The Wrong Country review: fluent study of modern Irish writing
Gerald Dawe’s collection of literary essays takes care to pay attention to women’s voices – though a little unevenly
Gerald Dawe with Edna O’Brien: Dawe’s new collection of essays explores modern Irish writing from WB Yeats onwards. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The Wrong Country: Essays on Modern Irish Writing
Irish Academic Press
Described by the publishers as “an engaging and personal chronicle”, The Wrong Country is a collection of essays exploring modern Irish writing from WB Yeats onwards, always with an eye to the delicate relationship between formal achievements and their shaping contexts.
The chapters consist of literary essays, written in a personal, conversational tone. At their best they are fluent and full of interest, offering glimpses into Dawe’s education and life while sharing with readers the benefit of his nuanced literary judgements. Even passing observations on writers such as Patrick Kavanagh, John McGahern and Eavan Boland are worth our attention, while his contribution on the evergreen question of whether creative writing can or should be taught in universities is wise and measured.
In particular, I admired the bravura chapter, Basho, the River Moy and the Superser, on the work of Dorothy Molloy, Michelle O’Sullivan and Leontia Flynn. In some ways a curious grouping, the chapter holds the three poets together in fine balance as Dawe shows us how they can “bring into formal control powerfully imagined worlds”. He spends time with each of the writers and draws us into a closely textured encounter with their work.
The essays are occasional in the strictest sense: the acknowledgements makes clear that the vast majority of them began as invited lectures or contributions. Inevitably, this gives the collection a slightly random feel and there is no introduction to guide readers towards a larger argument. At times the reading experience can be confusing, as in the sudden appearance of a set of references to “digital projects” in the otherwise enjoyable chapter From Dusty Bluebells to Parallax. The acknowledgements point us towards a connection to the Ulster Poetry Project at Ulster University, but the book itself offers no guidance in this respect nor any address for the web resource mentioned.
The book takes care to pay attention to women’s voices, perhaps influenced by earlier criticism of the poor representation of women in Dawe’s edited Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets. The Wrong Country offers substantial discussions of women writers including Eavan Boland and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, while a chapter on the lines of connection between Bobby Sands and late 19th-century Belfast poet Ethna Carbery shows how “the poetics of insurrectionary violence” travel across class, gender and generation.
Chapters that deal with Irish writing before the 1960s, however, are strangely inattentive to women’s role in Irish society, as if reproducing the social values of those decades. The chapter on the 1950s, From The Ginger Man to Kitty Stobling considers those years as “the beginning of the end” for the Catholic church in the Republic and draws together the “Northern and Southern dual narrative” of change. In the course of the chapter, Dawe dutifully draws our attention to the achievements of Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Lavin and Kate O’Brien, but his real interest lies in discussions of the literary lives and interrelationships of Brendan Behan, JP Donleavy and Patrick Kavanagh. To address such a broad topic via a narrow selection of writers inevitably gives the impression of voices excluded. And when the only real critical interest shown is in work by men, then the references to women’s lives and predicaments seem like gestures.
Boozy literary Dublin
A consideration of the emigration of young Irish women to Britain in the 1950s, for example, leads Dawe to comment “to what kind of life and loving, one wonders”. A passing reference to Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls (quoted from Terence Brown’s Ireland: A Social and Cultural History) does not suggest any real engagement with answering this question, nor does any recent critical work on this topic feature here (Clair Wills’ book Lovers and Strangers comes to mind). It is difficult to read a chapter like Fatal Attractions: John Berryman in Dublin, perhaps the least assured essay in the collection, and not to wonder about other half of the story being told. Women seem to have no place in the essay, which touches on the boozy literary Dublin of the 1960s and speculates on potential parallels between the tragic writing lives of American and Irish generations of the 1940s and 1950s.
Himself a poet and critic, Dawe writes from both inside and outside the university. He is also a Northerner whose long-time residence in the Republic gives him a clear-eyed perspective on questions of cultural inclusion and exclusion. The lively closing chapter on Oliver Goldsmith seems to recognise these patterns and to find in the 18th century man of letters a model of the “outsider-insider” whose creative style helps to pose important critical questions. The nature of Dawe’s queries often remain elusive, although the book’s opening epigraph – an injunction from Hugo Hamilton’s The Speckled People not to be “afraid of saying the opposite” even when “everybody thinks you’re in the wrong country, speaking the wrong language” – suggests a quiet form of combat.
Claire Connolly is professor of Modern English at University College Cork and 2018-2019 Parnell Fellow in Irish Studies at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge