December 1st, 1972
FROM THE ARCHIVES:Francis Stuart was one of the most controversial writers of his generation, mainly because of his activities in Nazi Germany during the second World War. He was among the contributors to a series in 1972 on the Irish novel from which this is an extract. - JOE JOYCE
UP TO lately the adjective “Irish” in front of a poet, dramatist, story-writer or novelist had, more often than not, a tribal connotation.
Patrick Kavanagh, who at one time was acclaimed for this kind of Irishness, later came into conflict with a section of our literary establishment and with certain fellow-writers because he repudiated this element in some of his early work and in much of theirs. “The work of Yeats which is deliberately Irish,” he wrote, “sounds awfully phoney. Irishness is a form of anti-art.”
At that time there was still a great deal of this conscious Irishness, not only in our poetry but in a prose whose tradition it was from a long way back through Corkery to Frank O’Connor and beyond. Yet no first-rate fiction writer by international standards was ever regional in this conscious sense.
The novel in general and, what concerns us here, the Irish novel in particular, is being forced into areas that none of the other media are finely enough attuned to probe. The quality and flexibility of his imagination is what fits the novelist for this exploration, which is naturally a lonely and solitary one. In the case of the Irish novelist, doubly so by virtue of his more-than-usual isolation in his community.
As I started by saying, one of the most serious of these isolating factors for him is the tradition of “Irishness” by which he has been, and sometimes still is, judged. Another has been the persistent hostility of the Catholic Church whose peasant origins in Ireland has dominated much of its thinking about art and sex. Besides these local confrontations, the Irish novelist, like his fellows elsewhere, has to contend with powerful and hostile pressures from the consumer-computer society as well as the political one.
In an age when everything is reduced to utilitarian values, how can the fiction writer whose wares are utterly useless by these standards hope for a hearing?
As for the civil authority, with its power-hungry politicians who lack all candour and the simple human dignity to admit their mistakes (I am thinking of governments in general), how can the novelist persuade any large number of readers to accompany him in directions that go against the current of these powerful establishments?
There are causes for a wary hope. Some people cannot live by gadgets and political solutions alone. And, on another front, religion, even organised religion, and the fiction-writer have more in common than either has with the big-business or political worlds. As the Catholic Church in Ireland feels a need to reach the minds of the young and the perceptive, will she not at last be ready to enter into a dialogue with the writer?