Walter Macken, Critical Perspectives, review: profile of a reluctant insider

Essay collection succeeds in its aim to undo ‘decades of scholarly neglect’

Walter Macken: Critical Perspectives
Walter Macken: Critical Perspectives
Author: Sandra Heinen & Katharina Rennhak (eds)
ISBN-13: 978-1782054917
Publisher: Cork University Press
Guideline Price: €39

This essay collection aims to undo the “decades of scholarly neglect” of Walter Macken’s output and succeeds admirably. The Irish author addressed taboo topics and issues of gender, class, race, nation, religion, age, etc, always focusing on the experiences of “the little man and woman”.

His “strategy of depicting ‘sensations’ at the intersection of the conservative and the progressive, the passionate and the rational, the traditional and the modern, the orthodox and heterodox is a landmark” of his work, according to the editors Sandra Heinen and Katharina Rennhak.

The first five chapters explore his plays, including in the Irish language for Galway’s An Taibhdhearc theatre (as a “reluctant insider”, he had an ambiguous attitude to the language-revival movement); they consider issues such as post-revolution disillusionment, constructions of class and male gender identity, the relationship between tradition and modernity and formal innovation. The next five chapters focus on Macken’s narrative texts, especially the prominent position of his historical trilogy, which reveal that his approach to history is “expository and didactic”. These novels’ remarkable national and international success contributed to imagining the Irish community both at home and abroad, and foregrounded a different concept of history in each of the books.

I Am Alone (1949) is his only novel set entirely outside of Ireland and its representation of the London-Irish diaspora explores various aspects of Irishness from a different angle, involving “an unusually critical discussion of controversial issues”.

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Macken’s short stories are seen as propagating the early 20th-century concept of “muscular Catholicism”, considered “the timeless core of traditional Irish communities”. His young-adult adventure novels are interpreted as clever national allegories of the young Irish Republic and as both entertaining and instructive. One of these, Flight of the Doves, proved a popular film adaptation but it modified images of its source text to represent Ireland as “a place of longing and an attractive tourist destination”.

His sons Walter and Ultan share memories of their father in the final chapter; they provide valuable insights into his working methods as well as making clear their deep affection for their parents.

This scholarly analysis shows what a prolific and versatile writer Macken was and how his different genres handled relevant and contemporary subjects, providing valuable insights into “the tensions at the heart of period” – mid 20th-century Ireland – during which he wrote.