John Hildebidle's Five Irish Writers and Richard J. Thompson's Everlasting Voices: Aspects of the Modern Irish Short Story are frustrating and deficient assessments of Irish literary achievement, disappointing to general readers and especially to enthusiasts of Irish fiction. Even Hildebidle's intention, stated at the start of his analysis, is questionable: to reintroduce five Irish writers "likely now to be ignored, or at best relegated to a peripheral place, in any account of twentieth century Irish writing, lost somewhere in the shadows between Joyce and his artistic sons, Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien." Irish literary historians have neglected Kate O'Brien, yes, but hardly Liam O'Flaherty, Elizabeth Bowen, Sean O'Faolain, and Frank O'Connor. Indeed, the literary histories that Hildebidle cites in his bibliography, those of Maurice Harmon, Terence Brown, Seamus Deane, and A. Norman Jeffares, belie his contention; each considers the authors he mentions—although admittedly in less depth and detail than Five Irish Writers.
These writers need no reintroduction into twentieth-century Irish literary history. Rather, they should be studied—closely—as Irish authors, to consider their relationships to the country and to the segment of its culture into which they were born, to establish their common social and aesthetic characteristics and their inevitable—and crucial—differences. Five Irish Writers, in its title and its introduction, promises such a work. But Hildebidle fails to deliver. After five very brief biographical sketches that pronounce the diversity of his subjects, the author asserts that despite a common "dislocation" from the land of their birth, each writer experienced Ireland as a "magnetic force . . . a locus of possibly redemptive changelessness" that held a "persistent attraction." Had he examined only the regionalism of these five writers, their rootedness to a specific Irish locale in a time of political turbulence and change, Hildebidle would have written a useful, engaging book—the book his most successful sections on Sean O'Faolian and Kate O'Brien suggest. But instead of discussing how these writers respond aesthetically to the exigencies of their Irishness—which is, in fact, what makes each a good and compelling, if not great, writer—Hildebidle eschews all social and political considerations and, instead, devotes each chapter to a formalist reading of a single writer's work. The reader unfamiliar with Ireland, its past and its literature, may welcome Hildebidle's intelligent explications, encyclopedic and finely detailed, which direct her to the five authors' dominant themes and images. But for Hildebidle to ignore, for example, the historical significance and public symbolism of "famine" in O'Flaherty's writing and the "big house" in Bowen's, to overlook the degree to which these authors were influenced by their immediate cultures, is to confound the informed reader.
Hildebidle makes no use of the biographical particulars with which he begins his study and barely attempts to relate the writers to each other or to the specific segment of Irish society from which they descend and which they address. As a consequence, the book ill serves the reader seeking a definition of literary Irishness and an elucidation of Irish literary tradition.
In the "Afterword" of Five Irish Writers, Hildebidle acknowledges that he may not have fulfilled his stated promise to his reader, and then asserts its antithesis: [End Page 630] that the writers' "universality," not their Irishness, is paramount, and that the public dimensions of their works are always secondary to the personal. Adopting a narrow and critically uninformed definition of public—and political—Hildebidle maintains that the essence of each writer lies within the works themselves, not in their connections to the work of other writers, nor even to the effects of their disparate cultures. Such a concluding statement leaves the reader wondering at the title, Five Irish Writers. Why not Five Writers?
If Hildebidle ignores the individual cultural perspectives of his subjects, Richard J. Thompson, in Everlasting Voices: Aspects of the Modern Irish Short Story, fails to consider any criticism written about the Irish...