Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Re-Imagining Ireland: Review

The University of Virginia hosted a 2003 conference convening many prominent academics, writers, musicians, artists, and journalists who pondered Ireland's past and present predicaments as consumerism and globalism overtake tradition and conservatism there. This handsome volume collects ten historically focused presentations by plenary speakers, along with shorter pieces accompanying the longer essays. (A documentary DVD is also included.) While predominantly scholarly, mirroring its venue, this anthology tends to (at its best) diminish campus shop-talk and reliance on theoretical jargon and can be read (at its best) by anyone wanting a realistic view of Irish change. Most of those who add their voices here speak positively, reflecting a neo-liberal, largely secular, and consistently pro-growth and pro-immigration standpoint which will surprise any listener or reader of the mainstream Irish media not at all. This is meant less as a criticism than a reality. It'd be doubtful that the Irish and American governments, political entities, fundraisers, corporations, and the long list of financial backers that prefaces these essays would have it any other way. The editor, Andrew Higgins Wyndham, thanks many influential wheelers and dealers. I expected that such growth as they profit from is, according to the professoriate and the literati, great for the Irish, and I was not-- for the most part-- surprised by what I read.

Here's an overview. Helen Shaw takes on the clichéd Celtic Tiger, and voices join hers in seeking out who benefits and who has yet to do so-- the poverty endemic within parts of Ireland, at least as of 2003, remains higher than one might suspect. Theo Dorgan takes, being a poet, a Wallace Stevens-inspired 13 ways of looking at globalism in Ireland. My favorite anecdote concerns a group of raggedy, hippie-ish Irish adrift with him in London who decide on the spot and for no reason really to rag on some bewildered tube riders in Irish itself, and who find that the most stereotypical fellow Undergrounder, bespoke and heading from or to the City, is himself a Gaelic speaker. Lenwood Sloan gives a moving reminder of the African American experience and its attenuated ties to the Irish, in an eloquent address.

Luke Gibbons' piece on ethnic and racial identity, contrarily, wanders considerably around this topic. Eventually, he joins "Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom," (Daniel O'Hara's short film, linked on this blog earlier this year) by now a touchstone for any Irish student of multiculturalism, to Oliver Goldsmith's "A Citizen of the World" neatly, and shows how much of this subject, to which in the past decade so many critics have devoted acres of trees, still can reward a careful and patient thinker. Similarly, Angela Bourke's entry on the reality of the Gaeltacht shrinking in territory but expanding into cyberspace provides a necessary investigation into this crucially decisive topic. Given the environmental sensibility we are supposed to be cultivating as Goldsmith's heirs, the lack of sympathy afforded by many Irish citizens to the plight of the Irish-speaking community, and the counter-structures being built in cities today, offer an important exchange of ideas and perspectives.

Bourke and Aodan Mac Póilin, in his too-brief essay about the Shaws Road Belfast gaeltacht, remind us how urban families seek to create in the city a place where Irish is spoken as a learned second language by adults, who then generate schools and facilities for their children. As Mac Póilin now sees with his own daughter, this city's core of speakers will be able-- perhaps-- to pass it on to a third generation. Two thousand children in Béal Feirste attend school through the medium of Irish. This success reminds me of what earlier generations had confined, with decidedly discouraging long-term results in the late 1930s, to Rath Cairn in Meath, for example, and which had failed as the inhabitants needed to understand each other's dialects, and giving up, resorted soon to English. I read today that a Baile Gaelach is being planned for the exurbs, and it invites all who wish to create its own village where Irish can be spoken together. Mac Póilin has loads of invective for the eccentrics and misfits who flock to Irish, as well as the naysayers who belittle its future. With spirited folks like himself, a middle ground between idealistic dead-ends and begrudging nihilism may find that our century can gently shift Irish, far from its coastal redoubts, and transplant it to a thriving botanical garden inland. What a century ago receded, he wonders, may return with a new tide.

Anticipating this book's related preview of the Scot-Irish combined An Leabhar Mór art-book initiative (plates of the art are featured in this anthology), Malcolm MacLean reminds us that current Scots Gaelic culture regards itself as Ireland's Lost Colony, and stresses what only with the Peace Process, in his opinion, has been able to emerge after the end of this, the last gasp of the Reformation. The common Gaelic heritage unites across the Irish Sea. He also notes that Ibrox, bastion of Glasgow Rangers, derives from Átha Breac, or the crossing of the Beavers! So much for the persistence of the native tongue!

Following this, Declan McGonagle connects the pictorial images included here to the ideas of the conference, within a more academically phrased analysis of Irish art that (unlike some previous keynote lectures) feels more akin to the seminar-room than a public forum. Mick Moloney, on the other hand, can take his learning from academia and enliven it by his own skills playing-- as he narrates here-- the tenor banjo. He reminds us how few instruments are "native" to Ireland, and cites a decidedly outraged editorial assault from a 1907 paper, the Gaelic American, against the foreign menace of the accordion. Martin McLoone ambitiously wideranging if inevitably overlong survey of recent Irish film covers many of the expected names and more. Rod Stoneman in a short piece that cites but three articles, all his own, manages to annoy those who think that the Irish can nurture their own "film industry." Fact is, he notes, 96% of the cinema traces itself to America, and he sees no more hope for Ireland than most of the world outside, say, India, to keep pace with the slick Hollywood expertise that all cineastes pay homage to-- the other side of globalism.

Mary P. Corcoran's entry on the 'built environment' of Dublin proved rather stolid. She inadvertently reminded me of how disheartening I find so much of the capital. Each visit there discourages me further. Susan McKay also trudges dutifully through her topic of Paisleyism in an essay that roams all about, jumping from tidbit to factoid in an essay that could have benefited greatly from re-writing. The facts are there, but scattered and showing signs of a lot of cut and pasting on screen from a mass of interviews and data, I suspect. Arthur Aughey on Unionism and Ed Moloney on the Peace Process offer what you'd expect, but their entries benefit from concision. Aughey opines that republicans fought not out of a desire for unification so much as a hatred of their province. He reminds me of Anthony McIntyre's observation that gave the title to Jonathan Stevenson's book about the Troubles: "We Wrecked the Place."

Finally, Kerby Miller takes a jaundiced and welcome view, therefore, that puts paid to many of the pieties recited by other academics in this collection. He, and his fellow contributors Henry Glassie and Patrick Griffin, debunk the revisionist notion of "two traditions" that so often divides Protestant and Highland or Ulster Scot from Catholic and Irish Gael. Intelligently drawing upon Miller's current work in editing emigrants' letters in colonial and 19c America, this historian insists that the dichotomy has proven for the American as sinister as it has for the Irish themselves.
Miller, Glassie, and Griffin end this collection fittingly, looking beyond the coasts of Ireland to distant horizons, glimpsed in Scotland or once unknown in America, as they attempt to broaden what Irish identity represents.

[Posted to Amazon US today, and submitted in slightly expanded form to "The Blanket."]

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