Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lucy McDiarmid's "The Irish Art of Controversy" Book Review

It's a pleasure to read a book that, as with the original disputants who comprise the subjects of the five chapters, addresses the general public in clear, spirited, and engaging fashion. While the content's aimed at an academic reader, the prose flows more smoothly, and the author remains aware of the need for a personal perspective that keeps her in control of the mass of material she sifts through and organizes in support of the often dramatic, if self-consciously so, performers on the stages and streets of Dublin almost a century ago. Rather than (and Prof. McD acknowledges in her preface that she labored not to use "ludic") become embroiled in abstruse jargon and faddish theory, McDiarmid takes on the early debates that characterized cultural nationalist contentions that served as a synecdoche for the larger issues of Irish Ireland.

These are covered in five thematic sections about public spats and private correspondence, these overlapping slightly: Hugh Lane's bequeathed 39 paintings, Shaw's "The Shewing of Blanco Posnet" with Lady Gregory & GBS for the Abbey Theatre squaring off against Dublin Castle, Fr. O'Hickey's defense of compulsory Irish, the "Dublin kiddies" vs. the socialists and philanthropists, and the "afterlife" which Roger Casement's diaries with their homosexual content represented for later 20c Irish discussion of sexuality and rebellion. Unlike later spectacles that entered the Irish arena, these riled up not only academics and writers, but the common people. It's a telling sign of the retreat from the "agora" in the past century that shows how willing many people are to leave to the intellectuals and literati what once might have been the dispute of many a dinner table-- think of the contention over Parnell in Joyce's "Portrait."

The details of the book have been previewed [on Amazon, where this review appeared yesterday] by earlier respondents. Many illustrations, endnotes, and explanations carry along the text in more brisk fashion than one might expect from a professor. I might add that the notes document generously the assistance from many who assisted McDiarmid in her years of research. The book may betray a bit of the assembly from disparate pieces that many collections do when gathered from earlier talks and articles, but the introduction and conclusion tie together the threads efficiently. There's even a well-chosen Irish-language proverb that begins each chapter cleverly. Such details show the author's own personality in a study that abounds in spirited, strong-willed, and stubborn smart meetings and maulings of the minds.

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