- Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions
Appropriately and paradoxically, Eamonn Wall begins Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions with a description of a family trip from his home in Nebraska to the Rocky Mountains. Though he firmly grounds his interpretations in the unique ecology and historical traditions of Western Ireland, he frames his explorations of literature from his homeland by exploring connections to the other region that fascinates him most, the American West in which he lives and works: “This comparative study has grown out of my engagements with two Wests—the Irish and the American—and the ‘Western-ness’ that they share” (xiii). For readers and scholars with interests in writing about the American West, his extended reflections on these parallels prove illuminating and provocative, because in both traditions the “Westernness” he opens up to further exploration is at once intensely regional, national, and, in some respects, even global.
As Wall interprets it, writers in Ireland and America who explore this paradoxical realm of “Western-ness” enter terrain that is intrinsically mythic, providing contemporary writers with ample opportunities for ironically deconstructing traditional romantic imagery and narrative. Just as stories set in the American West shape our foundational national frontier mythology, so the Irish West provides the most vivid imaginative settings in which to dramatize a Celtic and pre-modern Irish heritage. In this primal world of savage beauty many writers critique romantic myths, while others adapt and reinvigorate them. Thus, Wall observes of Martin McDonagh’s “Wild West” dramas that they “perpetuate myths rather than interrogate them. … We are left with the impression that the West from Syngh to McDonagh remains unchanged. Like the American West imagined by Hollywood, it is simultaneously savage and beautiful” (138). Just as contemporary American western authors reshape a legacy of frontier writing inherited from figures such as Cooper, Wister, and Cather, so Irish western writers extend and transform the legacy of writers from the Irish Literary Revival, such as Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Syngh.
Though “Western-ness” in American and Irish literature has tended to evoke mythological archetypes, Wall focuses as well on traditions created from the perspectives of cultural criticism and science. Rather than the savage beauty of mythological landscapes, many of these writers explore the complex regional culture and deep ecology of the Irish West: “Because, to a great degree, the writers considered here are exploring landscape and place—in the largest sense—this study is [End Page 323] frequently underlined by scholarship in the areas of ecocriticism and ecofeminism”(xiii). These contemporary perspectives weave throughout Wall’s subsequent discussions of different genres. Thus, the opening chapter, “Adequate Steps: Tim Robinson’s Stones of Aran,” applies insights from ecocriticism and readings of texts such as William Least-Heat Moon’s PrairyErth (1999) to interpret Robinson’s deep map of an island off the west coast of Ireland.
In subsequent chapters, Wall examines how perspectives shaped by ecofeminism and cultural critics such as Richard Slotkin and Richard White illuminate modern Irish traditions of poetry, fiction, and drama. As a result, Writing the Irish West provides a thoughtful, groundbreaking appraisal of the theoretical issues involved in discussing “Western-ness” in an international context and provides a perceptive survey of a diverse array of modern Irish literary texts, including—in addition to Robinson’s nonfiction and McDonough’s dramas—the stories of John McGahern and the poetry of Richard Murphy, Mary O’Malley, Sean Lysaght, and Moya Carmen.
By initiating a cross-cultural dialogue about the meanings of the “West,” Writing the Irish West opens up intriguing new possibilities for Irish studies and American studies. As a western writer researching my own Irish ranching heritage, I initially assumed that Wall’s title refers to the Irish immigrant experience of the American West, a subject that invites further exploration. But though it doesn’t directly address the Irish experience of the American frontier, this examination of modern Irish writing and “Western-ness” establishes theoretical frameworks within which to explore such cross-cultural perspectives, and for those...