Quiet power of the humane voice


LITERARY CRITICISM: The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism, By Terence Brown, Cambridge University Press, 281pp. £16.99

INTRODUCING The Literature of Ireland, Terence Brown ponders the label “quiet polemic” that Colin Graham has used to characterise his 1975 study, Sceptical Vision: Louis MacNeice. In the often fractious world of Irish studies Terence Brown would not be many people’s idea of a polemicist: not for him David Lloyd’s or Tom Paulin’s prosecuting postcolonial zeal or Edna Longley’s flyting of Field Day follies. Rather, he has been a voice of moderation: authoritative, wide ranging and nonaligned.

His contributions to Irish studies now span five decades, beginning with that study of MacNeice and, also from 1975, Northern Voices: Poets from Ulster, a pioneering look at Northern poets at a time when the subject, in Myles na gCopaleen’s words, was neither popular nor profitable (though soon to become both). Among the works to follow were Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-1972, WB Yeats: A Critical Lifeand the mass of occasional pieces only now being collected in book form.

The Literature of Irelandcomprises 20 essays on Irish writing from the Revival to McGahern, Friel and Banville, with sideward glances in the direction of Shakespeare and the “Irish” Dylan Thomas. Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and O’Brien are stimulatingly considered, while essays on Irish modernism in the 1930s and Irish writing in the two world wars prepare the way for appreciations of Hewitt, Kennelly, Heaney, Longley and Mahon. The youngest writer discussed here is Paul Muldoon, which seems a pity given Brown’s long-standing interest in, and support of, emerging writers (a support for which, as a former student of his, I hereby acknowledge my own personal debt of gratitude).

The connecting tissue between imaginative literature and the larger forces of culture and society has always been central to Brown’s work. Hubert Butler has become something of a secular saint in recent years, so it is engrossing to see Brown pick over a short essay of 1930, Riga Strandin 1930, in which, innocent of the coming war, Butler applies a casually insensitive trope to a group of immigrant Jews in Latvia: “Persecution has hardened them and given them strength to survive war and revolution and even to profit from them and direct them”.

The idea of Jews “profiting” from wars is a familiar one, with a long and toxic pedigree. Brown’s analysis of Butler’s theories of civic and ethnic nationalism quickly absolves the essayist of any malicious intent, but the lesson is a salutary one: do not expect political infallibility from your writers, even from those, such as Butler, on the side of the angels.

The three essays of MacNeice are not without similar reminders. Among the virtues of Brown’s reconsideration of MacNeice and Ireland is his frank admission of the unfairness of section XVI of Autumn Journal. MacNeice attacks Free State Ireland’s rural idiocy, yet its attempts at urban renewal are also held up to ridicule, while the Economic War with Britain (triggered by De Valera’s desire to make the country self-sufficient) is traduced as Irish chicanery in the export market. MacNeice’s impatience with introspective Irish nationalism is at odds with his romanticising of the Hebridean islanders in the travelogue I Crossed His Minch, though theirs is a culture he visits and leaves as a tourist, while (as the last lines of Autumn JournalXVI remind us) his Irishness is not so easily discarded.

For MacNeice Irishness is a zone of conflict and complexity, in other words, rather than a box to be ticked yes or no; and if we realise that more clearly today much of the credit must go to Terence Brown. (It would be interesting, in passing, to know whether Derek Mahon stands by his statement to Brown in a 1985 interview, and quoted here, that MacNeice “had no place in the intellectual history of modern Ireland”).

In a 1982 review of McDowell and Webb’s history of Trinity College, Denis Donoghue complained of the resentment he felt as a young lecturer at University College Dublin of the “complacency” of Trinity’s ethos, “its easy and unearned assumption of superiority”. A history of the Irish professoriat might well abound in tenured idlers, but that is one academic club whose membership will never be open to this long-time head of the school of English at Trinity College. Nevertheless, to read The Literature of Irelandis to be reminded of the many changes to have befallen his chosen academic discipline in the past few decades. In 1966, he recalls, the Renaissance scholar Philip Edwards planned with Frank O’Connor to introduce an Irish-studies course at Trinity College. Edwards’s departure and O’Connor’s death put paid to the idea, which did not become a reality until 2007.

Cause for celebration as that was, the intervening years have also witnessed the near collapse of the concept of literature as traditionally studied in English departments. Empires of theory have risen and fallen, Morris Zapp-like gurus come and gone.

Brown is no old-style holy innocent where theory is concerned, and the word “culture” in his subtitle is more than earned by the breadth of his historical and political sensibility, but these essays will endure for their humane intelligence, gracefulness, wit and readability. Of how many figures in Irish studies in the past 40 years can as much be said?

David Wheatley’s new poetry collection is A Nest on the Waves (Gallery Press)