- The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1880–1922 by Joseph Valente
As Elleke Boehmer reminds us, gender has been “habitual and apparently intrinsic to national imagining.” National difference, she argues, “like other forms of difference, is constituted through the medium of the sexual binary, using the figure of the woman as a primary vehicle.”1 Moreover, [End Page 155] such gendered national imaginings are not confined to postcolonial nation-building; consider Delacroix’s bare-breasted figure of “Liberty Leading the People” or her rather more chastely adorned sister standing in New York harbour. For those who work in Irish studies, Boehmer’s observation offers a useful corrective to the prevailing view that Irish cultural nationalism is idiosyncratically dysfunctional in its gender politics and constitutionally antipathetic to feminism. In a similar vein, Joseph Valente’s The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1880–1922 urges us towards a fresh reconsideration of those figures of masculinity that loom so large in the culture of the Irish revival era and in early Irish modernism.
The originality of Valente’s interpretations is rooted in the breadth of his approach. Firstly, he provides an invigorating combination of literary criticism with cultural studies. Exemplary chapters on Joyce and Yeats sit alongside readings of less canonically central figures—Augusta Gregory, Patrick Pearse, and James Stephens—and this literary analysis fuses seamlessly with discussions on the founding of the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), early twentieth-century newspaper debates, and the political leader Charles Stewart Parnell. The excellent treatment of Joyce is unsurprising given the innovative quality of Valente’s earlier work, and his opening chapter on Parnell’s self-presentation and media reception provides a convincing lynchpin for his argument, and it also exemplifies the range of his approach with its deft readings of political cartoons.
Secondly, Valente productively widens his interpretative lens by locating these distinctively Irish cultural productions of masculinity in relation to the prevailing masculine ideals of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century British culture, those ideals that were to be shattered so decisively and tragically in the trenches during the First World War. While this ideology of masculinity took varied forms—muscular Christianity; a pseudo-chivalric ethical code; the sports ethos of the public schools; the imperial adventuring of Baden-Powell’s scouting movement—it was underpinned by one principle idea: since men were by nature more vigorous, vital, and animal-like (and women more passive and decorous), it was a more remarkable and valuable ethical accomplishment to exercise the requisite self-control to be civilized and manly. In Valente’s words, “The ideal of manhood consisted in the simultaneous necessity for and achievement of vigilant, rational self-control—in strong passions strongly checked” (3). This ostensibly personal ideal was, of course, also a political projection; the manly ideal was simultaneously an English Protestant ideal, tautologically affirming that the Protestant Englishman enjoyed a unique measure of liberty because of his capacity to exercise self-control and assert his claim to such freedoms. The corollary was that those who did not enjoy such liberty had yet to prove they were capable of it. Hence the manly ideal was one attempt at a symbolic resolution to the central contradiction of nineteenth-century British liberalism, a contradiction that arose between the economic imperative toward imperial expansion and the political reality that subjugating other peoples breached the basic principles of liberalism.
As a “metrocolonial” people—simultaneously participants in the project of overseas empire and colonial subjects in their own land—the Irish felt the pressure of these contradictions particularly acutely. At the level of the cultural production of masculinity, this pressure was experienced as a “double-bind,” as Valente terms it (see 19–25). An Irishman who practiced the requisite self-restraint demanded by the manly ideal appeared acquiescent to colonial subjugation and thereby failed to achieve the self-possession demanded by that ideal, thus confirming his unreadiness for the freedom licenced by the ideal. What appeared as manly self-restraint in the Englishman looked...