Hostility to modern IRA sours tone of odd Irish catechism
Contentious essays meander between dull historical narrative and weak literary criticism
The Famine memorial in Dublin: Tom Garvin concludes that "the entire IRA tradition feeds off enduring memories of British indifference to the suffering of their putative ancestors". Photograph: Kate Geraghty
There are several points in 'The Books That Define Ireland' where the reader suspects a covert homage to the many personalities of Brian O'Nolan, above
The Books that Define Ireland
Bryan Fanning and Tom Garvin
The Books That Define Ireland is a collection of 29 essays that chart aspects of the island’s social and political thought since the 17th century. Each is written by Bryan Fanning or Tom Garvin, and each interprets a different book arranged in order of publication. The result is an uneven collection that starts slowly and generates interest only when the two authors begin to introduce personal experience into passages of otherwise pedestrian critique.
Garvin’s pen portrait of a gruff and growling Todd Andrews is humorously insightful of the revolutionary generation that remade Ireland in less than radical form (when Garvin asked Andrews why he closed the Bray to Harcourt Street Railway Line in 1959, Andrews grumbled “I got fed up sitting here in Dundrum watching those Freemasons going into Trinity [College] from Foxrock to their meetings at the taxpayer’s expense”). Fanning captures Nell McCafferty’s subversive humour in her suggestion that men wear a pair of golden balls on their lapels to signal their refusal to have sex with women of childbearing age. This was McCafferty’s response to the passing out of anti-abortion pins in the Dáil bar by the teenage son of a TD.
These are highlights of a book that meanders otherwise between dull historical narrative and weak literary criticism (the reduction of Ernie O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound to an unreliable romance is a case in point). The essays are dense with biography, history and textual summary. Together they form the catechism of an Ireland whose imaginative cartography is strangely alien. I was left with the impression that the two greatest historical threats to the island’s survival were masturbation and the IRA.
This is in part because the two shadows that reach longest over the books that Fanning and Garvin read are religion and statehood, a condition sometimes mistaken for nationality. From Geoffrey Keating to Elaine Byrne there is a set of common themes, variously expressed, which crest the waves of dispossession and migration that water the tributaries of cultural and political argument over the generations. Language, land, sovereignty and trade are high among them. However, it is arguable the degree to which these are specifically Irish, no matter that the blend of conditions were particular to a specific moment in time and place. Nowhere is this more evident than in the reminder to read Cecil Woodham Smith’s The Great Hunger . Her synthesis of anecdote, narrative and statistical fact gave tragic tone to the culpable mismanagement of a famine that warped Ireland’s social and political structure even as it destroyed its people. Here, as elsewhere, a persistent antagonism to later forms of republicanism in Ireland sours the tone of the accompanying essay. Thinking of the sorrow of starvation in Skibbereen, Garvin concludes that “the entire IRA tradition feeds off enduring memories of British indifference to the suffering of their putative ancestors, and many an atrocity has been justified by reference to ‘Black ’47’ ". This is a claim absurd in its imprecision.
It is one of a series that mars the book. Another such is the unlikely suggestion that “much of the pseudo-history of traditionalist outfits like the IRA is directly or indirectly inspired by Geoffrey Keating”. Another records Fanning’s disappointment that Patrick Pearse and “romantic nationalists like him … successfully co-opted the real Wolfe Tone”.
These are terms of fabulous confusion and just some of several points in The Books that Define Ireland where the reader suspects a covert homage to the many personalities of Brian O’Nolan. The cod insistence on the real revelation of some heretofore secret script is stretched to incredulity in the last essay’s suture of criminality in the republican movement to corruption in the body politic. Garvin suggests there that the dual traditions of civil disobedience and of military struggle against British rule have metastasised post-independence into a disregard for the State and its authority. The argument is worth discussion. Garvin’s conclusions are not. “It would be interesting,” he writes, “to see how many people involved in the recent wave of public scandals have Northern or Border backgrounds and close or distant IRA connections.” If there is some genius in the ability to be so vaguely offensive, there is little compelling in the argument, even if we take the North to begin somewhere on a line between south Dublin and Co Offaly.
The actual problem under observation is the degree to which a consensual idea of the State is accepted as the organising principle of society in Ireland, in either jurisdiction. Fintan O’Toole explored this area in his investigation into the Goodman beef business. This involved the sale of mislabelled meat for export to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, which was well known to be a bad creditor. Michael Noonan confirmed to the then cabinet that no insurance cover was provided to the Irish industry in case of nonpayment. This policy was reversed within days of a change of government in 1987 at a cost to the Irish taxpayer of £83 million. This seems now like a bargain. That it does tells us as much about global change as it does about Ireland.
The outside world is The Books that Define Ireland ’s shadow territory. Its general shape is that of the Atlantic, with occasional extension to further continents. John Mitchel’s Jail Journal is one of the great, hallucinatory and unrepentant accounts of 19th century imprisonment and exile. Mitchel was transported from Dublin’s North Wall by a Captain Hall who, it turns out, had written a book on China that Mitchel knew.
The North Wall is a rich site of coincidence. It was subject to much development in the mid to late 19th century as the point of entry and exit for a rich trade in goods and people, as some of the Easter rebels discovered when they were shipped out in a cattle boat in 1916. The river and quays were the heart and arteries of a city that experienced the world overlap of empires through trade and consumption. The stakes of this speculation have always been high. The scene in Joyce’s Dubliners when Jimmy Doyle is fleeced of his father’s money by a squad of offshore gamblers is a bitter prequel to the night of the bank guarantee: “Jimmy did not know exactly who was winning but he knew that he was losing. But it was his own fault for he frequently mistook his cards and the other men had to calculate his I.O.U.’s for him… How much had he written away?” This broad perspective is absent in The Books that Define Ireland , which walls in its subject behind obscure histories of religious thought and political doctrine.
The Ireland that this book defines is an oddity already. The first woman author appears in Chapter Twenty One; the Celtic Tiger has been relegated already to the category of shameful secret; and the span of nearly 400 years in what the authors call historical and social literature makes for often dry reading (both authors admit they are untrained in advanced literary study; perhaps their work’s greatest achievement is to prove the value of such scholarship). Swift, Tone, Mitchel, O’Brien, McGahern and some others considered here will long outlive the generations that read them now. If there is little to be said for The Books that Define Ireland , there is much to be grateful for in Ireland’s literature.