- Star Signatures:A Cultural Studies Analysis of Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh's Notebook
In Celebrity Power, P. David Marshall argues that the apparent divisions between public figures such as celebrities, politicians, and pop stars are not as firm as we would like to think. He argues that in the mediated realm of contemporary culture, "there is a convergence in the source of power between the political leader and other forms of celebrity" (1997, 19). Marshall's work draws on a lineage of cultural studies scholars such as Richard Dyer who situate popular culture forms, practitioners, and practices as legitimate objects of analysis that can be viewed as sites of political power and contestation in their own right. Moreover, a cultural studies lens is not only a view from above: a notable product of this type of analysis is how the audience comes sharply into focus. It is the audience, after all, who sanctions the celebrities and buys the products they endorse. Even if the audience's agency is more the product of group feeling or affect than of direct political intervention, as many have argued, it is still an important, though often neglected, force in the dynamics of political power from a cultural studies perspective. [End Page 49]
Molly O'Hagan Hardy's analysis of Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh's autograph book (2010) suggests that the convergence of political with other forms of celebrity power can also be read historically. Hardy maps the journey of a collection of autographs of Irish revolutionaries from signature collector to archive and examines the available narratives that attempt to explain this obscure notebook. Specifically, Hardy asks us to question the established interpretation of the notebook as a means of locating and identifying members of the underground revolutionary movement in Dublin after the 1916 Easter Rising. Instead, she suggests that the notebook represents "a feeling that explains more about the public than the political culture of the Irish struggle for independence" (47). By shifting the interpretive frame in this way, Hardy repositions the notebook from being a revolutionary tool (an argument that seems spurious at best) to being a product of affect that blurs the boundaries between popular and political cultures. In the following comments, I wish to build on Hardy's interpretation of the Nic Shiubhlaigh notebook and to present a short analysis of a scene in Jamie O'Neill's novel, At Swim, Two Boys (2001), to show how contemporary reconstructions of the revolutionary period in Ireland are beginning to make popular culture a central theme.
Drawing on work by Dorothy Macardle, Kathleen Clarke, and others, Hardy reconstructs the return of the political prisoners from the internment camps in 1917 as a moment of great catharsis. This groundswell of public affect produced by the prisoners' release was certainly driven by the political role they played, but politics alone does not fully capture the feeling. The public identity of many of the prisoners was far more complex than that: they were pamphleteers, poets, orators, playwrights, and actors, and were often glamorous socialites in nationalist Irish social circles. The 1916 Easter Rising sealed their reputations and catapulted them into genuine stardom. Reading this collection of autographs in Nic Shiubhlaigh's notebook consequently suggests the power of these figures not only as revolutionary politicians, but also as stars in the popular imagination who populated front-page stories in the broadsheets, dominated gossip in the pubs, and were elevated to mythical status in popular songs.
Such a reading also allows us to think of Nic Shiubhlaigh not only as foot soldier in the anti-imperial effort but also as a fan of the famous public [End Page 50] figures who so inspired her. Thus, when we read in Nic Shiubhlaigh's autobiography the story of a spirited young actress and self-described revolutionary who "hated to leave" the Abbey but brought with her the revolutionary impetus and connections that "the theatre had begun in the first place" (Nic Shiubhlaigh 1955, 137), we can begin to see how literary and popular culture were not outside politics but quite possibly a site of its production. How many of Nic Shiubhlaigh's ideas about the future of her...