- Repurposing Things in Irish Painting and the Irish Literary Revival*
Things tell stories. The complexities of the relationship between objects and narratives lie at the heart of this exhibition and are evoked by its title, Rural Ireland: The Inside Story. This relationship forms a rich point of contact between literature and the visual arts. The question that Bill Brown, a literary scholar and a pioneer of “thing theory,” asks of literary texts—“How are objects represented in this text? And how are they made to mean?”—can be asked just as appropriately and productively of paintings.1 One approach to what things mean sees them as cultural artifacts: things tell the stories of the communities that produce and consume them.2 A contrasting approach seeks to treat things in themselves, insisting on what Brown calls the “otherness of objects as such.”3 In this view things tell their own stories. Both methods of reading objects are potentially useful. The first connects them to the human world in which they exist, whereas the second emphasizes the ambiguity and multiplicity of the narratives they generate.4 Literature and the visual arts are concerned with the means of representation as well as with what is represented. As disciplines, they explore both their subject matter and how that subject matter is made to mean. The conscious appropriation and manipulation of things, by people depicted in paintings and literary texts and by painters and writers themselves, emerges as [End Page 17] a major preoccupation in visual and literary works—one that offers an alternative and complement to reading things for their inscrutable “thingness” or for their cultural representativeness. This essay examines how the painter James Brenan, featured in Rural Ireland: The Inside Story, engages with the human and artistic manipulation of things and suggests that this engagement was shared by much literature of the same period.
The uses and value of material culture were a significant issue for the writers of the Irish Literary Revival, which began in the 1880s and continued through Irish independence and beyond. Examining the subtle complexities of Revivalist things, Paige Reynolds argues that on the one hand the Revival “aggressively touted its antipathy toward things” in part to enforce a distinction between materialist England and “spiritual” Ireland. “Anti-materialism,” she concludes, “offered the Revivalists a logical ideological weapon in their struggle against imperial culture, given the practical facts that England was rich and Ireland was poor, and that trade laws made Ireland a dumping ground for English commodities while interfering with Irish exportation.” On the other hand, she shows that Revivalist writers often embraced material culture and things, for example by advocating native Irish manufactures as alternatives to “the corrupt English commodities littering Ireland.”5
This complexity in the Revival’s engagement with objects appears as well in an essay by Augusta Gregory, who was, with W.B. Yeats, a key founder of the movement. In 1900 Gregory published “The Felons of Our Land” in London’s Cornhill Magazine. Although the essay documents how Irish people have developed a “spiritual vision” in response to a history of material failure and privation, she finds her evidence for such spirituality within the mundane material things and practices of rural life. Gregory defines felony as “a crime in the eyes of the law, not in the eyes of the people,” examining Irish material culture as part of an ongoing struggle between British [End Page 18] colonial power and Irish resistance.6 Faced with the superior power and resources of the British state, Gregory argues, country people negotiated their relationship to colonial authority, in part by appropriating and repurposing objects. She reports, for example, that “the chief ornament of many a cottage is the warrant for the arrest of a son of the house framed and hung up as a sort of diploma of honour.”7 Like the term “felon,” the warrant means one thing to the British authorities—a legal order to arrest a criminal—and something else to the Irish—an unjust persecution of a nationalist hero. By making the warrant part of the decor of their homes, the Irish have inserted it into an alternative, subaltern narrative and...