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ANGLO-IRISH AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND THE GENEALOGICAL MANDATE ELIZABETH GRUBGELD the study of autobiography has for almost two decades taken as its point of departure Paul de Man’s assertion that the forms of autobiography influence or, in his more restrictive phrasing, “determine,” the nature of the first-person pronoun that speaks from the page (922). Much subsequent work in autobiographical theory has drawn attention to the way generic structures are themselves shaped by forces beyond the literary. Culturally mandated forms of memory—both what is remembered and how it is remembered —arguably generate the “plots” by which individuals write the stories of their lives. Genealogy, either as a pedigree printed adjacent to the text of an autobiography or as a prose summary of ancestry, constitutes such a form of memory. Drawing from a wide variety of texts, I will examine the way AngloIrish autobiographies use genealogy to construct identity in the twentieth century. As might be expected, the autobiographers in question do more than simply recite genealogical details in prose paragraphs. Yet what they do is not necessarily predictable. The genealogical orientation may frequently serve to “propagate” what W.J. McCormack has deemed the “false sociology” of the so-called Protestant Ascendancy as a once-flourishing landed culture (Ascendancy 88), but it even more often frustrates its own ambitions. The genealogical approach to lifewriting repeatedly undermines the autobiographer’s attempt to inscribe a continuity between personal and social identity. Even as writers assert their families’ roles in public history, class precedence, and hereditary rights to an Irish identity , doubts about each assertion emerge. For women, who usually inherited neither property nor patronymic, the effort to affirm one’s significance through these motifs is ineffectual or, at worst, debilitating. Similarly , efforts to reify position within a community through the evocation of an Edenic childhood and a timeless sense of place are thwarted by the ANGO-IRISH AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND THE GENEALOGICAL MANDATE 96 relentless historicity of the family chronicle. And, in nearly all of these texts, the teleological impulse of the genealogy veers uneasily toward a degenerative version of history that endangers the vitality of the speaking subject. Only when the autobiographer transforms the family history into something other than a literary strategy of social legitimization—as in Hubert Butler’s call for a refocusing of attention on local communities or Elizabeth Bowen’s vision of a private peace to counter the horror of a world war—is the pessimistic thrust of the lifestory at all mitigated. Before proceeding, it is necessary to consider the critical terms here invoked . Irish studies has undertaken in the last decades a wide-ranging reconsideration of vocabulary formerly thought to be unproblematic, including the terminology with which this essay is titled. If the indeterminate appellation “Anglo-Irish” and its even more discredited cousin “Protestant Ascendancy” produce for the specialist more questions than clarity, to the general reader both terms conjure an image of grand country houses in disrepair, mad uncles and decaying dowagers, an obsession with horses, and pride of lineage. Recent advertising for the reissue of Countess Fingall’s 1937 autobiography, Seventy Years Young, describes her book as a record of the “twilight world of Catholic Ascendancy Ireland,” thereby suggesting that the phantom term “Ascendancy” might be affixed to any denominational adjective with equal imprecision—as long as a work displays the requisite motifs of houses, horses, and the family pedigree. W.J. McCormack has successfully demonstrated that the rural “Big House” was often small and located in town (Ascendancy 111–17), and although no one yet has determined if Brendan Behan’s definition of the Anglo-Irish as “a Protestant on a Horse” is corroborated by documentable equestrianism, evidence ranging beyond the much-discussed autobiographies of W.B. Yeats does reveal a genealogical obsession, although one far more self-contradictory than the popular conception would suggest. I thus use the expression “Anglo-Irish” broadly and with recognition of its imprecision. Most, but not all, of the autobiographers under consideration were affiliated with the Church of Ireland and drew income from rural properties. Some, but not all, writers were wealthy or belonged to previously wealthy families. Some traced lineage to the “Old English” who crossed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 96-115
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-31
Open Access
No
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