How ‘sea-blind’ Ireland lost its island identity and became obsessed with land

Nicholas Allen’s ‘Ireland, Literature and the Coast: Seatangled’ is an agenda-setting book

Satellite image from the European Space Agency. Photograph: courtesy ESA

Satellite image from the European Space Agency. Photograph: courtesy ESA

“At the dawn of Western narrative, Homer’s Odysseus sets sail.” So begins Margaret Cohen’s The Novel and the Sea (2012). Robert Graves would not have agreed. “English poetic education,” he argued in 1948, “should, really, begin not with the Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with the Song of Amergin” – an Old Irish incantation said to have been recited by the bard Amergin as the Milesians invaded Ireland. “I am Wind on Sea/ I am Ocean-wave,/ I am Roar of Sea.”

Nicholas Allen’s Seatangled returns Irish literature to its coastal beginnings, imagining a “liquid” island whose “waterborne narratives” need to be recovered, reimagined and retold. It is part, then, of an ecological turn in international literary studies that brings into view the watery contours of art, culture and environment at a time of rising sea levels and a degraded marine environment.

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