Christ and Caesar: thematic threads in international Irish fiction

Catholic missions, colonial concerns and sea-facing fictions are identifiable themes in Irish writing which has long been globalised

In the past seven years, a series of novels has appeared, most of them set at an historical remove from the present day, in which emigration to the US and return to Ireland are primary or secondary thematic preoccupations: Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (2009), Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (2011), John Butler’s The Tenderloin (2011), Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009) and TransAtlantic (2013), Kate Kerrigan’s Ellis Island trilogy (Ellis Island [2009], City of Hope [2011] and Land of Dreams [2013]), Paul Lynch’s Red Sky in Morning (2013) and The Black Snow (2014), Mary Costello’s Academy Street (2014), Anne Enright’s The Green Road (2015), Paula McGrath’s Generation (2015) and Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily (2015). (This is probably not an exhaustive list).

As a scholar of US and Irish literature and culture, I have found much that is compelling and significant in these works: from Barry’s engagement with a very established trope in American literature, racial passing, to Lynch’s retelling of the archetypal “Returned Yank” narrative in The Black Snow; from Costello’s depiction of interracial (Irish/African American) friendship to Enright’s queering of the Irish diaspora.

However, it is also important to acknowledge the sheer wealth and historical breadth of Irish fiction that is international in outlook but which is not directly engaged with the US, Irish America or with the Irish diaspora more broadly. Because of the demographic, psychic and cultural impact of out-migration from Ireland over several centuries (particularly to the US in the nineteenth century and to Britain in the twentieth), it is both unsurprising and appropriate that Irish writing engages eloquently with questions of exile, migration and displacement. But Irish writing evidences a concern not only with the movement of people, but with other kinds of (post)colonial and global encounters and ties across national borders: military, economic, trade, political, religious and so on.

Moreover, this is certainly not simply a phenomenon of the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), for example, is underwritten by what Laura Doyle terms an “incipient postcolonial consciousness” in that it considers relationships and interactions within and between different global empires over several centuries, notably Britain (Ireland, India) and Spain.


In other words, to claim that Irish fiction has become more international in outlook as Ireland has become more globalised is to assume that Ireland was not globalised long before the late twentieth century. Ireland was (and, through partition, arguably continues to be) both a colonised country and a participant in colonial projects. Therefore, it had significant interactions with the wider world at least from 1800 on, and Irish literature reflects this reality.

A fairly recent play, Elizabeth Kuti’s The Sugar Wife (2005), makes this quite clear. Set in the nineteenth century, the play is concerned with the arrival of an African American slave orator, Sarah Worth, and her English abolitionist companion in the Dublin home of the Quaker Tewkley family, tea merchants likely inspired by the real-life Bewleys. The Sugar Wife quite explicitly links the trade in human flesh with that of commodities such as sugar, tea and coffee, in which the Tewkleys specialise, and the play thus implicates Ireland and Irish businesses in a history of exploitive global capitalism that long pre-dates the Celtic Tiger.

Beyond Irish America, then, we might identify at least two thematic threads in Irish fiction that enable us to think more expansively about its internationalism. The first is fiction that treats of clergymen or clergywomen living abroad, or of Ireland’s relationship with the Catholic Church more broadly.

As a supranational structure, the Catholic Church inevitably fosters ties across national borders. Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices (1941) is set in a convent in Mellick (Limerick) in the 10 years leading up to Ireland’s national conflicts of the early twentieth century. Its Reverend Mother is English and the order, La Compagnie de la Sainte Famille, is French but administered from Bruges. When an Irish priest warns the Reverend Mother that “educational work” in Ireland will become difficult “for those Orders which adhere too closely to a foreign tradition”, she responds: “Our nuns are not a nation, and our business is not with national matters.” In this instance, the supranational character of Catholicism finds itself in tension with a burgeoning and prescriptive Irish nationalism.

Brian Moore (1921-1999), the (now under-read) Belfast writer who spent much of his life in Canada and the US, also found in the supranational aspects of Catholicism compelling material for several works. At least four of his many novels – Catholics (1972), Black Robe (1985), The Colour of Blood (1987) and No Other Life (1993) – confront (sometimes uncomfortable) questions about the Catholic clergy’s complicity in and/or dissent from oppressive regimes in contexts as different as seventeenth-century New France (Canada) and Eastern Europe in the 1980s.

The supranational aspect of Catholicism also likely explains, at least in part, a preoccupation with Spain as an imaginative location in twentieth-century Irish fiction. This genealogy is associated particularly with women writers of the 1930s and 1940s: Kate O’Brien’s Mary Lavelle (1936) and That Lady (1946) and Maura Laverty’s No More Than Human (1944) are all set in Spain. Early drafts of Maeve Brennan’s The Visitor (2000, but composed in the mid-1940s) have Anastasia King returning to Ireland from Barcelona, rather than Paris, after six years. Meanwhile, in Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited (1942), Spain is a significant imagined space because of the way it pits Englishwoman Mary Meredith against Spanish Carmel in profoundly racialised ways. Later works – such as Edna O’Brien’s The High Road (1988) and Tóibín’s The South (1990) – share several affinities in their treatment of the Irish woman artist in Spain.

Second, I am fascinated by the “archipelagic turn” evident in the scholarship of a number of critics of British and Irish literatures. The referenda on Scottish independence (September 2014) and on Brexit (June 2016) testify to the ongoing negotiation of questions of political sovereignty, affective bonds, and regional distinctions or similarities between Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland and their peoples. One fruitful avenue for pondering such questions is to consider Ireland as part of a broader Atlantic Archipelago; in such a configuration, fictional representations of the Irish Sea, Ireland’s coasts and its seaside resorts become highly significant. I am particularly interested in Irish fiction’s most insistent bard of the seaside, Neil Jordan, but what of the seaside resorts (real or fictional, English or Irish) that appear in Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor, John McGahern, John Banville, Joseph O’Connor, Anne Enright and others? As John Brannigan commented in this newspaper in 2014, the Irish Sea – the waterway between Britain and Ireland – has been viewed more as a “barrier” than as a “shared space.” Writers such as these facilitate a more nuanced understanding of the Irish Sea as “shared space”.

In Mary Lavelle, Kate O’Brien describes the mining villages around Altorno (Bilbao) as “an unlooked-for Spain”. By paying attention to the threads identified above – and there are many other possibilities not discussed here – we might discover “an unlooked-for internationalism” in Irish writing.