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Declan Kiberd. The Irish Writer and the World

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Declan KIBERD, The Irish Writer and the World. Cambridge University Press, 2005, 331 pp., €23.53, ISBN 0-52-160257-2

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1The Irish author and the world is a collection of nineteen articles originally published by Declan Kiberd between 1978 and 2003. A note on the text specifies that the articles have not been altered in order to be included in this volume. They are not arranged in chronological order, which is accounted for in the introduction. The introductory chapter gives useful information on the political and cultural context – either specifically Irish or more global – in which the articles were originally published. It also relates them to the personal situation of the author, recalling his student days or reflecting on his teaching at university, and mentioning some major encounters. The reader is therefore provided from the start with an insight into the intellectual itinerary of the author and reminded of some turning points in Irish history. The general perspective is that of Cultural Studies. Literature is considered as the product of a historical situation but also as an agent of change.

2In “The Fall of the Stage Irishman” D. Kiberd explains that from the time of Shakespeare to the end of the 1970s, the presence of the stage Irishman on the English stage was a way of addressing the question of the relationship between the two cultures. English authors elaborated the image of the Irishman as the exact opposite of the image they wished to convey of themselves. Until the 19th century, the Irish, especially those living in England, were quite happy with this situation because it pictured them as entirely harmless. They also became experts at using this mask in order to obtain something from the English. But that attitude could not last after O’Connel’s political failure. The Abbey theatre was created in reaction, in order to promote another point of view, a more internal one, on the Irish. In the 70s, the Fianna Fail government announced a tax holiday for all creative artists, which resulted in the return of many writers but, at the same time, threatened their independence and turned them into stage Irish writers.

3“Storytelling: the Gaelic tradition” explores the relationships between folk tales and the modern short story. For quite a long time, the short story has been the most popular of all literary forms with Irish readers. It was also the form in which many writers chose to depict their vision of emerging Ireland. If Corkery (born 1878) claimed to collect his stories from the oral tradition, he included his own literary comments in them, which was a way of asserting his authorial presence. Others deny that modern literature can ever be founded on folk tales and consider that the virtue of the short story is to permit intense self-expression and to select a single aspect of life. Even if there are traces of orality in the conversational mode of some short stories, it is by no means a general rule, and the Gaelic tradition of storytelling has had more influence on writers in the Irish language. Anyway, for D. Kiberd, “It is now clear that the greatest short stories, in both Irish and English, owe more to the narrative genius of their authors than to the Gaelic tradition of storytelling.”

4“Writers in Quarantine? The case for Irish studies” challenges the distinction made between Anglo-Irish literature and Gaelic literature. The author reminds us that Synge attempted to synthesize the two traditions after reflecting on the self-imposed quarantine of writers in Gaelic due to the introversion of the Gaelic movement. Synge was one of the earliest translators and this helped him to forge his own literary dialect and to recreate the Gaelic modes in English. D. Kiberd would like schools and universities to follow in Synge’s footsteps and stop deepening the chasm between the two traditions. He calls for integrated literature classes.

5“Synge, Yeats and bardic poetry” concentrates on the two methods present in Irish modernism. Some writers (a line going from Swift to Yeats) protected old ideas by affording them the coverage of experimental, contorted new forms while others (from Sheridan through O’Casey) sought to give new ideas the defensive armour of the older forms. Synge explored the Gaelic tradition and elaborated a conscious imitation of the function of the ancient bard. The Cavalier poets were endowed with a vital self-mocking humour and found a persona ready-made in the bardic tradition. They were also fascinated by what was difficult and imposed strict technical rules on themselves. Synge and Yeats were both influenced by the bardic tradition and insisted on public recitation. The Abbey was a literary theatre where the major authors of plays were also directors and producers. The actors were merely the exponents of the theories of Yeats and Synge.

6“George Moore’s Gaelic lawn party” is based on an anecdote. It recalls the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893 and portrays George Moore as a leader of the Gaelic revival, who never managed to learn the language and went to all kinds of excesses in defence of Irish. Moore became less and less enthusiastic about the Gaelic League when he realised that the catholic clergy were taking control of entire branches of the League, and he ended up hating both the country and the language. The article is most entertaining and gives a good idea of the idealism of the revivalists at the beginning of the 20th century.

7“The flowering tree: modern poetry in Irish” focuses on the evolution of Irish poetry in the second half of the 20th century. Kiberd considers that in 1949, O’Cadhain, with his novel Cré na Cille produced the one undisputed masterpiece of Irish modernism. He remarks that “If modernism is a literature of extreme situations, then few groups have professed this sense of extremity more obviously than the Irish.” Nevertheless, D. Kiberd observes that during the 60s, the quality of the literature produced did not match the extensive efforts at reviving Irish and that it was not before the 70s that the literature in Irish enjoyed a minor renaissance. The INNTI poets created a new audience for poetry and expressed great respect for Yeats who was for them a source of inspiration. D. Kiberd believes that today’s Gaelic poets are strong and brave enough to take their claim as artists rather than as Gaelic speakers.

8In “On national culture”, D. Kiberd draws a parallel between Fanon and Wilde who share the same déraciné status and are the products of colonisation: “Wilde was another instance of the colonial intellectual who came to the metropolitan centre only to discover that he was Irish, not English, and who evolved there a vision which, lacking local specificity and addressing itself more to an English than an Irish audience, found in the end an equal welcome in all countries.” In the same way as Wilde produced a hilarious mimicry of a well-made play, Yeats subjected the Shakespearean form to the disruption of the Cuchulain cycle. In fact, writers disrupted the master narratives of the neighbouring island with their own secret knowledge.

9“White skins, black masks: celtism and négritude” develops the idea that the late 19th and early 20th century programme of cultural decolonisation in Ireland is an important precursor of a related struggle in Africa more than forty years later. The Irish colonial situation resembles that of Africa, colonised by the French, because the latter sought to assimilate the natives to their own culture, whereas the English in Africa tended to leave the native cultures intact. As a matter of fact, Senghor in the Paris of the 30s enacted for African intellectuals a role similar to that played by Yeats for Irish writers in the London of the 1890s.

10“From nationalism to liberation” states that for most of the 19th century and for some time before that, England and the English had been represented to Irish minds as the very epitome of the human norm whereas the invention of modern Ireland had far more to do with the state formation of other European countries such as France or Italy. In other respects, the analogies would be with the emerging peoples of the decolonising worlds. However, the big difference is the sheer proximity of the imperial power. Nationalism helped break up the self-hatred within an occupied people. The fact that the written language of school had become entirely different from the language at home created a sense of inadequacy. The Irish ended up beating children for speaking English as they themselves had been beaten for speaking Irish.

11“The war against the past” focuses on historical evaluations. Yeats viewed 19 th century Irish history as the story of O’Connel and Parnell, and it is this vision that was inserted into textbooks. In the 30s and the 40s, the Irish electorate re-elected ex-gunmen who talked repeatedly about past gunplay. In such a culture, people were judged on what they said they were and not on what they did. The article is divided into different parts i.e. “Internal colonialism”, “The search for an abusable past”, “Escape from freedom”, “Revival or revolution?”, “Fathers and sons – Irish style”, “Rebels or revolutionaries?” D. Kiberd shows that literature tackled the problem of repetition. Synge’s last play Deidre of the Sorrows is a criticism of Yeats’s Deidre and Joyce’s Bloom is not aware that he re-enacts someone else’s wanderings. The whole article revolves around the idea of a mistaken identity – the rebels of 1916, for example, donned the mask of Cuchulain – that is an obstacle to the development of balanced individuals and citizens. This process originates in colonialism and is likened to that affecting other colonised peoples.

12“The elephant of revolutionary forgetfulness” deals with the memory of 1916 in the Republic. The date of the article (1991) corresponds to the date indicated in the title of the first section of the article “1991: Who fears to speak of Easter Week?” D. Kiberd strongly criticises the government and the press for deliberately failing to organise a commemoration of 1916 at a time when the majority of the population wished to express the pride they took in the event. Such an attitude is a way of depriving the people of their memory. The second section “1966 and all this” shows that the commemoration of 1916 in 1966 was already a biased revision of history aimed at glorifying Pearse at the expense of Connolly. It even became fashionable to criticise nationalism and to avoid mentioning the word colonialism . In the last section “1916: forgotten but not gone?”, the author explains that bouts of communal amnesia are characteristic of most post-colonial states. Even if the murderous IRA bombings of the 70s and the 80s have made it hard to honour the generation of 1916, we have to acknowledge, through the lessons of Eastern Europe and the developing world, that nationalism is still a potent force.

13“Reinventing England” puts forward the idea that the Irish colony “was also an anticipatory illumination of real potential, an image of the future England”. Wilde and Shaw considered that the strain of running an Empire had left Britain a distorted society. “The projection of despised or soft feminine qualities onto Celts or Indians has led inexorably to a diminishment of womanhood at home.” D. Kiberd argues that English literature could be read as post-colonial literature. He concludes that “England is more likely to achieve a satisfying definition in endless acts of negotiation with those of other identities, not just Irish and Welsh, but Indian and Trinidadian too.”

14In “Museums and learning”, the author explores the link between history and museums. The latter represent history seen from the point of view of the victors who tend to consider that their victory brought history to a conclusion. Museums are thus another product of colonialism and deprive native people of their properties, and of the historical discourse attached to them. It is true nevertheless that some curators have succeeded in going against this tendency and in bringing visitors to question the colonialist’s point of view by systematically relating the past to the present. In Northern Ireland, “two utterly contested visions of the past exist side by side with no short term likelihood of resolution.” D. Kiberd concludes that “maybe the best answer so far found is to “federalise the idea of a national museum so that all possible histories are included: and in Ireland that would embrace children’s, labour and women’s museums, as those of a nationalist or unionist disposition.”

15“Joyce’s Ellmann, Ellman’s Joyce”, is a tribute paid to Dick Ellmann, the American critic whose name is for ever associated to Joyce’s. The author argues that “the writings of Yeats, Wilde and Beckett, as well as those of Joyce, seem quite inseparable from his explanations of them: and in helping the world to understand the Irish modernists, Ellmann inevitably helped the Irish to understand themselves”. Ellmann is depicted as a cosmopolitan polymath who never really took to Ireland, although he liked Irish individuals. “For him, vices were national, virtues individual” is a phrase that recurs in many articles. Ellmann’s great achievement was to bring the genius of Joyce to the recalcitrant English, “Ireland he left to another generation of critics.”

16“Multicuturalism and artistic freedom” focuses on the reception of S. Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. For D. Kiberd, Irish artists and intellectuals should have been more responsive than their European colleagues to the Islamic criticism of Rushdie, owing to their colonial past, but it is not what happened, probably because “The official self-image of the Irish state is Eurocentric”. For the author, people who burnt the book felt less like the violators than the violated, and he considers that intolerance is almost invariably the manifestation of a jeopardised identity that can be found as often among Muslims as among secularists, among Irish Catholics as among English liberals. Although the article is hard on Rushdie, the conclusion, which draws a parallel between him and V. S. Naipaul, is that both authors are victims of European civilisation.

17“The Celtic Tiger – a cultural history” recalls that the now well-known phrase was first used in 1994 in a report on the Irish economy by a young Irish dealer at the Banque Nationale de Paris. The question, for D. Kiberd, is not why there is such prosperity but why it took so long. The answer is to be found in the colonial history of the country whose middle class emerged very late and in which the family, as “the largest social unit to which a colonised people could subscribe in acts of effective resistance to the old imperial power” turned into “a barrier to the development of a truly republican notion of community.” Far from being fixated upon the past, Ireland provided evidence of masked modernity over the past hundred and fifty years.

18“The city in Irish culture” essentially focuses on Dublin as an atypical European capital, which was never really planned and looks more like an agglomeration of villages, peopled by inhabitants who have spent their childhood in the countryside. It seems that the opposition between urban and rural is not really valid since the two worlds followed a similar evolution due to the colonial history: “The decline of Dublin after the Union was matched, in short, by a slow motion collapse of rural societies.” In the 1970s, modernity came from the Gaeltacht, across the countryside and hit Dublin last “because too many of its minds were still turning East, to London and beyond”. Today’s Dublin is marked by the presence of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and China.

19“Strangers in their own country: multiculturalism in Ireland” raises the issue of racism in Ireland. Although the Irish have assimilated many immigrants including some of British origin, and some artists have developed contacts with the third world, there have been recent outbreaks of racism. The author seems to follow commentators arguing that “much of what is being expressed is not racism in the strict sense so much as distress-signals emitted by local communities, who find the ecology of their street or village massively disturbed by a bureaucratic central government, which suddenly “plants” refugees in their midst”. A comparatively small number of applicants have received asylum whereas the economy is in need of workers. D. Kiberd implies that politicians are not providing the right answers to the problem of racism and warns them that “only a people secure in their national philosophy are capable of dealing confidently with those who come among them with deep commitments to alternative codes”.

20The Irish Writer and the World offers a post colonial reading of Irish literature and society. Declan Kiberd appears deeply committed to the improvement of his country’s situation and champions tolerance and integration on all levels. The style is always very clear and all the articles are thought-provoking. Though the demonstrations are rigorous, the book is not devoid of humorous anecdotes which add to the reader’s pleasure. This major contribution will be of much interest to all those involved in Irish Studies but also to those who focus on the Commonwealth either from a literary or a historical point of view.

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Vanina JOBERT-MARTINI, « Declan Kiberd. The Irish Writer and the World », E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 6, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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