Tough nuts to crack


CULTURAL STUDIES: The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1880-1922, By Joseph Valente, University of Illinois Press, 275pp. £35

RECENT INTERNATIONAL financial interventions brought into the public arena questions and debates about Ireland’s collective sense of national pride and self-determination, making this new study by Joseph Valente even more timely.

In this work he addresses ideas around Irish cultural identity and selfhood at a formative period in our history, the years from 1880 to 1922, and explores the perceived problem around the concept of an innate Irish manliness, a problem made even more acute for a country working towards self-governance.

Discussing such literary and historical figures as Charles Stewart Parnell, WB Yeats, Lady Gregory, James Joyce and Patrick Pearse, Valente contends that the Irish nationalist and revivalist culture strenuously resisted any feminisation of Ireland as a consequence of colonial relations with Britain. Throughout, Valente traces the ways Irish revivalist writings at this period resisted this feminised (and thus implicitly subordinated) role by affirming the existence of a valid and distinctive Irish manliness.

Outlining British notions of the manly from writers as diverse as Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Arnold, Robert Baden-Powell and Charles Kingsley, Valente then argues persuasively that these ideas of manliness were presented as ethnic attributes and as a necessary harnessing of male animal spirits and vigour through self-restraint and governance into a proper Christian manliness. Valente counters this by claiming that the manly was, in fact, an ideological construct. This led to a problem for the idea of the manly Irish man, caught in what Valente calls the “double bind of Irish manhood”.

The Irish man needed to rebel to assert his manliness, but this very act of rebellion seemed evidence of a lack of self-restraint and of an uncivilised animal nature dangerously close to the bestial and uncouth caricatures of the English popular press.

Valente suggests persuasively that, as a public figure, Parnell transcended this double bind of Irish manhood through popular representation of his bodily presence as manly, dignified and restrained, and he illustrates his argument with a series of contemporary cartoons of the heroic, calm yet firmly rebellious Parnell.Valente’s argument is all the more powerful when he goes on to outline the distinct feminisation of Parnell in later images after his political downfall. Valente also examines key revival texts by Lennox Robinson, JM Synge, Pearse and Gregory, and shows how Pearse appropriated English ideas of muscular Christianity to validate Irish rebels, thus transforming rebellious Irish empire boys into manly yet warlike Fianna warriors.

The author is careful to critique these appropriations of the manly, for example when reconsidering James Stephens’s The Charwoman’s Daughter.Here Valente’s argument seems most prescient when he writes that this novel opens “some of the most pressing contradictions for postcolonial Ireland and indeed postcolonial societies across the globe: how ideological tools of decolonization and liberation can also prove instruments of self-imprisonment, how the subaltern identification with the dispossessed condition as a source of moral authority and mobilising power can slide into a fetishism of disadvantage”.

Valente’s view is that the texts most alive to the limitations of the code of the manly are the texts that have proved the most enduring.

In relation to The Playboy of the Western Worldhe writes: “Synge’s greatest play exposes the grimmest aspect of Revivalist manhood, from the treason felons to blood sacrifice to Cuchulainoid drama: the prospect of attaining the ideal always seemed to depend on the disappearance, one way or another, of its champions.”

The final chapter, on Joyce, is original and thought-provoking, particularly when he writes, “As such, unlike certain Irish writers we have examined, he comes not to claim manliness for the people but rather to critique it in their name.” The study goes on to provide illuminating close readings of the Dublinersstory Counterparts, of the Cyclops episode in Ulyssesand of Joyce’s deconstruction of the cruelties and the manly rituals of the Dublin male pub world.

This study may not always be accessible to a general reader, as Valente uses the specialist language of literary analysis. Nevertheless, it offers a range of welcome insights into this new field of cultural criticism and an original way of considering how we see (and write) ourselves.

Eibhear Walshe lectures in the school of English at University College Cork. His memoir, Cissie’s Abattoir, was published in 2009