Can Corkery make a comeback?
Her selection of his writings bears out her argument, as he homes in on received wisdom, new writing, new plays, new paintings, and sometimes muses, self-deprecatingly, on where he finds himself among the intellectual currents of his time.
For all the stultification attributed to him, his tone throughout is positive, even buoyant, and Laird tells us that a one-man show of his paintings was held in Dublin when he was 76.
Corkery’s earliest essays appeared in the Leader, DP Moran’s hard-hitting nationalist weekly, the first one (not included here) on 14 September 14th, 1901, when he was 23. He continued to write and publish for more than 50 years.
This collection is organised thematically, however, rather than chronologically.
Part one, The Irish Language and Gaelic Culture, is by far the longest. It starts with Russian Models for Irish Litterateurs (1916), includes 50 pages from The Hidden Ireland and ends with reviews and other writing from the 1950s.
Part two, Representing Ireland, begins and ends with the Yeats family, from a testy piece about a lecture in Cork by WB in 1905 to a wide-ranging review of Jack B’s retrospective exhibition in Dublin 40 years later. In between are Corkery’s views on work by John Millington Synge and Liam O’Flaherty and on The Colonial Branch of Anglo-Irish Literature.
Part Three, just 20 pages on The Nation and the State, includes The Story of Two Indians, a short, vivid piece from the Irish Press almost 60 years ago, which neatly illustrates part of Laird’s argument.
Laird’s part four, Contemporary Reception, adds much to the value of the writing samples that precede it, for here we find what Corkery’s fans and his detractors had to say about his work as it appeared. Frank O’Connor’s furious letter of June 25th, 1926, to the editor of the now-defunct Irish Tribune, in response to a rather flowery Corkery essay called A Landscape in the West, was followed by another from Seán Ó Faoláin, and Laird’s inclusion of all three documents gives a flavour of the urgency and animation of cultural debate in the early Free State.
Picking through the endnotes
The whole offering would be more easily appreciated, however, if text headings included information about who wrote which piece (in the case of part four) and when, and whether we are dealing with a book review, a newspaper article or a chapter from a book. Some of this information is given in the table of contents, which a happy reader rarely consults, but too often, to get to grips with what is being discussed, we have to pick our way among the endnotes, which is a pity, because this book is otherwise an excellent, illuminating read.
A useful chronology of Corkery’s life and times occupies 11 pages after the preface. From it, we learn that he was one year old when Patrick Pearse was born and the National Land League was founded, and that he died the year after President John F Kennedy visited Ireland and John McGahern published The Barracks.