- Sex, Nation, and Dissent in Irish Writing
Eibhear Walshe’s collection of a dozen essays by twelve writers plus a helpful introduction explores sex and gender issues in relation to the construction of Irish identities and the possibilities for dissent from constricting parameters of Irish patriarchy. Editing the first work to situate lesbian and gay perspectives in Irish critical studies, Walshe defines his project as “an exploration of the homoerotic as an imaginative element in Irish writing.” Defining key terms in the book’s title, Walshe notes that “sex” always refers to same-sex desire; “nation” moves among Irish, Anglo-Irish, Ulster-unionist, and English-masquerading-as-Irish sensibilities; and homosexuality places the person in a situation of “dissent,” yet the forms this dissent takes vary enormously in the writers and texts considered by the twelve essayists.
Criminalized since 1885, homosexual acts between consenting adults were finally legalized in Ireland in 1993. Empowered by this decriminalization, contemporary Irish gay and lesbian cultures have been experiencing a new sense of vitality. Walshe conceives his collection as seeking “to reclaim and identify this vital lesbian and gay imagination” and to celebrate it.
Though he warns that his text is not “a comprehensive survey of Irish lesbian and gay writing,” it does consider a wide range of texts in a variety of genres, from poetry and fiction through autobiography and letters to drama and film. The essays are arranged chronologically, beginning with those focusing on late nineteenth century writers and concluding with contemporary film. Each explores “a particular writer’s representation of sexual identity or the presence of the homoerotic within a genre” as well as locates that erotic identity in relation to national identity. [End Page 1040]
Exploring the poetry of Eva Gore-Booth, Emma Donoghue focuses on how the writer “appropriated linguistic and poetic conventions, as well as Celtic mythology, to feminise and lesbianise the stories handed down to her” and, in so doing, “quietly subverted her whole [Anglo-Irish] heritage.” David Alderson locates Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality as an element that, combined with Catholicism, Celticity, and dandyism, offered an alternative identity from and in opposition to the English culture that Wilde saw as narrowly moral and bourgeois. In his study of Forrest Reid’s novels, Colin Cruise rejects the notion that Reid was an “untroubling” writer whose “reassuring” fictions were most notable for their “idyllic ‘natural’ settings.” Instead, Cruise claims that the novels place Reid among the generations of men who expressed a “gay” sensibility but believed they could not practice their sexuality. Drawing upon selected letters and autobiographical writings, Roz Cowman shows how Somerville and Ross (Edith Somerville and Violet Martin) displaced “sexuality onto an eroticised landscape” in their Irish RM (Resident Magistrate) fictions. Cowman also explores their linkage of gender, sexuality, racial identity, religion, and social class, which linkage becomes first their ethos and then their aesthetic.
Two essays examine the fictions of Elizabeth Bowen. Patricia Coughlan discusses how Bowen represents attachments and feelings between women, finding that in her earlier stories and novels, woman-to-woman attachments are marginalized, having almost no place in the accepted social scheme. In Bowen’s later work, the prevailing sex/gender system “is being searchingly interrogated.” Declan Kiberd locates Bowen in the context of the Anglo-Irish as a “hyphenated people, forever English in Ireland, forever Irish in England.” As such a split person, Bowen speaks for all uprooted, dispossessed Irish who were forced to distance themselves from their native background, Kiberd claims. Walshe explores the autobiographies and two plays of Michael MacLiammoir, born Alfred Willmore in London and at age 18 moving to Ireland, where he became a self-made Irishman, famous both for his acting and his open homosexuality when that orientation was still recognized as criminal. In his essay, Walshe considers how MacLiammoir negotiated himself within the prevailing Irish literary and cultural context. Anne Fogarty’s essay looks at the depiction of love between women as portrayed “unabashedly and directly” in a novel by Kate O’Brien and a short story collection by Mary Dorcey...