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  • “Something Solid to Put Your Heels On”: Representation and Transformation in The Bell
  • Kelly Matthews (bio)

The Emergency era has been widely viewed as a time of introversion and introspection in Ireland. Taoiseach Éamon de Valera had officially declared neutrality in 1939, cutting Ireland off from the war in Europe, and the country was still experiencing a wave of postrevolutionary conservatism that affected many aspects of its economic and cultural life. The state-sponsored Board of Literary Censors had arguably become, in the words of Senator Sir John Keane, a full-blown “literary Gestapo” (Adams 86),1 and wartime media censorship under the Emergency Powers Act forbade most public discussion of the war. De Valera’s government, determined to establish economic self-sufficiency, had put up tariff walls against trade with Britain in the latest installment of the economic war between the two countries. In much of popular discourse the “Irish Ireland” movement had taken hold, championed by Daniel Corkery, who famously promoted an essentialist version of Irish identity as Catholic, Gaelic speaking, self-sufficient, and resolutely rural.2

Into this landscape arrived The Bell literary magazine, a consciously counterreactionary project led by Seán O’Faoláin and [End Page 106] Frank O’Connor, two established writers who had fought as young men in both the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War that followed it. As editors of the Bell, O’Faoláin and O’Connor strove to complicate idealized versions of Irish identity put forward in the Revival era. In doing so, they took up questions that had previously been debated in the pages of the Irish Statesman, edited by Æ, and the short-lived journal Ireland To-Day, both of which had also published creative literary work alongside political and critical commentary. While The Bell took its native political impulses from these two Irish magazines, it was also modeled on two foreign predecessors: the nineteenth-century Russian periodical Kolokol (The Bell), which was aimed at opening Russia to Western influence, and the British literary journal Horizon, which began publication in 1939, just one year before The Bell’s appearance, with the aim of maintaining a paying venue for English writers during the lean years of World War II.

The Bell sold out every copy of its first issue in October 1940 and survived as a monthly magazine, with few interruptions, until December 1954. Although recent studies have differed as to the degree of insularity in Irish cultural life in the mid-twentieth century, The Bell figures prominently in every survey of the era, whether it is presented as an example of resistance to cultural stagnation or as a sign of sustained literary progress—in other words, whether it is seen as the exception or the rule.3 In its pages some of the most significant Irish writers of the day, including Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, Louis MacNeice, John Hewitt, and John Montague, found a paying forum for their work. Anecdotal accounts of The Bell’s influence on Irish readers during the mid-twentieth century are many and vivid, with county librarians and booksellers often passing single copies on to multiple readers, so that the magazine’s circulation probably far exceeded its [End Page 107] initial print run of 5,000 copies.4 It is clear that the magazine fulfilled a need for Irish readers of the time by struggling against the conservative cultural dictates of mainstream discourse. For The Bell was unique in its era in that it consciously presented a complex and inclusive version of Irish identity, one that could embrace both rural and urban realities, Gaelic and European influences, northern and southern traditions, wealthy and poor social classes, and many other seemingly contradictory elements in Irish society.

Instrumental to this project was the representation of an authentic Irish material culture, grounded in the daily lives of ordinary Irish men and women. From the beginning, material culture played a key role in shaping The Bell’s version of Irish identity. Even the magazine’s advertisements linked the production of native goods to The Bell’s project of defining a national culture: the men’s clothier Frank Hugh O’Donnell, for...


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pp. 106-127
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