The Cold of May Day Monday: An Approach to Irish Literary History

Robert Welch assembles the past in braided threads of thematic association to create a tapestry that is bright, surprising,and engagingly idiosyncratic

Sat, Jan 10, 2015, 06:00


Book Title:
The Cold of May Day Monday: An Approach to Irish Literary History


Robert Anthony Welch

Oxford University Press

Guideline Price:

The late Robert Welch’s final book is a literary history of Ireland from the earliest recorded times to the near present. Welch assembles the past in braided threads of thematic association to create a tapestry that is bright and engagingly idiosyncratic.

Welch was born in Cork but spent a large part of his life in Northern Ireland. On this island a few hundred kilometres can be considered an exile, and there is no doubt that a distance from his place of origin sharpened Welch’s understanding of those writers who crossed borders with troublesome frequency. This applies to his reading of the lordless poets cast on to the roads in the wake of the disaster at Kinsale, as it does to his response to the colonists like Swift, who began to wonder at the justice of their possessions. Swift’s polemic on Ireland’s administration by the English is well known in the vicious satire of A Modest Proposal, which suggested the slaughter of Ireland’s children as a remedy for famine. Hunger and want are never far from Welch’s story, confirmation in itself of the deeper miseries that provoked centuries of rebellion before British power buckled in the first World War.

Welch is brilliant on Thomas Moore’s Lallah Rookh as a “poem that proclaims its freedom even as it rehearses the wrongs that rivet chains into the mind”. Moore’s was a rebellion of taste, as was that of Wilde and of Joyce later on, and it is tempting to think of the great dinner scene in The Dead when Welch quotes from Moore’s sequence that describes a Feast of the Roses in Kashmir.

Plantains, the golden and the green,

Malaya’s nectar’d mangusteen;

Prunes of Bokhara, and sweet nuts

From the far groves of Samarkand . . .

This is a map of the world drawn from the senses. The British Empire grew to a mastery of global trade as the 19th century progressed, and Moore’s import of the fruits of commerce to poetry veiled the idea of Ireland in the scents of the east, a trick that Joyce reversed in Dubliners when he drew Araby as an empty bazaar. Food, or the lack of it, was a powerful political symbol in post-Famine Ireland, and The Dead is rationed with ingredients from elsewhere, the American apples and Smyrna figs symbols of the island’s inability to sustain itself under colonialism.

Welch is very good on Oscar Wilde’s extravagantly gifted family. One of the little treasures of The Cold of May Day Monday is a pamphlet by Lady Jane Wilde (the “Speranza” of the Nation), called the American Irish. In it she advocated the unlikely, but entertaining, return of the diaspora to annex Ireland for the United States. Lady Wilde lamented the waste of national energy on a centuries-old struggle with England. In so doing she provided a formula for Irish rebellion: “Disaffection,” she wrote, “is not an evil where wrongs exist, it is the lever of progress.” Here, as occasionally elsewhere in the book, is a glimpse of how the Ireland of the past was more daring than its counterpart in the present.

The subtle achievement of The Cold of May Day Monday is the weave of history and culture into a patchwork of such bright and unpredictable colour that it is hard to credit it to so small a place, so intensely felt.

Welch draws vivid lines between art, language and the individual’s understanding of their time. If there is one unshifting co-ordinate through the book it is the idea of place, which Welch returns to over and again as a central trope of all Irish writing.

Throughout, Welch is a careful reader of poetry, and his recovery of Austin Clarke’s The Lost Heifer from The Cattledrive of Connaught is proof of his close attention to his subject. Welch reads the poem minutely, touching the core of its sensibility, which is a 20th-century elegy for a nation in the early days of its statehood:

When the black herds of the rain were grazing

In the gap of the cold pure wind

And the watery hazes of the hazel

Brought her into my mind,

I thought of the last honey by the water

That no hive can find.

The Cold of May Day Monday flows boldly through the troubled stream of Irish literature. A major achievement of scholarship and narrative, it is that rare book that hears wild laughter in the archives of a troubled island.

Nicholas Allen is director of the Wilson Center and Franklin professor of English at the University of Georgia. He is writing a cultural history of 1916 and its impact on modernism