Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions
(University of Notre Dame Press)
US: Mar 2011
Poet and critic Eamonn Wall teaches in St. Louis and frequently summers in Colorado. His continental crossings led him to connect writers from the West of Ireland with those of the American landscapes he visits. This book collects seven essays about seven authors from Ireland who explore on the page the scenes that resemble those of the plains and mountains—and the oceans missing from the interiors which their American counterparts generally inhabit.
He starts with Tim Robinson, a Yorkshire-born, Cambridge-educated mathematician and visual artist turned literary cartographer of the Aran Islands, Connemara, and the Burren along Ireland’s Atlantic coasts. Wall compares Robinson’s “deepmap” with that drawn in William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth over a Kansas county. His careful maps and his intricate travel narratives continue to construct an intimate and exacting record that makes the lack of previous Irish mapping a strength. By “tracing” his paths inch-by-inch, Wall finds, Robinson shows how he continues the tradition of the oral place-name stories and verbal accounts left by previous walkers on this ancient terrain.
Gary Snyder’s impact upon the Beats and the Buddhists they spawned has a long reverberation. Wall connects his retreat to an “island” on a ridge in the Sierra Nevada with the Ardilaun island redoubt where Richard Murphy resides off the Irish coast. Their common roots in ecological sensibilities enrich their poetry.
Mary O’Malley’s poetry also comes from the coast, but further north, in the shrinking Irish-speaking communities of Connemara. Her County Galway home, in an area both depopulating as natives leave and repopulating as second-home owners and exurban city dwellers move in, straddles a bilingual region, where the Irish drifts across the English vernacular. Her poetry, infused by her feminist sensibilities, Wall argues, also enters a liminal realm, where the frontiers give way to less-fixed lines, about a people whose allegiances may lie closer to New York City than to Dublin.
This western orientation characterizes the late John McGahern’s novels. Considered, as Wall notes, perhaps the successor to Beckett and Joyce for his spare, searing fiction, McGahern’s based more inland, but he connects with O’Malley’s interest in the clash between imagination and reality. Wall quotes Larry McMurtry: “The romance of the West was always more potent than the truth”.
Owen Wister, Alice Munro, and Wallace Stegner enter Wall’s chapter, as he links rural isolation and emotional resilience or its lack to the characters in McGahern’s third collection of stories, 1985’s “High Ground”. McGahern’s sullen protagonists simmer and do a slow burn; some burst into rage, others come to terms with mortality, and a few even seek awkward grace.
London-born Martin McDonagh’s “Dante Dodge City” mirrors Quentin Tarantino’s mayhem and Sam Peckinpah’s showdowns, as Wall forges bonds to Peckinpah’s own influence, John Ford, son of Galway immigrants. Their cinematic sagas drew on mythic heroes allowed to kill. Peckinpah and McDonagh place their bloody battles just over the border, in Mexico or in the Irish West.
McDonagh, like Tarantino, appears an “anteater” in the way he sucks up popular culture, rock music, film and television predecessors into what appears to be not only horrifying but humorous scenarios of tragicomic chaos. He breaks down boundaries of taste and decorum. He claims to bring the energy of punk into his plays.
However, Wall doubts that McDonagh for all his manufactured outrage is as original a force as he’s hyped. Wall reminds us that Hollywood’s visions—as witnessed by McDonagh’s shift into film with his short Six Shooter and the full-length In Bruges—dominate the London-raised but Connemara-connected playwright’s sensibilities, and that gore goes back to the Greeks. Since the Aran plays of Synge and the reveries of Yeats, the Irish from somewhere else have entered the West to caricature its unrepentant, unreformed natives.
Twice, Wall quotes Richard White’s “nationally imagined” vs. “locally imagined” concepts of the West. Wall adds that, for such as McDonagh, the international distinction vs. the national one works for Ireland, as it did for White for America. The notion of a “simultaneously savage and beautiful” domain captivates ticket buyers for McDonagh’s string of plays and for films.
For those outside this garish spotlight, such as Sean Lysaght, a more solid meaning rests in the modest flora rather than the more advanced, or regressive, fauna stalking McDonagh’s Irish bogs and island rocks. Lysaght’s 1991 poem cycle follows the example, eighty years before The Clare Island Survey, of pioneering naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger, who roamed the same landscape. The Irish language floats into the names for the plants and flowers, contemplated by Lysaght or catalogued by Praeger.
Finally, Moya Cannon’s Galway-city residence does not keep her from poetry which captures the bioregional. Wall sets Northern English poet Kathleen Raine’s verse next to Cannon’s to find similar longings. And, circling back, he also finds connections to Gary Snyder’s examples.
The first three essays originally appeared as journal articles. They demonstrate the shift in tone from his easygoing preface, as Wall assumes the role of scholar confidently. He takes on considerable challenges in simplifying Robinson’s admirable but dauntingly elaborate explorations of Irish landscapes. Wall stretches to include travel writers and two fellow countrymen and contemporaries of Robinson, Colin Thubron and Bruce Chatwin. Wall’s perspective widens, but its depths demand close attention in this very ambitious article. The erudite and lofty reach extended by Wall in his pieces on Robinson, Murphy, and O’Malley means that the reader must cling to some rather attenuated tendrils which curl far from their Irish-American grafted roots.
I would have liked more inclusion of Irish-language authors. As Wall argues, these indigenous interpreters remain far less known, inevitably. This volume could have assisted in guiding a wider audience to the plays of Antoine Ó Flatharta, the many local storytellers and singers distributed by Cló Iar-Chonnachta, or the lyrics of sean-nós (old-style unaccompanied) singers such as Caítlin Maude or Róisín Elsafty. He does cite the better known poets Maírtín Ó Diréain, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, if largely in passing. Wall’s admission of decayed fluency in Gaeilge attests to the costs as well as the benefits of a long time abroad.
Although pitched at an academic audience, readers familiar or not with these writers may wish to learn more. Wall integrates eco-critical foundations. He avoids theoretical jargon or literary theory-mongering. While stuffed with references and sprinkled with citations, he deploys his learning lightly, considering the usual contributions by most professors to criticism today. Professor Wall succeeds in directing attention to an innovative, cross-cultural field of earth-based, multidisciplinary research.