From the Archives: why Irish authors write with one eye on England and the other on America
Sean O’Faolain (front row, left) and Daniel Corkery (middle row, left) in Cork in 1929: to what extent could O’Faolain be deemed to conform to the standards laid down by Corkery for the portrayal of Irish life?
From The Irish Times, Monday, December 3rd, 1934: MODERN IRISH NOVELS, DEPENDENCE UPON OUTSIDE READERS, LECTURE BY MR. FRANK CARTY
An address on “The Modern Novel” was delivered by Mr. Frank Carty at the meeting of the Blackrock Literary and Debating Society on Saturday night.
Mr. N. Proud presided.
Mr. Carty confined his paper mainly to a criticism of novels written by Irishmen in the English language, and asked to what extent could they be deemed to conform to the standards laid down by Daniel Corkery for the portrayal of Irish life. According to Corkery, Irish life bore the marks of three great forces – the religious consciousness of the people; Irish rationalism and the land. The religious consciousness of the people was so vast, so deep and so dramatic that one wonders how it is possible for a writer dealing with any phase of Irish life, to avoid trenching on it. Nationalism was one of the deepest things in Irish life, and the influence of the land extended everywhere.
A HURLING MATCH
Having quoted Corkery’s impressions of an All-Ireland final hurling match at Thurles, and his remark that “one could not see Yeats, A.E., Stephens, Dunsany, Moore or Robinson standing out from the crowd as natural and indigenous interpreters of it,” he asked: What of the clever novelists who had sprung up recentlv? Writers such as Liam O’Flaherty, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Peadar O’Donnell and Kate O’Brien, he said, were one hundred per cent Irish, and would be quite competent to express and interpret the mind and the soul of Corkery’s hurling crowd. It was unfortunate that some Irish writers traded largely on lust and secured their effects with sanguinary oaths and scenes of violence. The partial truths of the pictures thus created conveyed just as false an impression of Ireland as Russell’s fairies and the leprechauns of James Stephens. The conditions under which Irish novelists worked governed to a great extent the results produced.
The writers of other countries wrote primarily for their own people. Irish writers, however, worked with one eye on England and the other on America. Out of a list of thirty Irish writers, whom Mr. Carty named, and which included G. B. Shaw, St. J. Ervine, Shane Leslie, Sean O’Casey, Liam O’Flaherty, Kate O’Brien, Lord Dunsany, James Joyce, Stephen MacKenna, C. K. Munro, Conal O’Riordan, E. Temple Thurston, and James Stephens, he said, all lived abroad and wrote for a foreign public. Most of them, however, continued to find their matter in Irish life, but their choice and treatment of it were governed or were imposed on them by alien considerations.
All those expatriate writers lived by the pen, but they could only with difficulty say that of more than two or three of their homestaying writers. With the exception of Canada, Australia, and similar British colonies, Ireland was the only country under the sun whose writers were almost completely dependent on a “foreign market.” Hence the Handy Andys, the leprechauns, the fairies, our amusing peasant, and the lust and violence of the present fashion; hence all the novels which exploit Irish life for the benefit of the stranger instead of expressing it in a normal way.
PAYMENT OR PRAISE?
Could this regrettable state of affairs be remedied? Could Irish writers be blamed for feeling that there was more sincerity in payment than in praise, and for turning their pens into more lucrative channels than they could find at home? We are not a book buying people, but we are more than anxious to borrow books. It was strange that many who spent freely on theatres, dinners, cards, etc., should begrudge a few shillings for a book. Three-fourths of the limited market for new novels was a library demand, and the need of a larger margin of profit on small sales compelled publishers to charge 7s. 6d. to 10s. 6d. for a novel. A new novel which sold 5,000 copies was considered a great success, and the majority hovered around the 2,000 mark. The writer got about £40 or £60 for twelve months hard labour, and the publisher got very little more. An increase in the sale of the work of Irish novelists in this country would be one of the most effective ways of encouraging native talent to conform to native and normal standards.
A vote of thanks was passed to the speaker, on the motion of Mr. Eoin P. O Caoimh, seconded by Mr. J H. Hutchinson.