- Reviewed by
Joe Cleary’s Cambridge Companion to Irish Modernism is an overdue introduction to Irish modernism. As a field, “Irish Modernism” has, of course, flourished out of the expansion of both modernist and Irish studies, but it has been slow to carve out a distinct space of its own. A 2007 conference at Trinity College Dublin titled “Irish Modernism” produced a 2010 volume of the same name, edited by the conference organizers, Edwina Keown and Carol Taaffe. But, other than this collection, Cleary’s has been the first attempt to bring together Irish modernism’s various components in order to present a working definition of the term and an introduction to the field.
Cleary’s introduction to the collection is masterful, skillfully highlighting the possible reasons why Irish modernism has been slow to develop. One reason is the dominance of Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett in modernist studies: Cleary asserts that these figures must “remain at the centre of this volume, but, as the chapters by Laura O’Connor, Emer Nolan, Ben Levitas and Luke Gibbons variously remind us, they are also part of a tapestry of modernist artistic achievement that encompasses several media, and that was created in several locations in the period roughly between 1890 and 1960” (2). A second reason for the slow growth of Irish modernism is that the term itself “provokes knotty questions of definition” (4). Cleary asks: “Should it refer to a modernism produced by Irish artists? And what exactly would the term ‘Irish’ encompass in an era during which Ireland underwent a radical and continuous process of political and cultural redefinition …?” (4). He is clearly referring to the formation of the Irish Free State and the partition of the island into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. A third reason provided in this Companion is the problem of how to delineate a distinctly “Irish” modernism when so many of its major figures spent much of their lives abroad, were born in other countries, were influenced by continental artists, were funded by American benefactors, or were “Anglo-Irish.” These questions are not necessarily unique to Irish modernism, but when they are explored together, their possible answers begin to convey a brand of modernism that is unique to the particularities of “Ireland” from the late nineteenth through to the twentieth century.
Two of the strongest essays in the collection are those by Cleary himself: “European, American, and Imperial Conjunctures” and “Irish American Modernisms.” The former places Irish modernism in the larger contexts of Anglo-American and European modernisms: Cleary asserts how “many of the most daring modernist experiments in the arts were actually undertaken by artists from the peripheries or semi-peripheries of Europe” (38), and he places Joyce and Yeats alongside Kafka, Döblin, Faulkner, Rilke, and Lorca (curiously, he also includes Pound, Eliot, and Stein here, situating them as firmly and clearly in American modernism as he does Faulkner). For Cleary, any work that is neither French nor English exists on this periphery, and the “hectic Modernist experiments” which were produced in these peripheral cultures are examples of the impact of “conditions of combined and uneven development” (and here he points to the work of Perry Anderson and Franco Moretti) (38).
Cleary emphasizes the influence of French symbolism, continental aestheticism, and the avant-garde on Moore, Wilde, Egerton, and Shaw, to whom he refers as the first generation of Irish modernists. He goes on to describe two more generations of Irish writers, the second including Yeats, Synge, and Joyce, and the third—Seán Keating, Thomas MacGreevy, Elizabeth Bowen, Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, and Máirtín Ó Cadhain, among several others. The works of this “third generation” extend well into the 1970s, as shown by the example of Oisín Kelly’s 1977 sculpture, Jim Larkin, and Irish modernism’s creeping movement into the present day. This growing transition is characterized largely by humor and satire and aligns with the earlier [End Page 417] reference to the “uneven development” of the movement (a factor notably...