- A History of Irish Autobiography ed. by Liam Harte
Liam Harte, editor
Cambridge UP, 2018, 434 pp. ISBN 978-1107131446, $110 hardcover.
In writing his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo left all future autobiographers with the conundrum of inscribing self-truth to be both compelling and maieutic. Augustine's omissions no less than his emphases articulate the autobiographical genre's imperative to create a narrative that in illuminating its subject engages the reader in self-discovery, with the speaker's persona as the maieutic catalyst for that [End Page 409] discovery. In addressing himself directly to God, Augustine compels the reader both to identify with and pass judgement on his spiritually questing persona as it moves toward epiphany. As Stephen Spender observes of confessions and autobiography, the author is caught in the double bind of alchemizing the "dirty business" that comprises the self-revelation of the inner life into a new and revealing object, growing out of and beyond observation (117).
For Irish autobiographers, to this challenge is added the requirement of self-declaration within an ancient storytelling tradition fundamentally associated with place and gender. The two Irish oral narrative traditions of scéalíocht and seanchas depend on connections to the geographical and sociocultural spaces from which their tellers originate. Scéalíocht are associated with heroic legend and ancient mythology; often told as epic narrative poems, they are substantial in length and traditionally the exclusive province of male storytellers (Harvey). Seanchas deal chiefly with local legends and domestic sagas; they may focus on a single family or small group within a single area, and include material from ghost stories to place-name explanations to humorous anecdotes of a prominent family. Both traditions are centered in specific places, both have specific gender designations, and together they comprise the foundation of later narrative and self-narrative styles.
Liam Harte's most recent edited collection, A History of Irish Autobiography, cuts an impressive critical swathe through Irish life writing in its multifarious forms, from Saint Patrick's Confessio to medieval Celtic poetic narratives to contemporary digital forms of Irish autobiography. The twenty-four analyses are grounded in the importance of a story told well, from the viewpoint of a recognizably Irish persona. Harte is by now rightly considered the maverick of Irish self-narrative scholarship, having edited the groundbreaking Modern Irish Autobiography: Self, Nation, and Society (2007), the first scholarly collection to address the self-writing of post-independence Ireland, as well as having produced monographs and edited collections on Irish fiction and life writing. Here he undertakes the ambitious project of bringing scholars of diverse areas of Irish life writing together under a monolithic and somewhat peremptory title. Whether these insightful but slightly disconnected critical analyses can rightly be called a history is perhaps the collection's only question of accuracy.
Each of the twenty-four contributors showcases a facet of Irish life writing in sociohistorical context, from Maire McNonagh's "Writing in Medieval Ireland in the First-Person Voice" to Claire Lynch's "Irish Life-Writing in the Digital Era," a spectrum that unfolds from Harte's solid introductory essay "Autobiography Theory and Criticism in Ireland." As Harte points out, "despite the immense proliferation of variant forms of first-person narratives in Irish culture since medieval times, autobiography, memoir and life-writing have long been little more than marginal presences in the authoritative histories of the nation's literature" (1). Harte's introduction to his previous collection Modern Irish Autobiography begins by identifying Irish self-narrative as a "Cinderella genre" relegated to the background in the [End Page 410] immense array of Irish literary criticism. It is worth mentioning that the present collection was commissioned by Cambridge University Press, certainly a sign of progress in the transformation of this body of criticism from its stubbornly marginal status to one of the fastest-growing areas of Irish scholarship.
The "select chronology" Harte provides at the beginning of the book is indeed very select. It purports to include Irish autobiographical writing from the fifth century to the present, with autobiographical works under the guise of fiction indicated with an asterisk. These asterisked...