Irish Classics (review)
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Criticism 44.2 (2002) 206-208



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Irish Classics by Declan Kiberd. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 2001. Pp. xvi + 704. $35.00 cloth.

Critics and journalists frequently employ the term "public intellectual" when describing Declan Kiberd, a Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature at University College Dublin. Kiberd can lay claim to the title of public intellectual because of his accessible prose and his cogent commentary on trends in Irish culture. Kiberd's last book, Inventing Ireland (Harvard University Press, 1995), a study of twentieth-century Irish writing, has been the single most influential text in the growing discourse of Irish postcolonial studies. Many critics worked to situate Ireland in a postcolonial context before Kiberd, and some, like David Lloyd, did so with more theoretical sophistication. But Kiberd's use of the work of Fanon and Said, especially, to frame a narrative about Irish writers' response to British colonialism made a postcolonial approach to Ireland seem inevitable, and quickly paradigmatic. Kiberd's critics, like Denis Donoghue, criticize him for the very thing that gives him the title of public intellectual—i.e., the fact that his arguments are convincing to a large number of readers, both in and out of the academy. Donoghue and others argue that Kiberd simplifies Irish colonial experience, and in doing so becomes politically correct.

Irish Classics covers a broader time period than its predecessor, and does not seek to construct an overarching theoretical argument about Irish literature (although the books occasionally overlap—the readings of Samuel Beckett and Patrick Kavanagh, are virtual reprints of those in Inventing Ireland). Irish Classics is a more personal, idiosyncratic work, a chance for Kiberd to write about some of his own favorites. His close readings reveal his facility with these texts; their clarity and complexity suggest that they are derived from a series of classroom notes or lectures. These are the kinds of supple interpretations that can only come out of multiple, enthusiastic readings. Kiberd's engaging style hints that he is a first-rate teacher, a rare commodity in important scholarly books.

The title of the book seems to imply a canon of classic texts, but Kiberd does not set out to define a fixed set of greatest Irish works or aesthetic standards. Instead he defines a classic as a book that registers complex and fluid responses from its readers. He writes, "[A classic] is in fact the sort of book that everybody enjoys reading and nobody wants to come to an end. It owes its reputation, undoubtedly, to its initial impact on its own generation, without which few books ever survive: but after that it displays a capacity to remain forever young and fresh, offering challenges to every succeeding generation which must learn anew how to be its contemporary. It reads each passing age [End Page 206] at least as intensely as it is read by it" (xiv-x). He groups Irish classics into three categories: "a work of art in which human energies are shaped to produce words and images of awesome beauty and internal rigour"; "a narrative which generates a myth so powerful as to obscure the individual writer and to unleash an almost superhuman force"; and "a text that has had, by virtue of its eloquence and insight, a palpable influence upon the course of human action or the prosecution of public policy" (xi).

Such a broad definition of a classic allows Kiberd to range widely amidst texts that do not share thematic or stylistic characteristics. In thirty-five chapters, Kiberd covers everything from the Gaelic bards of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Swift's Drapier's Letters and Gulliver's Travels, the journals of Protestant nationalist Wolfe Tone, George Moore's A Drama in Muslin, Dracula (which he brilliantly reclaims as a thoroughly Irish text), Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds, the autobiographies of the Blasket Islanders (the islands off the west coast of Ireland which have been uninhabited since the 1950s but were an inspirational source of folk culture and the Irish language for many writers, including J. M. Synge) and the Northern Ireland peace treaty of 1998...


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