Philosopher to address Abbey symposium on the national ‘traumas that were never named’

Richard Kearney reveals how trauma of Famine affects us even today

Sitting in the university town of Strasbourg near the French-German border, philosopher Richard Kearney is preparing for the last in a series of European lectures before travelling to Dublin for the Abbey theatre's "Theatre of memory" symposium.

For the Irish intellectual, the location in the heart of Alsace is imbued with meaning. "This is a place that has seen war, that has been the site of conflict between Protestant and Catholic throughout history. The 30 years war . . . more recent wars . . . Things people do not talk about . . ."

Trauma, the retelling of trauma and memory, is the subject of his lecture tomorrow at the Abbey’s three-day symposium on the role of theatre in commemoration. Dipping into the work of Homer, Shakespeare and Joyce, Kearney will return to a subject he knows well – the power of storytelling and narration in recovery and healing.

“How do we retrieve the lost memories of Irish history?” asks Kearney, “The first great acts of literature – Homer, the Persian Plays, were written after great carnage, after bloodshed. The figure of Odysseus, who is recognised at the end of the book by his childhood wound, means in Greek ‘the carrier of pain’. Joyce was very aware of Homer’s Ulysses as a story of wounds. Joyce’s work too is a story about recovering wounds.”


For Kearney, this is primarily the wound of the Great Famine. Kearney detects “a certain Famine memory . . . seeping up through the book”, evidenced, for example, by Leopold Bloom carrying a potato in his pocket during his one-day odyssey through Dublin.

"In Ireland there were generations when the Famine and other traumas were never named," says Kearney. Such repression has a profound impact on "transgenerational" memory and behaviour, he says, citing the inheritance of historical traumas by Irish American and Irish Australian "exiles".

Acting out
"When a wound goes underground and isn't spoken about, it's acted out – very often through violence, through alcoholism, through depression, through suicide. Because it is not spoken about, it is repeated. It's the 'non-said' that is carried through generations."

Kearney’s own relationship with his country is a complex one.

Born in Cork in 1954, he was educated by the Benedictines in Glenstal Abbey before completing his academic work in Paris where he encountered philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas.

On return to Ireland, and a post in the philosophy department at UCD, he quickly settled into the role of public intellectual, taking part in associations such as the Arts Council and the Irish Film Centre, and participated in debates on Northern Ireland. But gradually he became less visible in public life, taking an academic job at Boston College where he remains.

Was there a deliberate withdrawal from Ireland, a move away from public debate?

“It’s an interesting question. I think at one point I was simply over-committed with things . . . so many things that there was perhaps a need to go somewhere else for a while. Burn-out, I suppose . . . I got very depressed and needed to get away and Boston was very good to me. It was like a retreat, and it was then that I wrote quite a lot of my philosophy work.”

Kearney’s new experiment, “The Guestbook Project”, could be seen as something of a return to the public domain. Exploring the interface between religions and cultures, the multimedia enterprise aims to examine themes of violence and reconciliation, as well as hosts and strangers, in a number of divided cities, including Derry.

The project involves schoolchildren drawn from different world religions and cultures, he explains enthusiastically.

His most recent book Anatheism: Returning to God after God explores related territory. The work is the subject of his Strasbourg lecture, and has been recently translated into French, Italian and German.

Anatheism is not so much a religion, as an “attitude of mind”, explains Kearney. Drawing on the Greek word “ana” or “again”, it is about retrieving what remains in religion.

“It asks, once you go beyond atheism and theism – that kind of dogmatic fight characterised for example by [Christopher] Hitchens and [Richard] Dawkins versus the fundamentalists – is there a space opened up?

“It’s not about religion versus atheism, replacing the old gods with secular gods. That’s even worse in fact. After all, Stalin and Hitler tried that, the divinisation of the human – the new Soviet man for Stalin, the Aryan man for Hitler. It’s almost as bad if not worse than the divinisation of God.”

Anatheism is about returning to one’s own religion and retrieving its “genuine elements”, and Kearney contests this can only be done in dialogue with other religions and indeed “non-religions”.

Writing Trauma: From Memory to Fiction. Abbey Theatre, 4-5.30pm tomorrow