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  • Edward Said and Irish Criticism
  • Conor McCarthy (bio)

The work of Edward Said has been influential on a global scale, in a manner that very few scholars can ever hope to match. It can safely be asserted that no anti-imperialist writer since Frantz Fanon has successfully addressed so many audiences. This essay traces the response to Said's work, including but not only his most famous work, Orientalism, in Irish criticism and debates over the last three decades. We will see, in the work of Said's allies and emulators, and that of his detractors, a number of variations, turns, adaptations, and inflections on Said's own books and essays. Surveying the archive of responses to Said is valuable in itself, but it also provides a barometer of Irish intellectual engagement with wider international geo-political issues and historical shifts.

Beginnings: Writing Ireland

Said published Orientalism in 1978, but it is difficult to judge his influence in Irish debates for nearly a decade after. As Joe Cleary points out, the problematic of language, power, territory, and knowledge brooded over by the various initiatives of the Field Day Theatre Company—from Brian Friel's Translations to Seamus Deane's and Declan Kiberd's Field Day pamphlets—is one that has been important for later more explicit postcolonial studies, but one can also recognize the similarities between this work and the matters [End Page 311] explored in Orientalism.1 Nevertheless, it was not until after Said himself had spoken at the Yeats Summer School in 1986, at Kiberd's invitation, that the issue began to be pressed with clarity and force. Accordingly, 1988 was an important year in the genealogy of Said's work in Ireland. This year witnessed not only the publication of David Cairns and Shaun Richards's Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture, but also Said's own Field Day pamphlet, Yeats and Decolonization.

Cairns and Richards's book is notable in a number of respects. Of all the work influenced by Said in the context of Irish cultural and literary studies, it is the most explicit and the most striking in its emulation. It is also the most ambitious: in a tightly written 178 pages, Cairns and Richards examine literature representing Ireland and Irish Anglophone literature from Shakespeare and Spenser right up to the Northern crisis and writers such as Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel. Writing Ireland appeared in a series edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, entitled "Cultural Politics," and can be seen as representative of the post-Williamsite "Cultural Materialism" that emerged in Britain in parallel and collaboration with the American "New Historicism." Merely this attachment of Irish materials and of Irish criticism to wider international currents of scholarship and criticism makes Writing Ireland a landmark work.

Cairns and Richards begin their book with a straight acknowledgment of the problematic with which they are working: ". . . the reality of the historic relationship of Ireland with England: a relationship of the colonized and the colonizer." They move on immediately to declare that "[I]n this study, our foremost concern is with the ways in which the making and re-making of the identities of colonized and colonizer have been inflected by this relationship; a process that has taken place through discourse."2

Already, then, Cairns and Richards have set up a framework and indicated a theoretical allegiance. That fidelity is to Foucault and the concept of discourse, but shortly afterward, they invoke Antonio [End Page 312] Gramsci, and his analyses of hegemony and intellectuals: at this point, one recognizes the Saidian combination of Foucault and Gramsci in Orientalism. To this mix, Cairns and Richards also add Louis Althusser and his conception of ideology and the interpellation of the subject. Briefly, Cairns and Richards argue with Gramsci that political struggle, particularly anticolonial struggle, takes place in the realm of ideas and ideological leadership as much as it does in the realm of material or physical combat or production. What is necessary for colonial power to be overthrown is the creation of a "counter-hegemony," to block, thwart, and replace the ideological domination of the colonizer. The elaboration of such a counter-hegemony is the task of organic...


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