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Academic Journal Irish Studies Review, Volume 10, Number 2, August 2002

'Fictionalising Ireland'

In an article in The Irish Times last January, entitled ‘Writing The Boom’, Fintan O’Toole bemoaned the fact that ‘Deprived by the speed of change of a sense of place or any confidence in a ‘national narrative’, one thing is certain: the big, steady, realist Irish novel is as far away as ever’. (1) This he attributed to globalisation, which:

...has deprived fiction writers of some of their traditional tools. One is a distinctive sense of place. To write honestly of where most of us live now is to describe everywhere and nowhere: system-built estates, clogged-up motorways, a vastly expanded suburbia, multinational factories, shopping centres such as Liffey Valley where the food court is called South Beach and is decked out with stray bits of Florida like
an Irish pub in Germany is decorated with newly-minted old authentic Irish street signs. With an English high street here and a bit of America there, the passage to a distinctive Ireland is strewn with obstacles. (2)










Another problem for novelists cited was that ‘...the currency of revelation has been devalued’, (3) since, ‘Memoir, journalism and tribunal reports have moved in on the territory of fiction.’ (4) While O’Toole is smart enough to know that, ‘Good novelists and dramatists ultimately create their own worlds’, (5) and concluded his piece by stating that, ‘For the foreseeable future, Irish fiction will retain its angular, perverse, counter-cultural relationship to Irish reality.’, (6) the tacit implication underlying and underwriting the article was clear: the function of Irish writers is to write about Ireland. Even a response by Derek Hand, published in the same newspaper a few days later, which questioned several of O’Toole’s points, such as his distrust of the past, and his elevation of the nineteenth century realist novel, did not take issue with the basic assumption that the proper subject for Irish writers is Ireland. (7) As Colm Toibin wrote in his introduction to the anthology The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, ‘The purpose of much Irish fiction, it seems, is to become involved in the Irish argument, and the purpose of much Irish criticism has been to relate the fiction to the argument.’ (8)
In this paper I would like to ventilate and scrutinise this critical commonplace, and ponder why the social is usually deemed more important than the personal in readings of Irish fiction. Is the fact that the majority of critical discourse in the field of Irish Studies is confined within the parameters of expecting writers to hold forth, obliquely or explicitly, on the state of the nation and the issues of the day, and the pursuit of the canard of defining national identity, which consists of an interminable working out of what it means to be Irish, merely a consequence of the fact that we have still simply not grown up enough to trust to the expression of individual experience and perception, but prefer the safety of numbers? Despite the much vaunted cultural self-confidence we hear trumpeted so widely, not uncommonly by those who find economic self-confidence a far more telling and enabling index of the zeitgeist, it would seem the Irish critical establishment is still nervously looking over its shoulder, worrying what ‘the others’ think of ‘us’. Nor am I a completely lone voice in my impatience with this phenomenon, since a few other lone voices have stuck their heads above the parapet to vent their unease in recent times.
Indeed, the discontent has a history of its own. As far back as 1992 Dermot Bolger was throwing down the gauntlet, with these comments in his introduction to The Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction:

'All this - along with various anthologies of poetry and prose - helped for a period to reinforce the notion that the North was central to all Irish writing, so that, as a writer from the Republic of Ireland - which is three times the size of the North - one frequently felt that you were writing about a society which had been rendered invisible. The genuine changes and struggles and the separate reality of people’s lives in the South seemed to count as nothing for academics, editors and critics with their own agendas. One was confronted by a constant set of double standards. While anthologies of Northern writing or documentaries and studies of it frequently appeared, any anthology of writing solely from the Irish Republic would have been condemned'. (9)

He continued:

'The inherent suggestion behind it is of a society somehow obsessed with its relationship with a former colonial power - something which might certainly have been true in the pre-European Community society of a quarter of a century ago, but on which the work in this volume speaks for itself. Certainly I have never felt myself to be either a post-colonial writer or engaged in anything as marginal as Anglo-Irish literature (summed up, perhaps a tad excessively, by Joseph O’Connor as ‘anybody who owned a castle and scribbled’), and I doubt if any of the young Southern writers included here would feel otherwise'. (10)

When writing of the chronology within the various sections of the anthology, Bolger stated:

This is not to suggest, in any way, that the work should be read purely as an historical journey through a society. Part of the liberation of these writers is that few see themselves as social commentators. Each has been concerned with creating his or her own fictional universe, and it is within the contexts of these private worlds that they should be judged. (11)

He concluded by referring to, ‘...a new wave of younger Irish writers whose most remarkable characteristic is to share almost nothing in common except originality.’ (12)
A little later, it was a northerner, poet and Trinity lecturer Gerald Dawe, who elaborated this position, in his 1995 essay ‘Post Colonial Confusions’, available in the appropriately titled, from the perspective of this paper, volume of his collected essays, Stray Dogs and Dark Horses:

The real change had taken place in the south. For some time southern writers had struggled to make artistic sense of the northern situation and failed. They turned away from the North, or skirted its bloody reminders of murky old History lumbering along, and tuned into the contemporary experience of their own communities, the familial past and the notion took hold that Ireland could get by without the likes of Field Day. In fact, that Field Day and the whole northern ‘thing’ was standing in the way of a generation of young, ambitious and thoroughly switched-on writers, women and men, who wanted to move into the floodlights of the Robinsonian republic. A new word entered the lexicon: Diaspora. We were into Europe and the US, not the stodgy old Anglo-Irish stew. Fintan O’Toole caught the mood in his review of The Field Day Anthology:

If you look at the contemporary Irish Drama Section you
get the impression of a theatre inhabited only by gnarled
farmers, people caught up in the Northern Troubles, and
people acting out in one way or another the conflict
between Britishness and Irishness.

So from Friel, Seamus Deane, Davy Hammond, Tom Paulin, Seamus Heaney and Stephen Rea to Colm Toibin, Emma Donoghue, Patrick McCabe, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, John Waters, Dermot Bolger, Sebastian Barry, Ferdia MacAnna, Martin MacDonagh a generational- shift merges with a geopolitical one. What possible national ground they all inhabit as Irish writers is (was?) the heady stuff of cultural- political debate. I truly wonder, though, if such issues really matter anymore in the brave new Ireland that is always just around the corner. (13)

Last year, in his paper ‘Note from the Rathmines Underground, or, The Spiders and the Bees’, delivered at the second New Voices in Irish Criticism conference held in Belfast in February 2000, and collected in Critical Ireland: New Essays in Literature and Culture, David Cotter moved beyond the North/South axis to take issue with the whole notion of Irish Studies, or indeed the practice of studying literature under the rubric of the nationality of those who write it. He wrote:

We are likely to lose something if lines of inquiry are determined by help-wanted ads in The Guardian, the MLA or The Times. Literature should not be portioned out between the various fields of national studies. This causes it to be subordinate to the disciplines of history and sociology. The sociological project of delineating groups always overlooks the margins between these groups, and the people who straddle these groups, failing to be caught by these nets. It is possible that Vision, with a capital V, emerges in such people. It may be the case that the percentage of people undecided in these surveys is not a superfluous figure, but rather the heart of the matter. To learn an identity by studying Irishness is cheap, a cop out; it is from McDonald’s.
Meaning does not reside in the bog beneath our feet, but in the bogs in our minds. It is cowardice for us to think for a market, though there is only dignity in the desolation to which integrity will lead. Sincerity should become for us the only thing that matters. (14)

To bring this marginal, or marginalised, line of reasoning up to date, in the current issue of the Dublin Review, in an article entitled ‘Edna Longley’s Map’, poet Peter Sirr opines:

'Whatever about differences of emphasis and political perspective, it’s certainly true that the tendency for Irish writing to be swallowed by Irish Studies and fed into a narrative of Irishness and Irish history effectively imprisons it. It also excludes any variety of Irish writing that doesn’t accommodate this narrative, doesn’t foreground Ireland
itself - and preferably a version of rural Irish experience. Edna Longley may profess impatience with the discourses of Irish Studies, but they are her meat and drink. And a sad irony of the relentless dominance of concerns with identity is that writers who can’t be written about with reference to one ‘identity-discourse’ or another are left out in the cold by Longley herself and by the Irish and American critics she joins battle with. Many Irish Writers, it should be said, haven’t been shy of promoting their Irishness in the US, even (consciously or unconsciously) allowing a marketable version of Irishness to take up the central position
in their aesthetic. Few Irish critics comment on this, which makes Longley’s sharp deconstruction of the Irish Studies industry welcome'. (15)

But he continues:

'One of the conclusions posterity will surely arrive at is that Irish literary discourse was the most inward-looking on the planet. Debate in Ireland inevitably means debate within the parameters of Irishness, and any outward reference, any engagement with the world of not-Ireland, must be fed back into the maw of our self-concern. We are a very long way still from the time devoutly wished for by Derek Mahon when the question of who was or wasn’t an Irish poet would clear a room in seconds'. (16)

In case we miss the point, he tops this with:

'It’s a small country, and the vigour with which we gaze at ourselves has to do with that smallness; our claims of distinctness have for so long rested on fictive visions of ourselves that we don’t feel we can command anyone’s attention - not even our own - without them'. (17)

Perhaps the problem arises at the outset because academics and critics, with very few special exceptions, are not creative artists, and so bring to their reading of literary texts a very different set of expectations as regards its uses and functions than those writers set out with, if writers indeed set out with any intentions at all, or think in terms of uses and functions, other than the intention of making a well-crafted work of art that functions entirely on its own terms. Doctrinaire New Criticism may have promoted a hermetically sealed practice of writing, cut loose from all social or historical referents, but it did have the abiding virtue of focusing attention on the materiality of language and the book as self-contained world, an approach sadly lacking in many of the agenda-fuelled practitioners of what has become the tyranny of theory. Perhaps it is time for the pendulum to swing back for a time to the primary rigours of textually-based criticism. For good writers both know and make no secret of a fact that even good academics also know but do not acknowledge: that, as every rhetorician-for-hire worth his stylistic flourish in the service of a predetermined point of view is aware, be they a barrister or a public relations practitioner or a postcolonial literary theorist, any case can be argued, and any side of an argument taken and defended. As Milan Kundera, a self-confessed hedonist in a world beset by totalitarian politics, said in an interview with Philip Roth, included as an afterward to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, ‘The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.’ (18)
Everybody’s favourite shibboleth - the abstraction as house pet - is ‘Irishness’. The majority of academics and critics read new Irish fiction with an eye to working out how well it reflects, and what it is saying about, Irish society. This in turn gives rise to the less talented or original writers producing novels which they know will provide the needed fuel to keep this fire burning. This is a poor way of reading - or writing - fiction, or certainly only one way of doing it which shouldn’t necessarily be granted precedence, since it entails little more than starting with a general theory (post colonialism is good one) and making all specific instances agree. But we hardly read Gabriel Garcia Marquez for what the work has to say about Colombian national identity, or that of Haruki Murakami so that it can provide a similar service for the Japanese. It is, unfortunately, ‘dangerously hip’ to be Irish right now, as New York-based, Irish-born novelist Colum McCann has stated. (19) In the interests of good writing, it would probably be a good idea if a moratorium of at least five years were placed on all discussions about ‘Irishness’. As is evident of Louis MacNeice, from his comments in a 1938 radio interview with F. R. Higgins (and quoted as the Preface to Paul Muldoon’s Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry), he wouldn’t have known his ‘racial blood music’, as Higgins had it, if it had been blown into his ears at 40,000 decibels. Or rather, he thought it could be left well enough alone, to look after itself. (20) This attitude deserves our respect, not least because, when viewed from the perspective of posterity, the test of time has not had an insurmountable problem in deciding which of them was the greater poet. Rather than national identity, let us explore notional identity.
Academics and literary critics who would prefer if fiction were history, or politics, or sociology, or even autobiography, or who want fiction to perform these roles - and Irish Studies is currently falling down with them - would do well to ponder the counsel of one of the greats: in the afterward to Lolita, published in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov wrote, ‘It is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain information about a country or about a social class or about the author.’ (21) Viewed from a philosophical perspective, to say nothing of a psychoanalytical one, you are in trouble from the outset on an epistemological level, and more importantly, on the ontological one, if you start constructing and predicating your identity around nationality, or looking to it to confer identity. This amounts to a crutch for the insecure, since fatherland - like faith and family, and perhaps even gender and sexuality - is ultimately arbitrary. They are accidents of birth, and it could all have been so different. It is not for nothing that such a fastidiously self-conscious wordsmith as James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus, at the end of The Portrait, go forth to ‘...forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ (22) If we learn anything from Joyce, it is that faith, family and fatherland are dearly cherished, but ultimately arbitrary, conferers of identity. Silence, exile and cunning (or punning) are still better strategies for individual survival, or the survival of individuality. Despite recent attempts, most notably by Emer Nolan in James Joyce and Nationalism, to reclaim Joyce for a nationalistic project, and not forgetting either the equal and opposite efforts of Stephen Howe in Ireland and Empire to discount Ireland as a postcolonial society at all, it is still worth quoting again from our greatest dead white male writer, specifically from the ‘Cyclops’ episode of Ulysses:

-A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same
-By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m
living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had a laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck
out of it:
-Or also living in different places.
-That covers my case, says Joe. (23)

Or again, as Stephen Dedalus says in the ‘Eumaeus’ episode:

-We cannot change the country. Let us change the subject. (24)

These are random, decontextualised snippets, and amid the polyphonic voices and multiple points of view available in Ulysses it is ultimately something of a fool’s errand to study it in the hope of ascertaining its author’s political opinions, but they do make us question the validity of nationalism as an enabling ideology, no less than its mirror image, revisionism. Satire, for Swift, may have been a glass where everyone saw every face except their own, but Ulysses would seem to be a text where everyone sees their own face, to the exclusion of everyone else’s, rather like scripture that can be cited by any devil for their own ends. For what is revisionism, but an inverted form of nationalism, or at least a reaction to it, another swing of another pendulum? If Irish Studies is constructed solely in either opposition, or deference, to the legacy of British Imperialism, the irony is that this makes Irish Studies a direct pure consequence of colonialism, rather than any kind of challenge to it, much less an autonomous, independent entity. A further, although seldom remarked, irony is that the majority of the more successful Irish writers, both artistically and commercially, are now published in London.
It is all the more perplexing then, to hear so acute a commenter as Seamus Deane, in his lecture 'Ireland's two Oxford movements, 1850 - 1900, Newman, Arnold, Joyce', delivered at this year's International Association for the Study of Irish Literature conference in Dublin, describe Stephen Dedalus as 'psychotic' for attempting to reinvent himself ex nihilo by flying the nets, and awake from the nightmare of history. Is he not rather, as he says of himself, merely 'a horrible example of free thought'? And is not shooting and bombing in the name of a national tradition and identity not far greater evidence of mass psychosis? To quote from Joseph Brodsky's 'A Commencement Address', available in his volume of selected essays Less Than One:

'To put it mildly, nothing can be turned and worn inside out with greater ease than one's notion of social justice, civic conscience, a better future, etc. One of the surest signs of danger here is the number of those who share your views, not so much because unanimity has the knack of degenerating into uniformity as because of the probability - implicit in great numbers - that noble sentiment is being faked. By the same token, the surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even - if you will - eccentricity. That is, something that can't be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn't be happy with. Something, in other words, that can't be shared, like your own skin: not even by a minority. Evil is a sucker for solidity. It always goes for big
numbers, for confident granite, for ideological purity, for drilled armies and balanced sheets. Its proclivity for such things has to do presumably with its innate insecurity, but this realisation, again, is of small comfort when Evil triumphs'. (25)

Or, as Susan Sontag has it in her essay 'Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes':

'An animus against the systematizers has been a recurrent feature of intellectual good taste for more than a century; Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein are among the many voices that proclaim, from a superior if virtually unbearable burden of singularity, the absurdity of systems. In its strong modern form, scorn for systems is one aspect of the protest against Law, against Power itself. An older, milder refusal is lodged in the French sceptic tradition, from Montaigne to Gide: writers who are epicures of their own consciousness
are likely to decry "the sclerosis of systems", a phrase Barthes used in his first essay, on Gide. And along with these refusals a distinctive modern stylistics has evolved, the prototypes of which go back at least to Sterne and the German Romantics - the invention of anti-linear forms
of narration: in fiction, the destruction of the "story"; in non-fiction, the abandonment of linear argument. The presumed impossibility (or irrelevance) of producing a continuous systematic argument has led to a remodelling of the standard long forms - the treatise, the long book, - and a recasting of the genres of fiction, autobiography, and essay. Of this stylistics, Barthes is a particularly inventive practitioner'. (26)

Stephen is nothing if not singular in his wish to draw a line in the sand and make everything up anew. Besides, Joyce knew all about his character’s shortcomings, too.
However, whatever about the narrow concerns of the critical establishment, I have little doubt that very few of our leading creative artists set out with an agenda of attempting to define Irish identity when they start to write a novel, make a film, paint a picture, or compose a piece of music. Where, for example, is Waiting for Godot, or any of Beckett's delicate dramas of withdrawn consciousness, set? If, as was argued by film critic Gerry McCarthy in his Film Ireland review of Peter Weir’s The Truman Show - citing Kafka, Pynchon, Hitchcock and Cronenberg - paranoia was the defining condition of the twentieth century, then it is worth looking at why the paranoid narrative, of which there are no shortage in Ireland, is so seductive to the modern mind, whether it is an Irish one or not, and then referring back to the Irish context, if it is Ireland that is being talked about. (27) This would place the discussion in an international arena, in a way that is far more interesting than the navel-gazing approach, or indeed the bogus ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ integrationism that is dictated by Brussels and Luxembourg, as much as it is funded by Washington and Boston. There is always someone trying to make us think certain things. There is always someone who knows more than we do. To think so is part of what it is to be alive in the world at this moment in time. Two of the best Irish novels/films of the last decade readily illustrate this: Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man is all about them being out to get us, them ruling us through fear. Part of the greatness of Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy is that we don’t know how much is actually happening, and how much is going on inside Francie’s head. Yet these are hardly exclusively Irish conditions. Meanwhile, the schoolmen are still busy determining who belongs to the Catholic tradition and who belongs to the Protestant one, who is the Billy and who is the Tim, or who is a Protholic and who a Cathestant, not forgetting what it all says about Irish identity, and what it means to be Irish. Indeed, as was well publicised, the editors of The Field Day Anthology were so absorbed with the two traditions that they clean forgot there are two genders. To quote one of Pynchon’s Proverbs for Paranoids, from Gravity’s Rainbow: ‘If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.’ (28)
A random list of living writers born in Ireland who operate outside of these constricting parameters, or who would treat them with blank incomprehension were they even aware of them, in other words, the ones who would fall into Peter Sirr’s category of ‘writers who can’t be written about with reference to one ‘identity-discourse’ or another’ and so ‘are left out in the cold’, would not be hard to draw up. This club of writers who, as Groucho (rather than Karl) Marx would have it, wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have them as members (unless, perhaps, it is the club of good writers), would include, and this enumeration is by no means exhaustive: John Banville; Aidan Mathews; Niall Quinn; Mary Morrissy; Eilis Ni Dhubhine; Anne Enright; Hugo Hamilton; Colum McCann; and Mike McCormack. What is the verdict of the critical establishment on these writers? One member of same, Colm Toibin, remarked in a recent television documentary about John Banville that it was surprising Banville had not gone to live in Paris, implying that Banville’s concerns and credentials weren’t Irish enough for him to be granted residency in the country in which he was born. And Quinn, McCormack and Ni Dhuibhne were not featured in Toibin’s Penguin Anthology of Irish Fiction. While Toibin was insightful enough to point out in his introduction to that volume that, ‘most of the work being produced in Ireland now is formally conservative’, (29) he did not make the point that the experimental tradition in Irish writing, stretching from Swift and Sterne to Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, is central rather than peripheral.
Of course, to raise any questions about the direction, much less the very concept, of ‘Irish Studies’ is to bite the hand that feeds, and will be read as trying to kill a goose that lays a very lucrative golden egg. But since the Anglo-American model of economic management has now been adopted in Ireland, in which the gap between rich and poor gets wider everyday, rather than the European model of social democracy, which has managed to teach more of its people to read and write and educate them to tertiary level, and house them and provide them with productive employment, and keep them healthy and living to a ripe old age, and letting them die with dignity, it is worth noting how many of the more artistically daring American writers have reacted to their society, the America that we are busy copying. In his essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’, available in the volume of essay and arguments entitled A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, one of the brightest stars of contemporary American fiction, David Foster Wallace, wrote:

'And the rebellious irony in the best postmodern fiction wasn’t just credible as art; it seemed downright socially useful in its capacity for what counterculture critics called “a critical negation that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems.” * Kesey’s black parody of asylums suggested that our arbiters of sanity were often
crazier than their patients; Pynchon reoriented our view of paranoia from deviant psychic fringe to central thread in the corporo-bureaucratic weave; DeLillo exposed image, signal, data and tech as agents of spiritual chaos and not social order. Burrough’s icky explorations of American narcosis
exploded hypocrisy; Gaddis’s exposure of abstract capital as deforming exploded hypocrisy; Coover’s repulsive political farces exploded hypocrisy'. (30)

* Greil Marcus, Mystery Train

While American writers were, and are, exploding hypocrisy, in formally and stylistically innovative practices of writing which are audaciously experimental, back home here we are merely swapping one set of clichés for another, both artistically and societally. We have only to consider the official Irish government treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, more often than not from countries with a far more legitimate claim to the label postcolonial, to realise that our society has not reached such a level of perfection that we can afford to sit around congratulating ourselves on how we got here. Indeed, given the thrust of this essay, employing the first person plural in this context is problematic from the outset, since I myself am succumbing to sociology, rather than practicing close textual criticism. But Irish writing, and its symbiotic accomplice, Irish criticism, with some notable exceptions, is now only self-serving entertainment, at best ignoring and at worst bolstering a supine or often corrupt status quo, and so one is forced into producing a broadside. Nor is the detection of American supremacy merely paranoid raving. It is present to the extent that in her short story ‘The Pooka at Five Happiness’, available in the anthology Shenanigans, Emer Martin can have her central character, born in Ireland of Chinese parents, explain Ireland to an American tourist in a restaurant thus:

‘No problem. It’s easy. Dublin is New York, Galway is San
Francisco and Limerick is Detroit,’ I told them and the guy wrote
it down. They were smiling. ‘Where’s Mexico then?’
‘Cavan.’ I didn’t miss a beat.
‘And Cootehill is Tijuana.’ (31)

It would be interesting, if perhaps not terribly fruitful, to speculate as to why we are so preoccupied with ourselves, and in such a self-congratulatory manner. Maybe the arrogance is just a mask for insecurity, a species of overcompensation, since if we spent so long being oppressed now that we have the chance we’ll be brash. But does comparable naval-gazing go on in Belgium, in Chile, in Angola, or in Nigeria, the latter a country of nearly 90m people as opposed to Ireland’s 5m? At the most recent New Voices in Irish Criticism conference in Galway in February of this year, the lack of application of critical theory in the field of Irish Studies was bemoaned by some delegates, while others questioned importing its methodologies to the Irish situation, claiming that Ireland is a special case, and not amenable to such analyses. There was no discussion of the limits of critical theory itself, much less of the very validity of Irish Studies as a discipline. One can only echo the words of Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote in Atlas, published in 1986, ‘For me Ireland is a land of essentially benevolent and naturally Christian people carried away by the curious passion to be incessantly Irish.’ (32) This observation holds true with even more force today, although the Christianity has been effectively jettisoned, in favour of structural funds and foreign capital investment.
In his introduction to Reading the Future, a collection of interviews with the twelve Irish writers most likely to still be read in one hundred years’ time, published last year, one of the doyens of Irish Studies, Declan Kiberd wrote:

'Bohemia was not just a state of freedom, but a blueprint for the future, which may be why Gustave Flaubert could conclude that the artist has no nationality. Nationhood, like so many other bourgeois possessions, would have to be given up in the utopian world of the future. Flaubert went so far as to say that Bohemia was his native country'. (33)

This would indicate that Kiberd is sensibly aware that there is a world beyond nationalism and postcolonialism and decolonisation, particularly for creative writers. However, only a few months later, in an article in The Irish Times, Kiberd was heralding the Gaeltacht as ‘the crucible of Irish postmodernity’, declaring that, ‘Connemara, with its bands of reflexologists, portrait painters and psychic healers has become “Galway 4”.’ (34) But it is a contemporary French novelist, Michel Houelleubecq, whose devastating indictment of the intellectual vacuity and self-serving nature of New Age lifestyles and therapies, Atomised, which concludes in Galway, who can perhaps best throw light on what is actually happening there. The following extract is from a conversation between two geneticists:

...’Most of them around here are Catholics, he said. ‘Well, that’s all changing now. Ireland is just coming into the modern world. Quite a few hi-tech companies have set up here to take advantage of the tax breaks and the low social security payments. Round here, there’s Roche and Lilly. And Microsoft, of course; every kid in the country dreams of working for Microsoft. People don’t go to mass as much as they used to, there’s more sexual freedom then there was a couple of years ago, there are more nightclubs, more anti-depressants. The classic story.’ (35)

But then, Flaubert himself didn’t believe in progress either, and wrote, ‘The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletariat to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeoisie.’ (36)
In the end, perhaps all these dichotomies, between tradition and modernity, graphic realism and absurdist experimentation, style and content, how to say something and having something to say, are really about reconciling the personal and the social, an argument which generally gets aired in the guise of the aesthetic versus the political, where the imagined opposition is always denigrated or even demonised. They are also largely false, since it is in the interplay between self and society, consciousness and context, how they shift and affect each other, that art emerges. And, no matter where you start from as a writer, whether it is being preoccupied by the prevailing culture or by the nuances of how individuals feel, it you’re any good you’ll eventually wind up finding one through the other. The general is in the particular, and vice versa, of course. What is needed now is neither the personal memoir, nor mere sociology. What is needed is both together, and something else besides: unparalleled individual imagination, that is aware of social obligation, however it manifests itself. That is: Art. However, the words of Wylie in Samuel Beckett’s Murphy may still hold as true today as they did in the 1930's: ‘It is always pleasant to leave this country.’ (37)


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Beckett, Samuel. Murphy. London: Picador, 1973.

Bolger, Dermot, ed. The Picador Book of Irish Fiction. London: Picador, 1993.

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Brodsky, Josef. Less Than One. London: Penguin, 1986.

Dawe, Gerald. Stray Dogs and Dark Horses. Newry: Abbey Press, 2000.

Houellebecq, Michel. Atomised. London: Heinemann, 2000.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London: Jonathan Cape,


Joyce, James. Ulysses. London: The Bodley Head, 1960.

Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. London: Faber & Faber,


Muldoon, Paul, ed. The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry. London: Faber &

Faber, 1986.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1955.

Ni Anluain, Cliodhna, ed. Reading The Future. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2000.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. London: Jonathan Cape, 1973.

Sontag, Susan. A Susan Sontag Reader. London: Penguin, 1983.

Toibin, Colm, ed. The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction. London: Penguin, 2000.

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Culture. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001.

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1. Fintan O’Toole, ‘Writing The Boom’, in The Irish Times, 25 January, 2001.
2. ibid.
3. ibid.
4. ibid.
5. ibid.
6. ibid.
7. Derek Hand, ‘The Tiger Reflected in a Cracked Mirror’, in The Irish Times, 30
January, 2001.
8. Colm Toibin (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, (London: Penguin,
2000), Introduction p. ix.
9. Dermot Bolger (ed.), The Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction,
(London: Picador, 1993), Introduction p. xi ff.
10. Ibid., p. xiii.
11. Ibid., p. xvi.
12. Ibid., p. xxvi.
13. Gerald Dawe, ‘Postcolonial Confusions’ in Stray Dogs and Dark Horses,
(Newry: Abbey Press, 2000), p. 212.
14. David Cotter, ‘Note from the Rathmines Underground, or, the Spiders and the
Bees’, in Critical Ireland: New Essays in Literature and Culture, ed. Aaron
Kelly and Alan A. Gillis, (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001), p. 40.
15. Peter Sirr, ‘Edna Longley’s map’, in the Dublin Review, number three, Summer
2001, pp. 65-66.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, (London: Faber &
Faber, 1982), p. 237.
19. Quotation from an article by Olaf Tyaransen, ‘New Kids on the Writers’ Block’, in
The Sunday Independent, Vol.94, No.6, 7 February, 1999, ‘Living’
Supplement, p.6.
20. Paul Muldoon (ed.), The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, (London:
Faber & Faber, 1986), pp. 17 – 18.
21. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1955), p 334.
22. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, (London: Jonathan
Cape, 1926), p. 253 (italicisation, but not Joyce’s, mine).
23. James Joyce, Ulysses, (London: The Bodley Head, 1960), p. 329 ff.
24. Ibid, p. 566.
25. Josef Brodsky, ‘A Commencement Address’, in Less Than One, (London:
Penguin, 1986), p. 385.
26. Susan Sontag, ‘Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes’, in A Susan Sontag Reader,
(London: Penguin, 1983), p. 430 ff.
27. Gerry McCarthy, in Film Ireland, Issue 67, October/November 1998, p. 37.
28. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), p. 251.
29. Penguin Anthology, op. cit., p. xxxii.
30. David Foster Wallace, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’, in A
Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, (London: Abacus, 1998), p. 66.
31. Emer Martin, ‘The Pooka at Five Happiness’, in Shenanigans, ed. Sarah
Champion and Donal Scannell, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1999), p. 83.
32. Jorge Luis Borges, Atlas, (London: Viking, 1986), p. 16.
33. Cliodhna Ni Anluain (ed.), Reading The Future, (Dublin: The Lilliput Press,
2000), Introduction by Declan Kiberd, p. 10.
34. Declan Kiberd, ‘Gael Force’, in The Irish Times Magazine, 24 March, 2001.
35. Michel Houellebecq, Atomised, (London: Heinemann, 2000), p. 350.
36. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), p. 85.
37. Samuel Beckett, Murphy, (London: Picador, 1973), p. 75.



Critical Writings
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