- Irish Autobiography: Stories of Self in the Narrative of a Nation
Claire Lynch’s ambitious new work looks closely at the way in which constructions of identity and memory affect both the narrative style and intersections of genre within Irish autobiography. Admittedly, straightforward definitions of Irish identity and of the autobiographical genre are elusive, which may have [End Page 157] contributed to what has been until recently a marked lack of critical commentary on Irish life writing. Lynch demonstrates that the seemingly indefinable nature of Irish autobiography provides a basis for further investigation. A lucid review of the theoretical concerns of Irish autobiography in the first chapter is followed by three chapters offering detailed comparative studies of Irish autobiographical texts, which highlight the theoretical issues and debates.
Lynch opens her work in conversation with Liam Harte, whose seminal Modern Irish Autobiography: Self, Nation, and Society (2007) begins with the claim that autobiography is the “Cinderella genre” of Irish literature—in other words, a genre that has endured “critical neglect and marginal literary status.” She takes Harte’s term a step further, suggesting that we might consider Irish autobiographical works as “Cinderella-like.” As with fairy tales, which “depend on people and things that appear to be one thing only to be revealed to be another,” Irish autobiography as a genre depends on a certain “blurring of expectations.”
What is to be expected in Irish life writing, then, is the blending of memory and imagination, and of fact and fiction. Yet, in spite of—or because of—its paradoxical nature, writers of Irish autobiography often believe in its ability “not only to represent, but to be representative”—a concept applicable to the autobiographical writing of two groups existing “at the extremities of the spectrum of Irishness.” In the second chapter, an unusual, but compelling, comparison of the autobiographies of Irish language speakers of the Blasket and Aran Islands and the “celebrities of the Anglo-Irish literary movement” is particularly strong. Citing the common features of a sense of isolated Irish identity and “communities recording their own demise,” Lynch brings the texts of these very different subcategories of Irishness into discussion with each other.
In the third chapter, she considers individual identity in some of the more famous examples of Irish literary boyhood in the works of four men, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Brendan Behan, and Christie Brown, who existed in varying positions of “uncontested Irishness.” But it was the inability to conform to the supposed norms of this “unchallengeable” Irishness that led to the sense of isolation and need for individuality that prevails in much of early to mid-twentieth century Irish autobiography.
One unfortunate aspect of Irish Autobiography is its scant attention to women’s autobiographical texts. In a chapter focused on the use of national identity in life writing, it might have been useful to reflect on the ways in which Irish women have often been unable, or unwilling, to identify with versions of this national identity in their autobiographical writing. The life writing produced by such women as, for example, Kate O’Brien and Edna O’Brien, if considered in conjunction with the work of the four men in this chapter, might [End Page 158] have allowed for a more complete understanding of twentieth-century Irish autobiographical writers and their relationship to national identity.
Notably, Lynch observes that for each of the male authors discussed, having linked the narrative of their own coming of age to that of independent Ire-land’s, “fiction comes to be seen as the most appropriate means of representing the truth of their lives.” She makes a convincing case that Irish autobiography is more closely linked to the fictional form of the short story than to the novel. In contrast to the “continuous narrative” of the traditional novel, the fragmentary form of the short story allows an autobiographer more accurately to represent the intangible and often contradictory “way in which the memory stores information.” Additionally, this “fragmented narrative structure” provides a way in...