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Robert Welch’s most recent book is a continuation of a previous study, Irish Poetry From Moore to Yeats (London: Colin Smythe, 1980). That earlier [End Page 899] book was limited to nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish poets, including Thomas Moore, J. J. Callanan, James Clarence Mangan, Samuel Ferguson, Aubrey de Vere, William Allingham, and W. B. Yeats. The volume was intended to be a look at Anglo-Irish poetry which preceded Yeats. The present volume’s second chapter, “Language and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century,” covers virtually the same poets as the previous book, with the addition of Edmund Burke. The present volume begins with a brief introductory chapter, titled “Change and Stasis in Irish Writing,” which is intended to be a theoretical or methodological orientation. Following the chapter on the nineteenth-century writers, Welch then has individual chapters on the following writers: George Moore, W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, James Joyce, Joyce Carey, Francis Stuart, Samuel Beckett, Mairtain O’Cadhain, Sean O’Riordan, Brian Friel, and Seamus Heaney. The final chapter is titled: “Movement and Authority.”
The weakness in Welch’s first book was that it lacked a thesis and an argument. Its contents was devoted entirely to these poetic precursors of Yeats. The book amounted to little more than an annotated survey of what Welch himself admitted were at best minor poets. As one can see from the title and organization of this new book, Welch is trying to provide a methodology and critical “framework.” Unfortunately, as one can tell from the extremely vague terms he uses, “changing states,” “transformations,” “change and stasis,” “language and tradition,” “movement and authority,” this effort at providing a framework fails to clarify much for the reader. It was also a mistake to deal with nearly a dozen writers, and to survey all their major works in a volume of this size. And, of course, one wonders about other equally major Irish writers who are left out. This omission is particularly apparent with respect to Irish women writers, who get barely a mention in the book.
The book Welch should have written might have taken a few of the myriad themes he introduces generally throughout the book, and developed chapters around these themes, chapters which could then have covered relevant writers, whose inclusion would then have been clear. Then the omission of other writers would have been more logical.
Since Welch intends his book to be an introduction to these modern Irish writers, he devotes equal space to each writer. Some of these writers who are fairly minor, such as Joyce Carey, Francis Stuart, Mairtin O’Cadhain, and Sean O’Riordain, can be adequately covered in such a brief introductory survey. But other major writers, such as [End Page 900] Moore, Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Beckett, Friel, and Heaney, cannot be adequately discussed in such a limited fashion. His chapter on Beckett, for example, deals only with the fiction and not with Beckett’s drama, a very puzzling decision, since Beckett virtually stopped writing serious fiction for the last three decades of his life. Another significant weakness in the book is that it does not provide any “critical context” for these major writers. Welch’s chapters read as if no previous critical studies have been done on Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, et al. In each chapter, with virtually no exception, the footnotes deal with the primary writings only.
The chapters which deal with minor writers sometimes do provide interesting observations, simply because one is not as familiar with their works, writers such as Carey, Stuart, O’Cadhain, and O’Riordain. The latter two, as one can tell from the Irish spel ling of their names, write exclusively in Irish. One writes fiction and the other poetry. Both feel deeply and continuously the presence in their native Ireland of an oppressor’s language, English. All of the other Irish writers whom Welch discusses have elected to write in what in Ireland is known as “Irish-English.” They feel forced to use the English language, but, especially in the case of Friel and...