Alan Titley: creative expression sourced in his own ethical code

His output is prodigious as is his range of subject and theme

Alan Titley in 1999: it is almost 16 years since The Irish Times published his first Crobhingne column. Photograph: Frank Miller

Alan Titley in 1999: it is almost 16 years since The Irish Times published his first Crobhingne column. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Alan Titley will be a familiar figure to the readers of these pages, no doubt. It has been almost 16 years since The Irish Times published his first Crobhingne column, one of the most clear-eyed and consistently relevant pieces of journalism in our national media. Every week since then, he has cast his analytic, often satiric eye on all sorts, from the West’s neo-imperialist wars to the customs and rituals of Sunday sport in the summertime.

Crobhingne is a catalogue of Irish fascinations and anxieties over the last decade and a half, and few journalists get to the heart of those things like Titley does.

As a writer of both national languages, however, Titley’s career stretches back considerably farther – to the mid-1960s, in fact, when he began writing for another long-standing Irish periodical, Comhar magazine. In the 53 years and counting that he’s been part of Irish public life, he has published novels, plays, collections of short stories, poetry, scores of essays and countless reviews – to say nothing of his many appearances on radio, TV and the lecture circuit. His output is, in short, prodigious, and his range of subject and theme equally so: from a verse novel set in witch-burning New England (written in reverse chronological order) to a hard-boiled detective thriller based on contemporary Traveller life, he is among the most prolific and enterprising writers in the country.

Titley is the first published monograph on its eponymous author. In it, I try to give both a detailed introduction to Titley’s writing and a critical map to help navigate it. The book spans 50 years of work (1966-2016) and its starting point is a relatively straightforward claim: that the source of Titley’s creative expression, in both his fiction and nonfiction, is the author’s own ethical code.

This code is readily understood by all today; we are bombarded with versions of it not just in philosophy, politics and journalism, but particularly and relentlessly so in modern advertising. At its root is the demand for individual and collective freedom of expression, with the caveat that the limit of said freedom is another’s right to the same. How such a demand is actually framed varies on the issue at stake, of course, but the point is that, as both creative writer and commentator, the bedrock of Titley’s work is the unalienable right to self-expression. By the same token, any attempt to suppress or deny this right should be met with vehement resistance.

Many of us may agree with such an idea. Many may even hold the same. What singles Titley out, then, is not his understanding of this philosophy but the intensity with which he subscribes to it. In Titley, I aim to show that the mainstay of his characters, storylines, poems, literary criticism and political commentary can and should be understood as crystallisations of his ethical principles. These principles, it should be said, are not openly declared in any one work by the author himself but, with half a century of evidence at our disposal, they can be teased out in a thorough reading of his corpus to date.

Before stating what these principles are and showing how they shape the narratives of stories and the arguments of essays, the first chapter of the book offers an overview of Titley’s work. Breaking the oeuvre into periods of more or less 10 years, I trace the stylistic and thematic developments in his writing from his teenage work onwards. Such a neat categorisation may seem a bit crude, leaving certain things out and perhaps distorting others, but I argue that such a schema is useful for understanding not only the evolution of Titley’s various styles and forms, but for contextualising the more discursive chapters that follow.

The rest of the book is split into two parts. The first sets out to articulate the ethical code that underpins Titley’s writing, and this is done in stages. First, there is an analysis of his work that deals with issues of collective political/cultural identity, including his first published novel, Méirscrí na Treibhe (1978), set in Africa in the mid-20th century. Next is an examination of Titley’s preoccupation with the wealth divide, as evidenced in his popular novel for younger readers, Gluaiseacht, and in much of his journalistic writing. Finally, I link Titley’s socio-political thinking on these issues to his vast body of literary criticism and fiction, arguing that there are clear parallels between the way Titley describes the collective’s right to self-expression (as a tribe or social class, for example) and the way he describes the writer’s right to self-expression (against, say, certain schools of critical theory that would bypass authorial intent altogether).

The second part of the book looks to test the strength of these ethical principles, and their validity as a critical tool, by examining the aspects of Titley’s work which offer the most resistance to such a straightforward reading. This makes room not only for the stories and essays which don’t at first glance “fit the mould” – particularly Titley’s playful and experimental short stories of the 1980s – but also for his celebrated use of humour and intertextuality, two postmodern mega-tropes that could be seen as essentially solipsistic, divorced from any real-life ethical concerns. The aim of the whole is to do justice to the richness and variety of Titley’s writing while also acknowledging its cohesion – the diversity in the unity of his artistic worldview, if you like.

The introduction to Titley includes a note of hope that the book will cast light both on the author’s published work and on the work yet to come. As ever more novels, plays, essays and, of course, Crobhingne columns continue to be published, time will tell.

Titley by Máirtín Coilféir is published by LeabhairCOMHAR at ¤20

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