- Empire’s Wake: Postcolonial Irish Writing and the Politics of Modern Literary Form by Mark Quigley
Emerging from a recent wave of new modernist scholarship, Mark Quigley’s first book, Empire’s Wake, is a rich exploration of Irish postcolonial writing and modernist form. Taking cues from recent scholarship’s increasingly pluralistic approach to modernist studies,1 the study compellingly argues that a distinct postcolonial modernism developed within Irish literature in the post-independence period. Quigley challenges the argument that early Irish postcolonial writing was aesthetically retrograde or disengaged from modernism, and instead treats it as a distinct historical framework. Focusing on a second generation of modernist thinkers, Quigley traces the transformation of modernism’s critique of subjectivity, underpinning detailed readings of the chosen texts with a consistent dedication to historicization. He follows the development of this intellectual and aesthetic shift, assesses its implications, and argues that these Irish postcolonial texts express a deeper critique of modern subjectivity, building upon an underlying antimimetic impulse in modernism.
Early Irish postcolonial writing flags the beginning of a form of modernist self-scrutiny. Quigley identifies the emergence of this moment as early as the late 1920s. He specifically problematizes characterizations of the Blasket Island texts as emblematic of tradition and provincialism, while considering the connections between the region’s geographical liminality and the political and cultural boundaries that were being constructed “as part of the initial coalescence of Irish postcoloniality” (25) during the divisive post-independence period. Quigley demonstrates how the simplistic aesthetics of Tomás Ó Criomhthain and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s writings, which he treats as late-modernist works emerging from the Gaelic periphery, ironically links them to the legacy of an earlier manifestation of modernism that the texts deliberately challenge.
Seán Ó Faoláin’s relatively marginal status within modernist studies becomes the useful starting point of Quigley’s second chapter. Although [End Page 375] well-established as a dominant figure in Irish post-independence writing, Ó Faoláin has rarely been studied outside of this specific localized context. Quigley seeks to redress the critical neglect towards Ó Faoláin in modernist studies more generally, insisting on his contribution to the emergence of a distinctly postcolonial late Irish modernism. He highlights Ó Faoláin’s earlier writings as a rich source of meditation on modern literary form in the aftermath of revolution and independence, and argues that these early writings articulate an artistic response to the political and social changes wrought by Irish postcoloniality.
Quigley closely attends to Ó Faoláin’s first novel, A Nest of Simple Folk. He specifically demonstrates how the author’s postcolonial realism exacts a critique of high modernist aesthetic practice, as it disrupts established modes of naturalism and ironically counteracts them by redeploying what Quigley refers to as “material emphases.” Quigley traces the political implications of Ó Faoláin’s postcolonial realism, arguing that his aesthetics can be aligned with “a left-wing republican perspective that would see the Irish Free State as an illegitimate or incomplete product of the anticolonial revolution” (70).
Up until relatively recently, Beckett’s Irishness was critically marginalized and treated as a “curious biographical footnote” (122) to his cosmopolitanism. In response to this, Quigley specifically addresses the status of Beckett’s Irishness in relation to both transnational and Irish postcolonial modernisms. Moving to a later phase in Irish literary history, he discusses the ways in which Beckett’s midcentury work marks a distinct shift in Irish postcoloniality, embodying the formal rupture pioneered by Ó Faoláin in 1949, and positioning Ireland within a burgeoning global modernity. Quigley also suggests that The Unnamable represents the most thorough critique of subjectivity in Beckett’s prose works.
Shifting the critical lens to a much later moment in post-independence Irish history, the study concludes with a detailed investigation into the postmodernist historiographical and aesthetic frameworks of Frank McCourt’s 1996 novel Angela’s Ashes. The text encompasses two separate defining moments in the history of the Irish State, as it was written during a time of unprecedented economic...