Declan Kiberd’s very lively postmortem on Republic
After Ireland review:Fintan O’Toole on a witty, engaging but sometimes baffling take on literature since 1945
Waiting for Godot: When Didi cries out “A charnel house! A charnel house!” is it the Great Hunger he is thinking of, or Auschwitz? Photograph of Samuel Beckett at a rehearsal of the play in 1975 by Heuer/Ullstein Bild via Getty
After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present
Head of Zeus
It is no exaggeration that in Declan Kiberd’s typically stimulating new book we have the literary critic as state pathologist, using the tools of his trade to conduct, in the manner of an early anatomist, a public postmortem. After Ireland is the final part of a rough trilogy, following on from the justly acclaimed Inventing Ireland and Irish Classics. But it is looser and more fragmentary than those previous volumes – a process of fragmentation that mirrors its overarching theme: “the gradual expiry of the national project” (slightly reformulated as “the slow extinction of the national idea in a ramshackle political formation”) and the ways in which Irish writers have sought to extract creative energy from that political entropy. It is, indeed, as Kiberd acknowledges, “a sort of elegy for the invented Ireland of the Revivalists and Classicists” and thus not so much a continuation of the previous two volumes as a mourning for the loss of the idealism celebrated within them. And not just a loss of idealism: Kiberd argues starkly that the very “existence of a sovereign and independent nation” ended with the great national bankruptcy of 2010.
In some ways Kiberd is confronting a familiar contradiction, that between postrevolutionary ennui on the one hand and the defiant vitality of Irish literary culture on the other. Independent Ireland after 1922 is, for Kiberd, a “lunatic culture” where life for most people is “tedious beyond belief”, “boring and mediocre”. But Kiberd himself has often been most illuminating on the life in death of the Irish language, and After Ireland is a peculiarly lively postmortem in which, as in Finnegans Wake or Cré na Cille, the corpses refuse to take death lying down and the graveyard is full of incessant chatter.
Most of the essays have their origins in stand-alone introductions or reviews, and this accounts for the book’s weaknesses as well as its great strength of variety
Most of the essays in After Ireland have their origins in stand-alone introductions or reviews, and this accounts for the book’s weaknesses as well as its great strength of variety. The weaknesses include numerous repetitions of whole sentences from one essay to another. But the most significant of them is that there is no coherent account of the “ramshackle political formation”, the State itself. There are seven short introductory pieces on key themes: neutrality, secularisation, emigration, the Troubles, “Europeanisation”, the Irish language, the women’s movement and the peace process. But as accounts of what has happened in Ireland since the 1950s they are very limited and often eccentric.
Fianna Fáil is scarcely mentioned at all. TK Whitaker and Seán Lemass are nowhere. Charles Haughey is “raffish and undecodable”, the first term an odd euphemism for “corrupt”, the second rather peculiar given that Haughey was thoroughly decoded by the Moriarty tribunal, which investigated payments to politicians. When Kiberd says that “some acerbic commentators” were unhappy that the EU gave Ireland €6 billion in structural funds in the 1980s, the footnote reveals that the “commentators” in question were Kiberd himself. He also seems to blame the EU for Irish emigration: “the youth of Ireland were being ‘disappeared’ by unelected bureaucrats.”
There are somewhat baffling pronouncements: “the leaders of Ireland in the latter decades of membership of the European Union produced in the Celtic Tiger not so much an imitation of Europe as its caricature.” Surely, if the Celtic Tiger was a caricature of anything, it was not of Berlin but of the Boston to which one of those leaders, Mary Harney, proclaimed it closer. The 1983 abortion debate allegedly pitched “narrow gauge Catholics” against “secular fundamentalists”, as if not wanting a religious ban in a republican constitution is itself the equivalent of religious fundamentalism. A “Fianna Fáil-led government” succeeded in passing the 1995 divorce referendum “without any rancorous public debate” – news, surely, to John Bruton, who was taoiseach at the time, and to anyone who remembers that the bitterly contested referendum was passed by a margin of less than 1 per cent.
There is also something problematic about the idea of “writing the nation” as an insistent and overarching theme. A telling use of the word “holocaust” comes when Kiberd writes of how Samuel Beckett “registered the blasted, hollowed-out landscape of a country after holocaust and trauma”. By “country” Kiberd here means Ireland, whereas Beckett, writing Waiting for Godot and his great trilogy of novels in France immediately after the second World War, was surely at least as acutely aware of another blasted landscape, another trauma, a fresher Holocaust. When Didi suddenly cries out “A charnel house! A charnel house!” is it the Great Hunger he is thinking of, or Auschwitz?
What makes Kiberd a great critic is his disdain for barriers – between Irish and English, between literary forms, between works and their historical moments
Yet the book also has tremendous strengths. It is wonderfully written, jargon-free, witty and exuberantly engaging. What makes Kiberd a great critic is his disdain for barriers – between Irish and English, between literary forms, between works and their historical moments. He is as superb on Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill as he is on Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. His erudition in both languages makes his essay on Michael Hartnett, who moved between them, a beautiful meditation on double-mindedness. His equal ease with drama, fiction and poetry means that he is often brilliant in his exposure of unexpected connections, as when he convincingly identifies John Banville’s Dr Copernicus as a predecessor of Brian Friel’s Frank Hardy and Tom Murphy’s JPW King as “a conman who knows he is fraudulent but persists in offering his sustenance to a credulous population”. Or when he illuminates both Friel’s Faith Healer and Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme as versions of the old Deirdre stories. Or when Joe O’Connor’s Star of the Sea is seen in the light of Liam O’Flaherty’s novel Famine or a poem by Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh.
And there is in all of this a kind of desperate optimism. Kiberd is deeply – perhaps excessively – glum about the future of the Irish nation state as any kind of sovereign entity. (Brexit might yet give new life to the idea of a “national project”.) But, as he argues in his conclusion, and as his book amply demonstrates, Irish writers have long experience in the practice of behaving as if the nation exists and as if they themselves are free. Culture, as his last sentence has it, is “the one domain in which an unfettered kind of sovereignty might yet be enjoyed”. We know that there is life after death because in so much of Irish culture there has never really been any other kind of life.
Fintan O’Toole’s Judging Shaw has just been published