When in Rome, visit Irish in Italy exhibition at National Library

Catherine Dunne, a past winner of the Giovanni Boccaccio prize, tours a display celebrating cultural links from James Joyce to Pasolini performing Synge


Last month, I was invited by Antonio Bibbò, an indefatigable and enthusiastic scholar of all things to do with Ireland and Irish literature, to take part in a discussion centring around his recent exhibition in Rome, Irish in Italy.

Antonio is currently Marie Curie research fellow in Italian Studies at Manchester University, and he seized upon the idea of mounting the exhibition as part of this year’s commemoration of the 1916 Rising. He had also been intrigued by the recent publication of Lost Between/Tra una vita e l’altra, an anthology of work by contemporary Irish and Italian writers, published by New Island in Ireland and Guanda in Italy.

This anthology was the fruit of a vibrant Italo-Irish literary exchange founded by Federica Sgaggio and myself, back in 2011. For Bibbò, this initiative was yet further evidence of the strong literary links that have always existed between our two countries.

The National Library in Rome (Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale), which houses the exhibition on Irish in Italy, continuing until January 7th, 2017, is an imposing building situated on Viale Castro Pretorio, close to the B metro line and within walking distance of the city centre. It is one of the two central national libraries of Italy – the other is located in Florence. Opened in 1876, its interior today is sleek, modern and inviting. One of the recent changes is the imaginative and sensitive transformation of all its large, light, open areas into exhibition spaces.

As Antonio accompanies us throughout the exhibition, his passion for his subject is infectious. The result of his extensive and painstaking research is an impressive, not to mention illuminating, exploration of the interest in and affection for Ireland that has long been in evidence in Italy.

I will highlight the topics that I found particularly fascinating – but there is much to admire and to savour in this exhibition. It’s an experience made even more pleasurable by the clear, colourful graphics that form an integral part of it.

Joyce’s sojourn in Pola and Trieste is already well-known. When he visited Rome in 1906, he had the original idea for Ulysses – but it was as a playwright that he first came to the attention of the Italian public. In 1920, Enzo Ferrieri – a passionate promoter of Irish literature – published Joyce’s sole theatrical work, Exiles, in his literary magazine Il convegno.

But as far back as 1906, Mario Borsa was already devoting significant attention to Irish national theatre and this receptiveness to Irish writing was mirrored in the developing diplomatic ties between the two countries. These fledgling ties were nurtured by the Irish College in Rome and by clergymen such as Ernesto Buonaiuti. During the first World War, Carlo Linati introduced the playwrights of the Abbey Theatre to Italian audiences.

The events of 1916, however, had particular resonance in Italy. The Rising made headlines all over the world – but the reports of the events of Easter Week “were filtered through British news agencies” and most Italian newspapers favoured the British position. There were some dissenting voices – most notably those of the Socialist Dino Fienga and of the rector of the Irish College Michael O’Riordan, whose pamphlets, published with astonishing speed in the aftermath of Easter Week, attempted to provide a version of events more sympathetic to the rebels and to the complexities of the uprising. Joyce played a part, too, spreading news of Ireland through articles, conferences and translations. But the dissent was fragmented, and the official British view of Easter 1916 continued to hold sway.

However, the War of Independence changed that. “News of violence and persecution perpetrated by British troops against the civilian population” gave birth to a broad movement in Italy that supported Irish independence – a front comprising Catholics, Socialists, Nationalists and the nascent Fascist movement.

When the Fascists came to power in 1922, they “showed an interest in the political developments” taking place in Ireland. Indeed, from the mid-1930s onwards, Antonio writes that “Fascist intellectuals saw echoes of their own movement both in Eamon de Valera’s Ireland and Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts, as well as in the constant conflict with ‘perfidious Albion’”.

Italy entered the war against Britain in June 1940 and thereafter, proved itself ready to lend “a favourable ear” to Ireland. The second World War saw a boom in Italy in publications about Ireland, or perhaps more accurately a boom in publications about British colonial atrocities.

I was particularly intrigued by the exploration of the sudden growth in interest in Irish literature in Italy during the second World War. Operating on the principle that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity, the war years saw a golden age in Irish-Italian relations. Bibbò cites “the two nations’ shared hostility toward the United Kingdom” as the genesis of this new and increasing awareness of Ireland’s cultural specificity. The “European” Joyce enjoyed new and greater attention, along with what Bibbò terms “the truly Irish” Yeats, Synge and O’Casey, and the “so-called oriundi, foreign-born Irish writers like Eugene O’Neill”.

Another reason for the popularity of Irish theatre in the 1940s was that the publication and/or staging of French and British texts was prohibited by the Italian Copyright Agency on June 6th, 1940. Italian theatres had to find an alternative – and find one they did. As a result of the ban, “English language authors who had hitherto had little or no association with Ireland suddenly began to be presented as Irish”. Such names included Eugene O’Neill, George Kelly from Philadelphia, who rejoiced in an Irish surname, and even Emily Bronte – all were “presented as Irish”.

This subterfuge allowed the plays of O’Neill to be performed, along with those of Yeats, Synge, Wilde, Lord Dunsany and, above all, Sean O’Casey. It should be noted that the ruse also meant the opportunity to “dodge the payment of staging fees, and, in the true spirit of Fascism, undermine British cultural dominance”. The Irish were everywhere: even Pier Paolo Pasolini, as a young teenager, staged “performances of Synge in his living room”.

Space precludes me from further discussion of the many fascinations of this lively and stimulating exhibition. It only remains for me to say – if you’re in Rome, go and see it.

Antonio Bibbò has done a superb job.

The Irish in Italy exhibition was partly funded by the Irish Embassy in Rome.  In 2013, Catherine Dunne was awarded the Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction for The Things We Know Now, which was published in Italy as Quel che ora sappiamo

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