- The Country of the Young: Interpretations of Youth and Childhood in Irish Culture ed. by John Countryman, Kelly Matthews
Quoting “That is no country for old men” from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” Kelly Matthews opens this volume with the contention that Ireland since the Famine of the 1840s has been preoccupied with its children and young adults (1). Matthews and coeditor John Countryman have collected a variety of essays around this theme. Three of them provide historical studies of Irish youth culture, while the other six examine childhood and youth in novels, films, and plays from both Ireland and Northern Ireland.
In an absorbing study of Irish women’s life writings from 1850 to 1950, Cara Delay discusses the influence that mothers had on their daughters’ piety and self-concept. She argues that mothers, more than the nuns who taught girls in school, “were the foundation” of girls’ “religious experiences” (23). In addition, working-class Irish mothers asserted their moral authority in the home when they competed with each other over who could create the best religious display, whether it involved banners, altars, or holy pictures (17–18). Delay sees women’s life writings as complicating the stereotype that a childhood spent in the Irish countryside was Edenic or in the city, dreadful: “The idyllic rural childhood is interrupted by moments of fear, shame and anxiety; the rough-and-tumble urban childhood reveals flashes of joy and comfort” (14).
Describing how the Sisters of Charity educated Irish children in Albany, New York, from 1828 to 1847, Margaret Lasch Carroll explores the central role of these nuns in moving Albany’s Irish immigrant community out of poverty. She also posits that the nuns laid the foundation for the “network of social services” in Albany that helped numerous immigrants escaping the Irish Famine from 1845 to 1860 (48).
Returning to Ireland itself, Gavin Foster memorably traces the recasting of young revolutionaries, who were called “heroes” before the civil war of 1922–1924, but renamed “black-guards” during its duration (51). The faction who favored the 1921 treaty with the British that gave up Northern Ireland in exchange for Ireland’s autonomy used such subtle propaganda to discredit their opponents; meanwhile, those opponents, who were eventually defeated, continued to praise the youth culture of the Irish revolutionary (66).
Like Foster, Susan Cahill examines the ideology of Ireland’s past with a skeptical eye. She discusses a popular Irish children’s writer of the 1930s, Máirín Cregan, who is little known today. What made Cregan’s original Irish fairy tale, Old John, popular in 1937 was “her close connections to the [End Page 166] Fianna Fail administration of the time in both political and cultural terms” (70). Cahill then uncovers “conservative Free State notions of femininity” in Cregan’s pony story, Rathina (78).
While critics often make connections between Irish novelists for adults and James Joyce, it is unusual to see links made between Joyce and novelists for young adults. Thomas O’Grady creates such links, examining a late twentieth-century young adult novel and a memoir by Ferdia Mac Anna. O’Grady contemplates “the Joycean . . . bildungsroman tradition” to see “how immediacies of place and time are crucial determinants in the emergence of the mature individual from the crucible of childhood and adolescence” (87).
The originality of O’Grady’s approach is equaled by Caitriona Moloney’s. Discussing Anne Enright’s 2007 Booker Prize–winning novel The Gathering, Moloney adds to the critical conversation about the novel’s allusions to the clerical child abuse scandal by turning her attention to its criticism of the Irish family. She observes that “Unlike many social commentators whose criticism is reserved for men and the Catholic church, Enright is also particularly hard on mothers” (112).
Mary Fitzgerald-Hoyt discusses another contemporary Irish work for adults that concerns children who live away from their parents for a period of weeks or months, Claire Keegan’s novella Foster. Fitzgerald-Hoyt exposes new dimensions in Keegan’s work...