Declan Kiberd interview: ‘The political elites are much less literate now’

In a wide-ranging interview, the influential critic discusses the Gaelic Revival’s genius, culture as a site of struggle, the folly of compulsory Irish, today’s shy students and his subversively happy childhood

Declan Kiberd: There’s no point in beating ourselves up that we don’t have people quite like Yeats or Joyce or Collins or Lady Gregory or Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington; it’s better just to be glad that they came at all. Like the Renaissance in Italy happens once in a thousand years and that’s enough

Declan Kiberd: There’s no point in beating ourselves up that we don’t have people quite like Yeats or Joyce or Collins or Lady Gregory or Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington; it’s better just to be glad that they came at all. Like the Renaissance in Italy happens once in a thousand years and that’s enough


In the mid-nineties, I undertook an MA thesis on Edna O’Brien. At the time, O’Brien had not exactly been embraced by the academy; critical writing available then included an essay from 1967, a biography from 1974 and a Paris Review interview from 1985. Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland only came to my attention a few years later, but it had a refreshing attitude: O’Brien was “...arguably the writer who made many of the subsequent advances in Irishwomen’s writing possible”. In a paragraph, O’Brien had been afforded her rightful place in literary criticism.

When Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us was published, I was at the top of the queue. It turned out to be another gem. It was some time later before I saw his eclectic brain and articulate delivery in action, when he gave a talk on Dubliners in the James Joyce Centre.

Promped by a chance sighting, I contacted him to propose an interview, but heard nothing back. Eight months later, an email arrived: “For a man who passed you by bike all those months ago on Bull Wall...” I thought I had a stalker for a moment, then I read further: my email had gotten lost in Notre Dame’s system and he had only just received it; he would be happy to chat with me.

O’Connell House on Merrion Square is one of those Georgian buildings that tourists love to photograph, its website says. This is where Kiberd has his office when he is in Dublin. He is Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies and Professor of English and Irish language and literature at the University of Notre Dame.

His office was at the very top back of the four story Georgian, and I arrived, panting. “It was a long trek for the servants,” he greeted me cheerfully, with the kind of handshake that has gone out of fashion – warm, firm, and sincere.

I wanted to start by talking about Inventing Ireland, where I first learned about Declan Kiberd. It is an extraordinary book in its breadth and accessibility, and I want to ask about its origins – how and when it began – and if you had any idea of the scope of it when you started writing?

I’d beeen teaching all those writers in UCD, so I suppose I was unconsciously writing it for a long time. I think what happened also was, when my father retired, which he did in his mid-seventies, he began reading for the first time in his life, and I gave him a lot of my books about Irish literature, mainly ones by my old teacher, Richard Ellmann, which are all masterpieces. And he loved them. He said once to me, “Why can’t you write like Ellmann?”, because I had written two more traditionally technical academic books before that. And I said, “But no one can write like Ellmann.”

I kind of got interested in this idea that we should reach beyond a merely academic audience to the wider lay intelligentia. And it so happened that around that time, my wife was at home, we had three children, I needed a bit of extra money – the family did – and I wrote columns each week in The Irish Times. Conor Brady asked me to, and it actually turned out to be a great discipline, because I was trying to reach a wider audience in a more concrete style. So, I then decided I’d try to write a book about the revival of Irish literature, imagining someone like my father as the reader. And that’s what I did.

The sad irony was it was published in 1995, September, but he had died in July, and I remember actually, saying to my brother, we should put this in a parcel and send it to him. But where the hell would you send it? And my brother said, “Fred Kiberd, The World, The Universe,” like Stephen Dedalus. But that was really the idea, that... I felt what I did in university every day should be comprehensible beyond the university walls.

There was another thing. I could give you so many things to do with my father connected with my writing, but I remember in 1982, the centenary of Joyce, sitting in the kitchen in Clontarf, listening with my Da – my mother was upstairs, like Molly Bloom – listening to the recital of Ulysses, a brilliant thing by the RTÉ players, and he looked across at me in the middle – as mentioned in my Ulysses book – and he said, “Is this what you do in UCD every day?” And I said, “Sort of, yeah,” and he harrumphed like an outraged taxpayer. He then listened a bit more, to one of Bloom’s soliloquies, and he uttered what I think is the greatest line of Joyce criticism I’ve ever encountered; “Do you not think it might be better not to have quite so rich an inner life?”

So, I’ve always thought of him as an incredibly brilliant critic who never wrote a line of criticism, an epitome of sanity for whom a book like that should be written. And I did imagine him really as the reader of it. It was a very strange thing to do, wasn’t it?

No, and what a shame he didn’t get to read it.

In one way he enabled the whole thing, so it didn’t matter. Anyway, no one is as good as Ellmann, so it’s just as well he didn’t get to make the comparison.

He wouldn’t have held back, I suspect.

No. I mean, Ellmann was the greatest.

It’s now 20 years. I know there was another edition, in 2002...

Really? It’s one of those books that stayed in print. It came out in ’95 and it stayed in print ever since, and it would have shifted quite a lot of copies for a work of literary criticism. History books tend to sell better in Ireland than lit crit, but that is one of the lit crit books that did well, and it sold well abroad also. But I would never have guessed, when it came out, that it would still be in print, and would have stayed in print across the years.

At the time it was slightly risky – people wouldn’t appreciate that now, but taking a post-colonial view of literature at a time when the peace process still wasn’t absolutely certain, was maybe not the most desirable thing to be promoting in a university. It just so happened that the peace process did bed down around the mid-nineties, and anyway, post-colonial theory was a bit of a rage on global campuses in that decade, so instead of being , as I thought of it, partly as a minority, beleaguered voice against the revisionist consensus, it turned out in a way to be fashionable quite quickly, in ways I hadn’t honestly intended.

That was fortuitous.

It was a lucky book.

A lot has happened in the 20 years since it was published, politically, economically, and in literature as well. Is there a sequel coming?

Funny you ask, I just edited, with my old UCD friend and colleague, PJ Mathews, a thing called Handbook of the Irish Revival [published following this interview by the Abbey Theatre], and it’s about 500 pages. It’s basically the main texts of the revival, but quite a few forgotten, more obscure ones, alongside the obvious ones, and it covers very much the same period. And I suppose at the same time it bears the mark of this present moment of its origin. For example, one of the things that strikes me now about the revival is, as Ireland is trying to come out of a period of dire austerity, how many lessons there are in what that generation did a hundred years ago.

When you think of the famine, the Parnell split, the incredible political disillusionment and economic underdevelopment, out of which this amazing revival of thought came, it would give you hope in the present moment. Also, some of the debates, like Pearse complaining about the trial by results in schools, and the kind of businessification of the academy, have many echoes in current controversy. So I think they were an amazing generation, the revival generation.

When we began doing the handbook, I was full of intent to expose the mediocrity of the current regime by comparing it with these illustrious predecessors, but what I think now is that a generation like that comes along once in a millenium. There’s no point in beating ourselves up that we don’t have people quite like Yeats or Joyce or Collins or Lady Gregory or Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington; it’s better just to be glad that they came at all. Like the Renaissance in Italy happens once in a thousand years and that’s enough. I think the same about those people; they were just so magnificent that – Ellmann said in one of his books, the book about Joyce – we’re still learning to be their contemporaries, a hundred years on.

It is interesting. It feels to me that modernism is having its moment now too, a hundred years on.

Yes. I think so. And also, maybe people are more aware even now, than they were then, that culture is the site of most of our struggles, that with the globalisation of economies, and maybe even the loss of sovereignty, in many cases, culture is more and more the way through which people represent themselves. And you think back to Hyde, and Augusta Gregory, they understood that from the beginning. To them, the threat came in the form of the yellow press, mass media, which they were making a countervailing strike against – you can even read Ulysses, as I’ve done, as a counter-newspaper. Nowadays you could say the equivalent threat comes from social media and all that globalised grunge. But there’s a sense in which the debate is still the same. It hasn’t shifted much in a hundred years.

When you say “culture is the site of most of our struggles” I am reminded of Isis, destroying statues and artefacts in Mosul and elsewhere, which was something I wanted to ask you about.

I’ve always thought that regimes which destroy cultural heritage define the level of their own obnoxiousness in the act. You think of the way the Nazis burnt books, or even of the way the Provisional IRA burnt the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, or the fact that someone like my friend Edward Said’s book on Orientalism was actually banned in parts of the occupied territories. It’s incredible to think of a work of literary criticism being banned, but there it is.

I think that the people who do this probably are aware that culture is the site of struggle, and to that extent are paying culture the homage of taking it seriously. The trouble is that they are so intolerant of alternative cultures that they can’t cope. But yeah, it’s a very worrying thing. I was surprised that there wasn’t more outrage expressed. There was a very fine article recently in the New York Review of Books about Mosul, which you’d expect, of course. But I would have thought that the ordinary daily newspapers would have got more exercised about it than they did.

Of course, you don’t want to end up like William Faulkner, where someone said to him, because he said once, if he had to choose between his grandmother and Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn he’d always choose the Ode, and when they went back and said to him in outrage, “surely human life is sacred”, he said, “No, the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of grandmothers”. Now I’m not trying to take that position, and I don’t think one has to, actually. It’s a false choice...

The resistance to globalisation among young people often defines itself in terms of cultural value... I’m very aware, for instance, of how the revival of the Irish language as a movement has changed since my youth, when it was more a nationalist option, part of being patriotic. Now it’s actually counter-cultural in the minds of younger people who speak Irish or run Radió na Life, or whatever, and would see themselves as anti-globalisers, rather than Irish nationalists; and the Irish language is a creative weapon in that particular struggle.

Then there’s the way the Irish language was taught...

I was lucky, my mother went to the first Gaelscoil for girls in Dublin, Scoil Bhríde, and she gave me a very full and five-dimensional view of Irish, and also made sure I went to the Gaeltacht at an early age so I got kind of confident about it (and actually Belgrove was a very good school for Irish in those years; the head teacher was excellent too).

But it is a tragedy, I think, what happened to Irish in the education system. I studied Irish in Trinity, and my old teacher there, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, who was the last great novelist in Irish, he said, “Tá an Gaeilge ró-cheanngailte le scolaíocht” (Irish is too tied up with schooling). What made people think that the children of the nation should be the ones who implemented language revival? This was like, in America today, people passing the duty of political correctness onto those in the classroom and thinking you can change the society through the classroom – you can’t, unless people want to change anyway.

I think the way Irish was taught made it more a threat than a gift for many people. It was full of irregular verbs and harsh discipline. Even the texts selected were quite gloomy at times and filled with self-laceration. I actually think that most people who survived all that and still ended up loving Irish, including many younger people today, did so in spite of the educational mauling rather than because of it, but they often strike me as having a very fine attitude.

I never believed, by the way, in compulsory Irish. I think it was a disastrous, counter-productive policy. I think if it had been optional maybe only one in five kids would have studied it but they would have done it to a much happier, higher level. It would have been better in the end for Irish to be done like that. I think the compulsory Irish was a disastrous policy and I think even now it’s not too late to rescind it. I think they should.

The debate comes around again and again, and they still do nothing to change things.

They’re afraid to. You know, a fascinating thing: Joe Lee, the historian, once pointed out that the government published, in 1975, when I was a graduate student, a report on public attitudes to Irish which found that just over 90 per cent thought it was essential to identity, but only about 22 per cent believed it would actually still survive in the 21st century, which we’re now in, 25 years later. And at the time we thought, well, that’s a terrible statement by Irish people, they believe something but they don’t believe they can do it. This was the first time the government had found out what people actually thought about Irish. And I remember asking Joe Lee, “why do you think that was?” and he had a very good answer. He said the people who loved Irish over the previous 50 years of the State’s existence were terrified that everyone else mightn’t love it as much as they did, and the people who hated it were terrified that everyone else mightn’t hate it as much. So, he said, the movement of Irish cows and goats was more studied by Irish sociology than attitudes towards Irish speakers and Irish speaking. I thought that was fascinating. The government didn’t want to know, the government. And in a sense it’s the same fear that drives current policy, the fear of actually having a debate – we’re having this ludicrous debate now about whether we could have a president aged 22, it’s just nonsense – but we should be having a debate about whether kids have to learn Irish.

While we’re on the subject of education. . . you mention in Ulysses and Us “the growing corporate stranglehold over universities”. From the outside, it feels almost hopeless. There seems to be no respect for the humanities, and as a result, no funding. Most of the funding seems to go to the sciences, and anything that can, however loosely, claim to be science.

It goes to the applied sciences. You ask a professor of physics in UCD and they’ll tell you how little subvention they’ve got. I made all these points in my time as head of English in UCD at meetings of the academic council, and the professors of physics and chemistry would come up and say; “our complaints are exactly the same as yours. Anyone who practices a traditional, pure science is just as disadvantaged.” This was around the time when we read on the front of the Irish Times there were 13 suddenly appointed professors and lecturers in applied food science in UCD, who’d been swiped, most of them, from Trinity.

But the marginalising of the arts is dreadful policy. It is very possible in the next 10 years that the Italian department which helped to produce Joyce in UCD, the French department in Trinity which helped to produce Beckett, may actually disappear, if they are allowed to go like Russian and other departments have gone. And this in a country which is trying to promote cultural tourism, and hold out Joyce and Beckett – quite rightly, its crowning glories – it just seems such a weird contradiction of a policy.

We have Aosdána, and the Arts Council and artists’ tax exemptions. What are your thoughts on these innovations?

I’ve always thought that Aosdána was a good idea, and I’ve friends in California who came and studied it, thinking they might duplicate it there. As you know, every second person in California is an artist, so you can imagine the tax implications! But I’m old enough to remember when Aosdána came in. I think it was an attempt at expiation because of all the censorship which had not only hurt writers, but had denied many of them a livelihood in their own country. And then suddenly they’re all ok, the government is trying to get onside with them, and Mr Haughey brings in not just the artists’ exemption but also the guaranteed income for people elected to Aosdána. It is, I think, a good thing, that the arts, even in that limited way, be recognised. Better have it than not. And it makes a huge difference to many people – most artists are not in the superearning Bono bracket.

I think arts are actually more important in ordinary people’s lives than our governors realise. This is where I think the problem lies, that the political elites are much less literate now than they would have been when I was young. When I was young you had people like Conor Cruise O’Brien, John Kelly, David Thornley. There were lots of people in the Dáil who had written books, who knew what it was not just to read a book, but to write one; it’s harder to imagine that now. So I think, at the same time, when someone like Heaney gets the Nobel Prize, or when there’s a poll about favourite poems, people do get involved. The news of Heaney’s prize, or even of his death, is front-page news. It’s not lost on page 15 the way it might be in a German or an English newspaper. So I think the arts are still kind of important to people’s self-description and self-imaging. When you think of the way, for instance, virtually no wedding or funeral is complete without a poem. . . The real problem is the disconnect between all that and politicians. I mean, I’m sure people in Aosdána and in the Arts Council try to make the bit of money they have go the longest way. I think the real problem is that politics has become such a specialist activity that it seems no longer to attract – maybe with the exception of Mannix Flynn – artists or intellectuals, but it did when I was young.

It’s an interesting angle. And of course you wrote Ulysses and Us to demonstrate the importance of the arts in everyday life – Ulysses and Us: the Art of Everyday Living, to give its full title.

I’ve always thought that Joyce was allergic to the idea of bohemia, of a separate enclave for artists. I mention some of the stories in the book, like when Scott Fitzgerald came up to him and said, could he kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses? Joyce laughed and said, you can if you want to but that hand has done a lot of other things as well. I think that Joyce wanted just to celebrate the everyday. He was troubled by the way art had become a specialist activity in the second half of the nineteenth century, and in particular the way artists had become contemptuous of ordinary people and everyday life. I think he felt that World War I as a cataclysm was possible because impressionable young men had been filled with the kind of anomie and a sense of worthlessness, the worthlessness of everyday life, and they were suffering from boredom, innocence maybe, all kinds of things. But what Joyce realised was, yes, one way of unlearning all that and realising the immensity of the average is in the trenches, but a better way is to write a book like Ulysses. You know that old joke that Tom Stoppard tells: “What did you do in the Great War, Mr Joyce? I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?” I think he is trying to recover reverence for the ordinary which he felt had been lost among the intelligentsia.

Do you feel that Ulysses and Us has had an impact, in English departments, to start there – did it succeed in the way you hoped it would?

I have got a lot of letters about that book from people who said nice things about it and how it helped them understand the real book. There weren’t all that many of them from English departments, to be honest with you. I think the specialists in Joyce, of whom I’m not one, didn’t come out to play about that book. It was more generously reviewed in broadsheet newspapers or by what you might call lay intellectuals. Particularly in Britain, which was great, because Ellmann had always said to me when I was a student years ago and he was the great Joycean, “my mission is to bring Joyce at last to the Brits”, and I think he felt he never, quite, had done it. But Joyce scholarship is a technically very expert zone, and my book is against the whole idea of specialism and expertise; it’s saying that really what you need to understand that book is a basic level of education that Joyce had at the age of 18 on leaving Belvedere: knowledge of Hamlet; how water gets into the domestic tap; how a classic book like Homer’s Odyssey is structured, and how this can all be mapped on to our own everyday life. But I wouldn’t think too many people have broken out into a cold sweat in English departments because of Ulysses and Us.

It’s interesting, because I mentioned Ulysses and Us to a friend who is currently studying Ulysses, and she hadn’t come across it. She was very annoyed that it wasn’t included on any of her reading lists.

That book, like the other one, is a kind of overflow of the enjoyment I had with students for ages in classrooms in UCD. I mean, some people have slagged it and said that it’s turning Ulysses into a self-help manual that should be in the “personal growth” sections of bookshops. But I do actually think that Stephen Dedalus is suffering from low-level depression, like so many recent graduates, and it is this meeting with this older man, who may not be smarter but is definitely wiser, that lifts him out of himself. It is about depression and how to overcome it. Indeed, my father was probably grappling with that idea when he made that wonderful comment he did about not having quite so rich an inner life. I often think about Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Public Gar and Private Gar, and the way Private Gar is full of these interior monologues which are so articulate but which actually disable Public Gar from doing anything. And I think that Joyce’s interior monologues work in the same way: that Stephen is mucked up in a way by his recently acquired UCD degree and all his learning which is not being put into the service of actuality. But this is what Bloom can teach him. Maybe academics don’t all want to hear this, for very good reasons. Because their families only eat if they maintain the dubious conversation that Joyce is regretting (laughs).

A thing that also struck me about many who wrote to me about the Ulysses book is: they would all be like me, pretty senior in years. And I think, maybe this was a slightly subversive thing to do, to accuse Joyce of purveying wisdom, rather than the pyrotechnical style that we all admire and know about. To me it’s one of the miracles about Joyce, that I never fully explained and don’t think anyone could. . . I recently was studying The Dead with my American students here in Notre Dame and one of them pointed out to me: he was 25, Declan, when he wrote this story, how did he know so much, how was he so wise, so balanced, so incisive and profound? And he wasn’t, as we know, in his own life; he was making a hell of a mess of things. I suppose maybe it had to do with the fact that the father was alcoholic, and he’d had to have a crash course in all kinds of things. But this is one of the mysteries of Tolstoy, of all the great literature, how people who often muck up in their marriages or in the world can somehow remain serene in their art. It’s why we read them, I suppose.

Can I ask you the question that fiction writers are asked, but rarely academics, about your writing process? I know academics have to divide their time between teaching and administration and research. Do you have a particular routine, or time of day, or year, when you write best?

I’m a teacher, ultimately. I don’t really think of myself as a writer. As I say, my writing is an overflow of the teaching, really. In the early years I wrote a lot at home, because in UCD I was very busy, I never had any peace in my office. We actually had a big table tennis table in the house in Haddon Road and it was brilliant because I just would take it over for weeks on end and have bits of chapters laid out, and I began to imagine. . . often with old lectures just in little piles. I find writing in the morning much easier to do, especially the older I got: I probably get tired in the second half of the day. And I did a lot of writing at home in the early years. In more recent years I actually went to Annaghmakerrig. I wrote most of Ulysses and Us in Annaghmakerrig and it was such a happy experience. Just looking at it now, once or twice, I feel a certain enthusiasm even in the prose that I remember feeling when I wrote it. So I’ve gone back to Annaghmakerrig in recent years. . . I’ve just finished a book on Irish writing from Beckett to the Present, most of which I wrote there as well. I love it. I think it’s a great place. I love the company of dancers, actors, writers, painters, all there together having the dinner at seven o’clock. It’s a lovely discipline to the day, that you’d go off and do your own thing, you can have a couple of walks, but then you’re all together in the evening.

You know you’ll get fed...

Fed very well. But also enjoy the company. I had such fun the last time I was there. It turned out that Miss Panti was there, shortly after the controversy Rory had been plunged into, but also the German translator of City of Bohane, very nice man, very engaged with the text. He would come down and say, what is “dirtying his kaks” and we Irish at the table would have a debate designed to help him. And then he asked about stations, what are the stations, Mass comes to houses. I had a very learned exchange with Panti, because Panti was quite sure it was after someone died, and I know it’s not. Anyway, he’s from Mayo, so he was able to speak with some authority apart from his natural theatrical presence, so I think I probably lost that argument. But it’s a wonderful place, where you meet people like that and have all kinds of interesting encounters, but after a good day’s work, which is a terrific feeling. I couldn’t praise it too highly. And it’s another of those things which the much-maligned Mr Haughey – for all his flaws, and they were considerable – did actually help to make it possible. Tyrone Guthrie put it up, of course, and to him the main credit goes, but Haughey realised that this was a good way of encouraging artists.

I know the answer to this is no, but are you ever likely to write a blog?

No. I wrote a novel the year after my father died which I am, sometimes, tempted to try and rework. It’s based on a very subversive idea, of the completely happy Irish childhood. I want it to be not a To School Through the Fields account of growing up in Clontarf, something that has a bit of edge but still is about how relatively untroubled the childhood of my generation, in that particular place, happened to be. I’m hoping at some stage to go up to Annaghmakerrig and see if I can do anything with it. But that was probably a blog of my years up to the age of 18.

On anything after that, I would draw a discreet veil. And I’m not one of those people. . . I’m appalled at the self-revelations late at night in which people engage online. I think if Joyce came back. . . Some of these blogs make Molly Bloom look like a First Communion book. But Joyce would be very interested if he came back at the way in which people reveal themselves and their thought processes through blogging and the internet and all the rest of it. To me it’s a strange thing about the younger generation, how shy they have become compared with the people I taught in Trinity and UCD in the Seventies and early Eighties. How incredibly shy, particularly in terms of talking about feelings to do with the books they’re reading and chatting about, and yet how incredibly self-revealing these same people can be in the solitude in front of a laptop or a burning screen late at night. Or indeed when they’re drinking together, again, small hours of the morning stuff.

When I was young we all went home on the 11 o’clock bus; people only go out on it now. I think we were less shy than the current generation but we were also less reckless in these moments of apparent self-revelation. And I think that maybe the binge drinking and the blogging, and the attention to the screen at three in the morning, is in some way an outcome of the shyness. And it compounds it, makes it even more of a problem, because moments of intensity are less and less social ones. It’s difficult to know where to draw lines with children and the internet. I became amazed in UCD, at all this. . . because, when you’ve been dealing with people 18-22 for four decades, you do begin to notice shifts, and I was astonished at how shy they’d become.

Handbook of the Irish Revival, co-edited by Declan Kiberd and PJ Mathews is published by Abbey Theatre Press.  Irish Writing from Beckett to the Present is forthcoming. Declan Kiberd is also writing a book on how Beckett can change your life and make you a better person. He is not giving up on his attempt to make it into the self-help section of the bookstore!
Paula McGrath is the author of Generation (John Murray)

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