them.
Daniel Corkery (1878-1964), scarcely a household name these days, is likely to be more talked about as this decade of centenaries progresses. He wrote plays and short stories, reviews and polemic; became a national-school teacher, counting Frank O’Connor and sculptor Seamus Murphy among his pupils; taught art and woodwork for the Co Cork Technical Instruction Committee (his forefathers were carpenters), and ended up as a professor of English at University College Cork. Corkery mentored O’Connor, Murphy and others, including Seán Ó Faoláin as they built their careers, and his best-known work, The Hidden Ireland (1924), about the Irish-language high culture that survived in 18th-century Munster, was a sort of nationalist bible until revisionism made it the book the chattering classes loved to disdain.
O’Connor and Ó Faoláin were among the first to move beyond Corkery’s kind of argument, which Ó Faoláin characterised as espousing a “national tradition” that was “narrow fearful always for its own safety”. He and O’Connor, he argued in 1926, “coming out of an Ireland of fight and conquest”, imagined something larger, less chauvinistic. The generation gap was strewn with wrecked memories of 1916, the Treaty and the Civil War. Corkery became increasingly prescriptive, and his disciples became his most bitter critics. As scholars sneered at his view of history, his name became a byword, not quite fairly, for bigotry and insularity.
Heather Laird’s title flags a radical reassessment of Corkery’s considerable nonfiction output and a recovery of his standing as a radical, influential thinker. “Cultural criticism” and “postcolonial” are terms he probably never encountered, much less used, but Laird’s elegant introduction, ‘Daniel Corkery as Postcolonial Critic’, does not disappoint. “In the one-paragraph dismissals of Corkery that are to be found in so many post-1960s studies of Irish history, literature and culture,” Laird writes, “Corkery’s analysis and the questions that he posed tend to be disregarded in favour of the solutions that he offered.” While acknowledging the trenchant criticisms levelled at him by 20th-century writers in both Irish and English, Laird carefully situates Corkery’s writings among the kinds of international resistance to colonial mind games that have made the French-Algerian Frantz Fanon, the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Indian Homi K Bhabha stellar names in critical theory since the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s respectively.