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Seeing Ghosts: Gothic Discourses and State Formation

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 47:3&4, Fomhar/Geimhreadh / Fall/Winter 2012
pp. 37-63 | 10.1353/eir.2012.0013

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Women and children and most of the men in part of the district of Mullagh, Co. Clare, will not leave their houses after dark because of stories of the appearance of a ghost. The “ghost” which moves about between 9 pm and midnight, according to a correspondent, “is said to be a man of military appearance, wearing a trench coat, and carrying what appears to be a rifle.” The “ghost” can be seen at two different places at the same hour.1

This unusual report—presented in the Irish Independent in 1928 under the heading “A Ghost with a Gun: A Strange Story from Clare”—represents just one ghost story emerging from the Irish Free State in the 1920s and 1930s. Following the War of Independence (1919–21), the subsequent compromise settlement of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921), and a bitter Civil War (1922–23), the fledgling Cumann na nGaedhael administration sought to establish a modern state. However, in both urban and rural landscapes, ghosts in various forms and guises stalked the new regime. Examining these different hauntings and the political ephemera that accompanied their manifestations, we encounter the shadow side of the postcolonial state-building project that emerged with the crisis in the republican narrative of nationhood precipitated by the Civil War. As anti-Treaty republicans deployed Gothic tropes and motifs throughout the 1920s, we also recognize the unresolved nature of the political situation and the sense of an unrealized revolutionary potential lingering just beneath the surface of early postcolonial culture. A Gothic aesthetic was evident in the work of diverse writers and artists, and members of the republican women’s group Cumann na mBan described themselves as “Ghosts” on leaflets they distributed in Dublin between 1927 and 1931. This Ghost campaign represented a radical deployment of Gothic motifs, for these marginalized female activists described and understood themselves as ghostly revenants in the public life of the new Free State. Similarly, beginning in the Civil War period, antistate forces challenged the modernizing discourses of the new government, representing it as a grotesque double of the British regime it had replaced.

The Civil War erupted in June 1922 between the forces of the pro-Treaty provisional government and the anti-Treaty forces that remained loyal to the Irish Republic. Former comrades and friends took opposing sides in the struggle, and casualties on both sides were greater than the numbers killed during the War of Independence; moreover, the subsequent executions of republican prisoners greatly exceeded the numbers put to death by the British administration between 1916 and 1921. As the optimism of the revolutionary period eroded, new conflict precipitated social, political, and cultural crisis. While communities fractured and political elites struggled to manage the conflict, anti-Treaty discourse took a Gothic turn, expressing heightened alienation and giving voice to a growing despair.

Modern Gothic can be viewed as an aesthetic that, in John Paul Riquelme’s words, “brings to the fore the dark side of modernity.”2 From this perspective, the twentieth-century version of the Gothic arguably shared certain concerns with Modernism while also manifesting tendencies that seem implicitly to counter developments in high Modernism.3 Modern Gothic evolved, suggests David Punter, to become more than a “perturbation or troubling of an accepted mainstream of historical documentation: it now records, in one sense, the actual dreadfulness of events and, in another, the state of a consciousness whose perceptions are colored—darkly—by a sense of imminence, if not the actuality, of catastrophe.”4 Recent analyses suggest that Irish Modernism was infused by Gothic tropes and sensibilities.5 Within the Free State, recalcitrant activists deployed such conventions to explicate history and to articulate a sense of foreboding and impending doom. This Gothic turn of anti-Treaty cultural resistance thus marked a critical questioning of the new order and highlighted a cluster of anxieties responding to the emergent postcolonial state. It also distinguished early postindependence cultural and political activity from the disillusioned naturalism that dominated Irish writing from the Civil War period. Furthermore, in contrast to mainstream political discourses produced by pro-Treaty forces, this Gothic aesthetic deployed a rhetoric of grievance—a sense of betrayal, horror, mistrust, and alienation from...

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