Declan Kiberd Bridges the Gaps Between Ireland's Offical Languages

After Ireland considers the changing culture, the changing identity, and a fast-changing Ireland in the varied voices and languages of its literature.

After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present
Declan Kiberd

Harvard University Press

Jan 2018


In 2016, many in Ireland reacted more warily than enthusiastically to the centennial of their Easter Rising, which sparked the drive for independence, if partially achieved. This ambivalence resonates in Declan Kiberd's third in his series of essay collections. Inventing Ireland (1996), which charted writers taking up nation-building and cultural allegiance while Irish Classics (2001) related relevant narratives.

In the wake of the 2008 crash of "Tiger" Ireland, confirming "the gradual expiry of the national project", Kiberd examines authors since the end of World War II, articulating and expanding creative reactions. Given clerical, political, and economic corruption, institutions dominating Irish people cannot alert them to the crisis "of embodying the unstilled longing for expressive freedom." Kiberd assembles over two-dozen case studies, primarily focused on a key work from a poet, playwright, or tale-teller. Interspersed "interchapters" briefly nod to historical contexts; these assist readers less familiar with Irish events over the past century. However, the depth and breadth of these literary critiques presume an audience well informed about many recent things Irish.

Starting off with Samuel Beckett, Kiberd raises a clever but strained comparison between the loss of a native language undergone by millions of Irish and Beckett's choice to turn from the liberties of English to the restrictions of French. He mentions this twice in this book, and it displays this professor's sometimes idiosyncratic take on creative endeavors. Yet it also testifies to his strength. Experienced with Irish as well as English, Kiberd's accurate translations of verse excerpts within this work demonstrate his skill at bridging the gap between the nation's two "official languages". Chapters on publishers Sáirséal agus Dill, poets Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and the bilingual Michael Hartnett reveal the power and nuance of this second tongue, often ignored in our language.

Kiberd situates the shift from Irish to English by the modern majority within a transfer from British to Irish middle-class bureaucracy as the supervisor of the struggling, three-quarter Republic of Ireland. Its censors infantilized its adult readers; its leaders fetishized its rural families. Idealized expectations met with disappointing results. One out of two citizens born between 1922, the year of the birth of the Irish Free State, and 1982 emigrated. Those talents remaining turned more frequently to the Continent rather than the destination of those departing, England or America, for inspiration. John McGahern and John Banville, different though their subjects and prose may be, "taught younger artists" how to "think globally, act locally". They mingled Irish concerns into domestic and foreign predicaments, respectively. This variety stimulated Irish writers and readers tired of Catholic cliché.

Able to follow what years of compulsory Irish-language lessons failed to instill within most of his peers, Kiberd notices odds and ends to bolster his study of the nation's cultural legacy and how it responds to globalization. When Princess Diana died, this came in at number five for the headlines on Irish-language television in Connemara. This balance, likely very rare in at least the English-speaking world, shows today's persistence of the parochial, no longer as a drawback but as a dignified choice. For that station transmitted "one of the few non-metropolitan sources of news in Western Europe."

The scope of these articles includes such fresh perspectives. Alongside familiar names such as Frank O'Connor, Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, and Edna O'Brien, less heralded texts by Richard Power, Eavan Boland, Joseph O'Connor, and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne receive recognition. If some less canonical works and writers could have been afforded the extended attention the usual suspects Heaney and Friel (the latter gets two chapters) enjoy, this anthology would have added value. For example, Ní Dhuibhne's The Dancers Dancing captures a changing Irish conception of consciousness as Dublin schoolchildren raised in the '60s begin to mature, but her novel garners a fraction of the pages allotted its admittedly worthy coming-of-age counterpart, Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha.

Paddy's "aimless immediacies" as a boy of ten witnessing the collapse of his parents' marriage and the construction of what replaces farmland during 1968's suburbanization of the capital city also take in the Republic's most ubiquitous religion having "declined from a grand narrative of faith to a paltry kind of rule-keeping" of sins and pardons "for the sake of social decorum", Kiberd observes that this story reminds "grown-up readers of a state they might once have known and, indeed, of how and why they ever learned to read. When you love your friends, and cannot abide them at the same time, you are ready to disappear into a book." Paddy's plight shares a malaise spreading far past Northern Dublin.

Newer authors, Kiberd laments, have yet to come to terms fully with the massive alterations of Irish identity for those who've followed Paddy and his peers into such concrete sprawl. Housing estates rather than idyllic farmsteads represent the norm nowadays. Immigration into Ireland accelerates. Polish delis, Nigerian churches, and Chinese shops cater to this diverse urban polity. Big-box stores and brutal high-rises embody the multinationals profiting from the government's largesse. Technical and financial fields sweep up workers and discard them as suddenly. The Euro in 2002 marks all this.

"Banknotes which had once borne images of writers from Scotus Eriugena to Joyce disappeared, to be replaced by featureless bridges and buildings which already had the look of the Lubyanka about them." So Kiberd concludes his latest gathering of literary approaches leading up to this open-ended moment. His judgments would have gained force if better integrated; they feel as if written over many years, and their uneven length attests to their varied reasons for being set down in print. No explicit indication of when which appeared, or where or if they did, occludes readers from a better comprehension of Kiberd's ambitions as compiled. Still, he challenges readers to confront how literature may serve, as in the past, the state of the state. This time, the ideal of the nation, the trust in its politicians, the control of its economists, and the appeal by its bishops fail to convince the Irish.

Even the "liberal humanist code" championed by its media and its pundits fails as "satisfactory". A loss of sovereignty afflicts its elite and weakens its less privileged, less literate ranks. Kiberd holds out as one final suggestion the quiet hope that humane ethics and "self-recognition" may enable the Irish to endure this latest crisis. It may be one which will only increase in severity.

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