restricted access Deconstructing Ireland: Identity, Theory, Culture (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 770-772

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Book Review

Deconstructing Ireland:
Identity, Theory, Culture

Colin Graham. Deconstructing Ireland: Identity, Theory, Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2001. 189 pp.

The concept "deconstruction" was pirated from academia and put to work in the public domain in the early nineties. No matter that Dan Rather and Andy Rooney never read Derrida and had no more idea or [End Page 770] what it meant to deconstruct something than did John Wayne Bobbitt, they used the word anyway—on the nightly news, on the op-ed pages, even in movie titles like Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry. The Chronicle of Higher Education even belligerently titled one of its weekly sidebars, "Deconstruct This." In many ways, Colin Graham's Deconstructing Ireland participates in this popularization of an extremely complex philosophical concept (the first authority that he quotes is Bart Simpson), but his popularization is not at all the uninformed, trendy, word-dropping of the news anchors and the media pundits. Deconstructing Ireland is, on one hand, a tour through the postmodernist vibrations of Ireland's rapidly evolving national culture while, on the other, an extremely thorough and well informed tour of postmodernist criticism itself, elucidating and applying not only Derrida's deconstruction but also ranging through the applicable theories of Barthes, Baudrillard, Fanon, Bhabha, Gramsci, Said, Saussure, Jameson, Althusser, Spivak, Deleuze, Foucault, and Levinas as well. No one can accuse this book of not having postmodernist range.

Published as part of the Edinburgh University Press series titled Tendencies: Identities, Texts, Cultures, Graham's Deconstructing Ireland is subtitled "Identity, Theory, Culture." Its goal is to read the culture of the modernist Ireland of the past dialogically in relation to the culture of the postmodernist "Celtic Tiger" Ireland of the present as a text of national identity then and now. Graham's book searches for that discourse site or sites where "a postcolonial Ireland meets a postmodern Ireland." The result of his reading is the realization that "Ireland is a future which is always posited and never attained." Early on, Graham characterizes his own book in these terms: "The conclusion which the book edges toward is that 'Ireland' stages its own deconstruction and that at every turn the idea unravels and reforms itself, always in anticipation of the next act of definition and criticism which, like this one, will be inadequately applied to it." Thus Graham, good Derridean that he is, is fully aware that deconstructing anything, especially the text(s) of a national culture as volatile, dialogic, and rapidly evolving as Ireland's, is but a momentary stop on a seemingly runaway train.

Though Graham avers early on that "Deconstructing Ireland is not a strict application of Jacques Derrida's philosophy to Irish Studies," his book is the best extant theoretical survey of the concepts, voices, theoretical stances, and influences upon that contemporary field. For literary [End Page 771] theorists and literary historians, his chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5, which focus upon Irish literature as the pulse of Irish Studies, are simply the best characterization of the growth of the Irish Studies concept in the twentieth century. He traces the history of Irish Studies from the "pursuit of Irish differences" by Thomas MacDonagh, David O'Donoghue, and Yeats early in the century to Stephen Gwynn, Sean O'Casey, Sean O'Faolain, and The Bell in the thirties and forties to the rise of Irish New Criticism (represented by Denis Donoghue, Donald Davie, and Vivien Mercier) in the fifties to the postmodernist literary critics, many from Queen's College, Belfast, in the north, led by Seamus Deane, Declan Kiberd, Edna Langley, and David Lloyd of the seventies and eighties to the appropriation of Irish Studies by postcolonial and subaltern theorists in the nineties. Graham's brilliant history of Irish literary criticism in these chapters certainly supports his book's overarching premise that "Ireland" is a national concept constantly in flux, consistently redefining itself, and consciously proud of its deconstructive and reformative powers. In other words, Ireland embraces an identity as an underdog (a subaltern) underestimated and undervalued...