- A History of Irish Working-Class Writing ed. by Michael Pierse
Michael Pierse, editor
Cambridge UP, 2017, xviii + 462 pp. ISBN 978-1107149687, $110 hardback.
Literary critics' validation of life writing as a genre worth examining has led to certain texts being defined as Art while others are analyzed as accurate reflections of life. Working-class writing, be it autobiographical or creative, has often been unfairly read as the latter, rarely the former. Because of unequal access to formal education, the literary marketplace, the cultural capital required to succeed in the creative industries, and the appetite of a largely middle-class readership for "true life" tales of hardship and criminality, working-class writing has often taken the form of testimonies, documenting the conditions of life on the margins. Irish writing and critical assessments of Irish literature have often foregrounded the issues relating to the nation at the expense of other critical lenses, sidelining serious considerations of class. So, how does one write about working-class lives and what exactly constitutes the "working class" in Ireland? According to this wonderful collection, the answer, it turns out, is more complex and diverse than has been previously represented. [End Page 432] Working-class writing is often conflated with the realist conventions of documentary and testimonial writing—a conflation that disregards the creative energies of working-class writers. As Claire Lynch asserts in her persuasive chapter on working-class biographies, the "literariness" of Seán O'Casey's autobiographies has caused some critics discomfort, straining as it does against narrow expectations of gritty realist depictions of tenement life.
Michael Pierse has done a great service to Irish Studies in editing this first comprehensive examination of Irish working-class writing. Spanning several periods, genres, methodologies, and approaches, this collection is an invaluable guide to the representation of working-class lives in Irish writing and a timely and urgent call for the reassessment of the canon. In his lucid and helpful introduction to the field, Pierse argues that working-class writing "pushes back" against realist conventions, acknowledging the inherent problems with such a simplistic approach to historiography and relations of power: working-class realism often ironizes "reactionary ideological practices [. . .] adopting subversive, metafictive narratorial strategies that challenge the limits of what is normatively constituted as the real" (7), intentionally complicating life writing's relationship to the life that is being represented. A common theme throughout this collection is that the working-class text is simultaneously disruptive and appropriated. A strong editorial policy of sustaining thematic links between chapters gives the reassuring impression of building a cohesive picture of a complex and contentious field. Although very different in terms of style, text discussed, and analytical approach, many of the chapters are connected by common threads running through them, giving this collection a holistic feel and more importantly suggesting that there might be a diverse subterranean tradition of working-class Irish writing in need of more scholarly attention. Indeed, an oft-repeated assertion throughout this volume is that this is an initial foray into a largely unexplored and underdeveloped field, attempting to offer further critical avenues into this relatively new and exciting area for Irish Studies.
A keynote struck throughout is that part of the reason for the dearth of assessments of class in Irish writing is that the class system is more fluid and indefinable than the British model through which it has often been interpreted. Andrew Carpenter's chapter on working-class writing before 1800 rethinks what it means to be working class and why this designation is problematized in Ireland. Because of the Penal Laws and the enforced redistribution of land in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Gaelic Bards became laborers and the landholders predominantly consisted of semiliterate English adventurers; this class and cultural confusion meant that the term working class may not be applicable. Carpenter helpfully suggests thinking about the divide purely in terms of economy, designating those in need as simply "the poor." As Carpenter and John Moulden show, writing from this underclass from those eras consists mainly of short autobiographical extracts with salacious elements, such as the last words...