- Irish Autobiography: Stories of Self in the Narrative of a Nation
Interdisciplinary Irish Studies is a relatively new area of research, but one that reflects a preoccupation and a set of contests that are at least a hundred years old. Identity can't be taken for granted on the island of Ireland, nor has it been simple to negotiate for those millions who have left. [End Page 382]
Sparked initially by British colonization, debates about Irish identity raged in the first decades of the twentieth century, during cultural, political, and military struggles for independence—a measure of which was achieved in 1922 with the establishment of the Irish Free State. Twenty-six counties, mostly rural and agricultural, would have a new government in Dublin, while the remaining six, in the relatively industrialized northeast corner of the island, were partitioned off and continued to be governed from London. By the second half of the twentieth century, while Catholics in Northern Ireland were growing more aware of their lack of civil equality and more active in addressing it politically, identity debates in what was by then the Republic of Ireland drew their energy from the oppressive orthodoxies that had come to characterize the new state. The sixties, with pop culture, student protest, foreign travel, and increased prosperity, began a steady process of questioning and iconoclasm, but that had scarcely died away when the economic boom and bust of the early twenty-first century brought remaining certainties crashing down. Unprecedented economic prosperity made the past less interesting for a while, until appalling revelations about the physical and sexual abuse of children, especially by Catholic clergy, and about widespread corruption in politics, coincided with the arrival in Dublin of representatives of the International Monetary Fund, an event that marked the end of national sovereignty in the eyes of many. For over a hundred years, therefore, and especially since the 1970s, historians, literature scholars, anthropologists, and sociologists, as well as artists in many media, have been contributing to and arguing about what Claire Lynch's title calls the "narrative of a nation."
Life writing, as Lynch amply demonstrates, has been a central part of the national narrative in Ireland, or what historian and Yeats biographer Roy Foster has called The Irish Story. Lynch's account is indebted at many points, and perhaps fundamentally, to Foster's book, but her discipline is English literature, not history, and this is an interdisciplinary study, which quickly moves beyond the restrictions of historical method to climb confidently among the high wires of life-writing theory. Drawing on the work of Laura Marcus, James Olney, Leigh Gilmore, Liz Stanley, and others, she interrogates a range of autobiographical texts, in both Irish and English, and concludes that Irish autobiography since 1922 is ultimately something quite particular: a local type of the genre, whose form and coloring reflect both the stresses and the imaginative resources of the political and cultural environment that produced it. Its closest cousin, she argues, is not the novel, but the short-story collection—another genre in which Irish writers have excelled—and it is distinguished by its awareness of others beyond the author/subject, as family, community, or nation. Her Irish nation differs from Benedict Anderson's [End Page 383] idea of the "imagined community" brought into being through print, in that for many, if not most of the writers she discusses, the community that most preoccupies them is the one they encounter, or have encountered, physically every day. If autobiography is a genre difficult to classify, therefore, Irish auto biography is even more so, as authors play with the conventions of form and narrative, narrate their lives as anecdotes or episodes, and often pay more attention to the doings of others than to their own adventures, challenges, and decisions.
Lynch divides her book into four long chapters: "Ireland," "Ourland," "I-land," and "Hireland." The first of these, subtitled "Locating the 'Cinderella Genre,'" sets the theoretical stage, with a phrase taken from Liam...