Sounding Irish Radio at Midcentury
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Sounding Irish Radio at Midcentury
The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931–1968. Emily Bloom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xii + 224. $80.00 (cloth).
Ireland and the Problem of Information: Irish Writing, Radio, Late Modernist Communication. Damien Keane. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014. Pp. x + 195. $69.95 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

Reading through these two excellent new volumes situated at the intersection of radio studies and modern Irish literature, one feels presented with two very different instantiations of the radio listener. On the one hand, we have the dial-twirling shortwave enthusiast, stationed in (perhaps) Cork, and tuning in to transmissions Irish in affiliation but emanating from Dublin, Addis Ababa, New York City, Belfast, Geneva, London, and Berlin—transmissions that dazzle by their variety and that impart an awareness of their connectedness in dispersal. On the other hand, we have the idealized Third Programme listener of the midcentury BBC, at domestic ease in (perhaps, again) Belfast, attending closely and in the best tradition of appointment listening to familiar voices made new by the sense of their sudden, newfound proximity via the wireless. The former model is embodied by Damien Keane's Ireland and the Problem of Information: Irish Writing, Radio, Late Modernist Communication, the latter by Emily Bloom's The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931–1968. If Keane's work rewrites rather dramatically the established geographical and formal dimensions of the Irish cultural field, Bloom's work pries that field open by slower but still sure degrees. Both make important contributions.

What is remarkable, in comparing these two strikingly different texts, is how many parallels one finds at work in their logics. One senses that a new conceptual framework is cohering around literary radio studies: one that takes seriously the intermedial contexts of broadcasting and of literature, one that is attuned to the simultaneous and overlapping publics radio and literature created at local, regional, national, and [End Page 399] international scales, and one that understands radio to be neither an agent of hard determinism (subjecting its listeners to either the pummeling authoritarian tones of the dictator or the come-hither vocals of the crooner) nor of radical autonomy. Present, too, in both of these texts, is an archival consciousness that is at times reverent (as in Keane's acknowledgement of the work of historians, librarians, and archivists in remedying the longstanding informational vacuum surrounding Irish political culture at midcentury [5–6]) and at other times rousing (as in Bloom's rallying cry for greater access to extant radio archives that are all too often hidden away from public sight [21–23]).

The differences that emerge between these works are not, however, superficial, even if at times they seem to represent different theoretical languages trying to address the same problems. Keane approaches the titular "problem of information"—which he describes as a simultaneous surfeit and deficit of information structured by global material inequalities—by treating all forms of textual production as part of the same contested field of relations. Thus the first chapter juxtaposes the broadcasts and League of Nations speeches of Taoiseach Éamon de Valera during the Ethiopian Crisis of 1935–36 with Walter Starkie's travelogue-cum-Italian-apologia The Waveless Plain (1938) as two versions of interwar Irish political self-positioning. In the former, de Valera—informed by a network of diplomats and civil servants—navigates multiple media in order to advocate for a protective withdrawal from an international order increasingly hostile to Ireland's interests. In the latter, Starkie uses aural media (his violin, the radio) as metonyms by which to conjure an organic fascist society, but neglects to address that society's structural mediation through government-mandated institutions and practices like the distribution of wireless sets. In each case, Keane's attention is on the often-obscured material and institutional contexts which subtend conventional debates about what counts as literary or political writing, and which in effect bind them beyond all disentanglement.

Subsequent chapters deepen Keane's analysis of the mediated matrix of information that structured Irish cultural production around the war years. Chapter 2, "Dirty Work in New York," traces the...