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In praise of Iris Murdoch, by Ian d’Alton

Irish Women Writers: one of the great writers in English, her relationship as a southern Protestant exile with the land of her birth, as explored in both her fiction and personal life, was conflicted but fascinating

Iris Murdoch: If she had “a lifetime’s investment in Irishness”, in her biographer Peter Conradi’s shrewd words, she was an insider and an outsider at one and the same time, reflecting a Protestant ability “to slip in and out of Irishness”. Photograph: Getty Images
Iris Murdoch’s birthplace in Blessington Street in unfashionable inner-city, northside Dublin had a heterogeneous population of all occupations and religions. Blessington Street Protestants were nearly genteel but not quite, so well brought to life in The Red and the Green, which was set in and around the 1916 Rising. Photograph: Alan Betson

Dame Iris Murdoch – one of the 20th century’s great writers in English, and self-professedly Irish – produced 26 novels, six plays, two volumes of poetry and a radio opera. Irish references crop up here and there – the spectral dog Liffey in The Sandcastle; the character Martin Lynch-Gibbon in A Severed Head; a Dublin interlude in The Book and the Brotherhood. She addresses Ireland in three substantial works – Something Special (1954, published in 1957), her only short story; and the novels The Unicorn (1963); and The Red and the Green (1965).

Murdoch was also a respected academic philosopher in Oxford and London, and had several well-regarded books and essays to her name. Her fiction’s mystical and paranormal events, enchanted characters and implausible coincidences used to resolve problems of plot seemed to have little in common with her philosophical works, yet her interest in Plato and the pursuit of “the good” as a moral end resonates in many of her novels. Here we have, then, a two-faceted character, with seemingly little connectivity between them. And this reflects, and maybe stems from, her ambivalent sense of national identity.

Murdoch was the only child of a northern Irish civil servant, Wills Murdoch, and his wife, Irene (“Rene”) Richardson. Iris’s birthplace in Blessington Street in unfashionable inner-city, northside Dublin had a heterogeneous population of all occupations and religions. Blessington Street Protestants were nearly genteel but not quite, so well brought to life in The Red and the Green, which was set in and around the 1916 Rising.

Murdoch, who could not possibly have remembered the place as a child, nevertheless felt able to describe it later as “...a wide, sad, dirty street, with its own quiet air of dereliction, a street leading nowhere, always full of idling dogs and open doorways”. This was the territory of the “precariat”, the exotic, the slightly dangerous. Murdoch’s mother, a singer, fell pregnant before she and Wills Murdoch were married. Politically, the Richardsons were always suspect as prone to being a republican green; and, socially, Iris’s mother often wore lipstick that was just a slightly too Bohemian red.

At the time of Iris’s birth in July 1919, southern Protestants already felt their position in Ireland also precarious, as their British sponsors began to lose control. And the point about Murdoch is that her hold on Ireland is precarious, too. Though born there, she never lived there: she was taken to London before she was a year old, where she lived “a perfect trinity of love” in a household that remained unassimilated into English life. Ireland played a significant part in her childhood and later, but it was never home; and while Iris, being Iris, was capable of creating a very Irish Protestant sense of place, metaphorical in her 1963 gothic novel The Unicorn, realist in The Red and the Green and her 1954 short story Something Special, she could not attain the lived experience of being in Ireland as well as of Ireland, could not speak to that wonder of the formative, expressed so vividly by Elizabeth Bowen in her contemporary memoir of Dublin childhood, Seven Winters.

If Murdoch had “a lifetime’s investment in Irishness”, in her biographer Peter Conradi’s shrewd words, she was an insider and an outsider at one and the same time, reflecting a Protestant ability “to slip in and out of Irishness”. This emerged particularly after 1969, when violence in Northern Ireland erupted. Her sympathies lay with her northern Protestant cousinhood; she apparently became “unsentimental about Ireland to the point of hatred” (1978) and stated in 1982 “it’s a terrible thing to be Irish”. In that, she would have had many sympathisers resident in the island.

Yet, she seemed able to distinguish Ireland as a place apart from her sense of Irishness. Whatever terrible things Ireland had done, or condoned, like damp in a wall, her identity insisted on seeping out; at the end of her life in 1997, when querying who she was, she was heard to remark: “Well, I’m Irish anyway, that’s something”. An early dust-jacket was perhaps a little defensive – “although most of her life has been spent in England, she still calls herself an Irish writer”. Later, she would claim to be “born in Dublin of Anglo-Irish parentage”, which placed her more on the hyphen than anywhere else, and also seemed to suggest a more exalted social origin than was the case. All this raises the question: if Murdoch did have a professed sense of connection with what she called the “island of spells”, what was its essence?

As well as a general trait of the Irish émigré always needing somebody to be Irish at, Murdoch’s identity has to be read through the prism of her legacy of southern Irish Protestantness, of being “special”. This is best echoed in her jewel-like short story Something Special, set in 1950s Dún Laoghaire, where a Protestant shop-girl resigns herself to marriage to an unexciting Jewish tailor’s apprentice. These onion-layers of Otherness are marked by such as a walk round the town referenced to Protestant landmarks such as Ross’s Hotel, the yacht clubs and the Mariners’ Church, and rabbinical references to a fallen tree.

Something Special captures Murdoch’s family’s sense of being part of a lower-middle-class Protestant minority operating behind the lines in a Catholic country – a mirror to Iris’s wartime lover, the poet-turned-soldier Frank Thompson, who did just that in occupied Bulgaria. But it also filters out the specifics of that Irishness to leave exposed, albeit in miniature, or model, form, the great questions that inform her later writings – the primacy of good, the nature of morality, the temporary providence of myth, the plight of outsiders, the purgatory of isolation, the inability to escape from life as a rackety tram-track.

The Unicorn treats of a surreal Ireland, reflecting Murdoch’s obsession with the “island of dreams”. It sees an Ireland of the barren Burren, named the Scarren; of wild west Clare; of a voracious and unmapped bog standing for Ireland. Its moral topography is Platonic. It has a fairytale cast of characters, including an imprisoned “princess”, all caught up in a process of grand tragedy, reflective of the Big House Anglo-Irish condition after independence. In that, the novel is part of a genre that stretches from Maria Edgeworth through Somerville & Ross, to Elizabeth Bowen. This is a very different kind of Irishness to that portrayed in Something Special. And different again is The Red and the Green. An intertwined series of love-stories in a “cousinry of some complexity” stands as a metaphor for divided political, religious and cultural loyalties in 1916, with an Anglo-Irish officer on one side, and an idealistic revolutionary on the other.

What perhaps emerges from the Irish fiction is that Murdoch’s sense of identity could not properly adhere to anything. It may have been, in Conradi’s words, “a source of reassurance, a reference point, a credential, somewhere to start out from and return to” – but its glue was of poor quality. It is piquant that, through a style more Hiberno-English than Anglo-Irish, this sense of southern Protestant abstraction may be more obvious in her fiction of worlds other than Ireland, and in her philosophic journeys.

Also, Murdoch’s determined intellectualism is alien to the Irish literary tradition; she is always looking outward to the world, reflected in her 1945 comment that “if I have a fatherland, it would be something like the literature of England perhaps”. She patronised Ireland in private – “Little brittle magic nation dim of mind” (1945); and that was reciprocated by the academy there, who generally ignored her. Despite concordances with the Irish Protestant mindset, to bowdlerise her favourite poet Auden about Yeats, mad Ireland didn’t much hurt Murdoch into prose. In the literary arena, Iris only sporadically had, in the words of Andrew Chase-White in The Red and the Green “…an atavistic urge to return to the soil of Ireland…” It is illuminating that in 1956, when she expressed the fear of a loss of identity to Elizabeth Bowen, it was to do with her impending marriage, not her nationality. At the last, therefore, if we can properly concede some significance to Murdoch’s Irishness, what perhaps counts more in the greater scheme of things is her Irisness.

Ian d’Alton is an historian of southern Irish Protestantism. He contributed the entries on Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane and Iris Murdoch to the RIA/Cambridge Dictionary of Irish Biography (2009). He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow in Trinity College, Dublin