- The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism
Irish cultural and literary studies are fraught and contested fields of inquiry. In the 1970s, the ‘revisionist’ debate about the objectivity and effects of Irish historiography divided practitioners and audiences. More recently, feminist approaches and postcolonial studies have jostled for position within the Irish academy, prompting divergent analyses and stimulating exchanges. In his engaging introduction to The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism, [End Page 223] Terence Brown positions this study and his broader body of work, largely eschewing theoretical lenses and perspectives. His earlier contributions to Irish Studies include books on Louis MacNeice, W. B. Yeats, and Northern Irish poetry, but he is best known for the ground-breaking Ireland: A Social and Cultural History (1981), a seminal text where Brown’s pioneering interdisciplinary perspective situated Irish literature in its social and political contexts. The book under review comprises a collection of twenty-one short essays on a range of mostly canonical authors, dating from 1990 onwards. It includes essays on Irish poets such as Louis MacNeice, Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, John Hewitt, Michael Longley, Brendan Kennelly, Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon. Other essays focus on the fiction of John McGahern, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien and John Banville, while the plays of Brian Friel are also considered. Remaining essays explore the Literary Revival, Irish writing and World War I, Irish modernism in the 1930s, the “Irish Dylan Thomas,” Hubert Butler, and the “Irish Shakespeare.”
While The Literature of Ireland situates both authors and literary texts in the context of political and artistic developments in Ireland and internationally, what is most pleasing about these essays is Brown’s attentiveness to and explication of individual prose passages and poems. Indeed, when Brown notes of Seamus Heaney that “he has known from the beginning that the peculiar power of poetry is to offer a kind of liberating music, a lyric occasion which can seem free of all moral motions, secure in its own self-delight” (190), he could as easily be describing his own critical work in this book. For Brown is strikingly insightful and at his most engaging when offering close readings of, for example, the influence of the Puritan tradition in the poetry of Louis MacNeice or on that poet’s response to World War II. Brown’s evident delight and his nuanced interpretations of selected extracts provide lucid and informative readings for his readers. In addition, in his introduction, Brown highlights his “settled sense” that the study of Irish literature and culture necessitates “an awareness of developments in the neighboring island” (11). His consideration of Irish writers in the context of cultural and political developments in Britain and the rest of Europe allows him generate interesting and contextualized readings.
Early on in The Literature of Ireland, Brown distances himself from the “force field of postcolonial interpretations” that has recently dominated Irish studies; however, his summary of this field does not suggest a thorough engagement with the possibilities of this critical framework within the Irish context. Later, his reading of Daniel Corkery as expounding a nationalist ideology that accommodated certain modernist concerns seems precisely a site where an additional postcolonial lens would prove illuminating and enriching. By articulating his exclusion of postcolonial theory in the introduction, [End Page 224] the limiting effects of non-engagement can seem more difficult to argue with in the subsequent essays; but these effects are constraining nonetheless. No such demurral is offered when it comes to feminist concerns about the occlusion of women’s voices within Irish Studies. Yet, from reading Brown’s text, one could be forgiven for thinking there are few Irish female literary critics and even fewer Irish female authors. Not one of the twenty one essays published here explores the work of an Irish woman author and there is no evidence of even a passing engagement with female poets, playwrights or novelists; there are some references to women writers in the context of lists, for example, of short story writers or novelists. In the...