- Postnational Ireland
The nation of Ireland has been, in large measure, the creation of its writers, of a thousand real-life Stephen Dedaluses, each toiling away in the smithy of his or her soul, hard at work on the uncreated conscience of the race. But if the nation of Ireland was created by writers, it's also true that our idea of the Irish writer—especially the poet—has been the product of Irish nationalism. That is, the received idea of the Irish poet is that of a public figure, speaking to a national audience on questions of nationhood—someone altogether different from the self-obsessed garret dweller we imagine when we think of poets in Paris or New York. The idea of the Irish poet as nationalist and public figure dates back into the nineteenth century and has been a powerful force, helping poets find audiences and self-definition, and making great themes available to the aspiring talent. It has also provided the interpretive framework for much of the finest scholarship on Irish writing: one need look no further than the title of Declan Kiberd's monumental 1997 study Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation to get a sense of the way Irish writing has been perceived by its leading scholars. But the idea of the Irish writer as national figure seems to be an idea whose time is running out. [End Page 610]
Irish writers have been revising and interrogating their role as privileged seers of the national essence for some time. In his 1980 play Translations, for example, Brian Friel cast doubt on the idea of an essential Celtic identity, envisioning Ireland as a palimpsest of different cultural identities, layered over one another in an archaeology of changing place names. Seamus Deane undertook a similar project when he edited the 1991 Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, a four-thousand-page representation of the Irish literary canon as a multicultural, polyglot tradition, including works in monkish Latin and Norman French as well as in Irish and English. Critical studies have appeared in the wake of this reappraisal, notably David Lloyd's Ireland after History (1999), which attempts to reframe the question of Irish literature from the perspective of Frankfurt school critical theory. Both Elmer Kennedy-Andrews's Writing Home: Poetry and Place in Northern Ireland, 1968–2008 and Justin Quinn's Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800–2000 continue this reappraisal. The two works are different in scale and focus: Kennedy-Andrews offers close to three hundred pages on four decades of writing from the north of Ireland, while Quinn, whose study is a svelte two hundred pages, must cover two centuries of writing from the whole island—a task made all the more difficult by a further broadening of scope to include a chapter on the translation of poetry in Ireland. But both set out with similar goals: to demonstrate that the old, national paradigm has run its course, and to begin exploring where Irish poetry has gone after the passage of the old idea of the poet's role.
Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, as a professor of English at the University of Ulster's Academy for Irish Cultural Heritage, is well-positioned to take on the matter of the poetry of the north of Ireland. A prolific scholar, he has written books on the fiction of Northern Ireland, the drama of Brian Friel, and the poetry of Seamus Heaney and edited more than a half-dozen studies of Irish and American literature. His present study tells a local version of an important, if familiar, story: the passage from modernism, with its nostalgia for a lost cultural wholeness, to postmodernism, with its celebration of hybridity and fragmentation. Here, an older generation of Northern Irish poets embodies the modernist assumptions and, often via such modernist methods as mythopoesis, seeks to recover a lost sense of...