Louise Hegarty: The Great Irish Novel

Strumpet City by James Plunkett

Ulysses by James Joyce

Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain


The late 19th and early 20th century was a time when Ireland was busy inventing (or indeed re-inventing) itself. The political and military movements that had strived towards the attainment of freedom had stagnated and so the fight for self-determination was instead taken up by various cultural organisations. During his maiden speech in Westminster on the 22nd of April 1875, Charles Stewart Parnell asked, “Why should Ireland be treated as a geographical fragment of England…? Ireland is not a geographical fragment, but a nation.” His words reflected a growing movement in Ireland to carve out an identity through culture. Ironically the rise of Gaelic organisations and cultural nationalism would only come after the fall of Parnell himself. He represented a kind of end: within ten years of that speech the GAA was formed and within another decade Conradh na Gaeilge was founded. Simultaneously the Irish Literary Revival was flourishing and soon the Abbey Theatre would be opened. The Revival would set the groundwork for what would be perceived as Irishness throughout most of the 20th century. What Ireland needed was a literature in which its people would see themselves reflected.

On the other side of the Atlantic, something similar was happening. In the wake of the Civil War, there was a desire to create a nation-state. In 1868 John William De Forest published an essay entitled “The Great American Novel.” He called on American writers to take on “the task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel.” His personal candidate for the title was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” though he does much to suggest that his at-the-time recently published novel “Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty” might also fit the bill. He was writing just after the Civil War, at a time when the American public needed a text that would not only galvanise the newly-formed nation but depict its population in a way in which they could recognise themselves. De Forest saw the Great American Novel as a way of putting an end to colonial dependence and British influence. His essay was a call for alternatives to popular British novels in the same way that the Irish Literary Revival sought to create Ireland and Irishness out of culture and art.

There were disagreements amongst revivalists from the beginning about which path Irish literature should take: national or cosmopolitan. The focus was inevitably on bypassing England and avoiding all of those political and linguistic difficulties but how was this to be done?

Strumpet City by James Plunkett adopts the national mode of writing. Frank O’Connor stated that it was not possible to write a social novel in Ireland but Plunkett proved him wrong: Strumpet City is a social novel, a historical novel, a novel of the working classes. Plunkett’s book and its expanse – dozens of character’s lived over a number of years – contrasts with the single day focused on in Ulysses though they are both books based in Dublin during the same period and feature many real-life public figures of the time. It is a book about the Lockout and about a time when Dublin was the poorest capital city in Europe. Plunkett’s language is direct, realistic and unfussy. It engages with people, with society in a way that few Irish novels do. Plunkett himself said that “I didn’t lift my eye away from people”. Many writers have sought to avoid Irish society – Joyce wrote all of Ulysses from abroad – while Plunkett on the other hand lived and worked in Dublin all of his life and wrote plays which were rooted in social consciousness: his radio play Big Jim and the Abbey Theatre’s production of The Risen People were both forerunners of Strumpet City.

In the novel we are shown a cross-section of Irish society: there are characters from all walks of life though it is clear where Plunkett’s loyalties lie. The author himself said, “I wanted a panorama, so to the world of O’Casey and the world of Joyce I added the better off people, the people of property and a very important thing then, the Church, because it had very definite views on the social structure at the time.”

It is a novel that is possibly over-looked: perhaps it is too populist, maybe the television version has taken precedence in the public’s mind. However, it still has its fans. Writing in The Irish Times in 2011, Eileen Battersby says, “There are no literary tricks, no displays of cleverness, little rhetoric and less sentimentality; it is full-hearted, astutely observed novel writing at its most cohesive. Many studies have been written about the quest for the Great American Novel. Anyone seeking its Great Irish equivalent need search no further.”

The other suggested path for literature was the cosmopolitan one: one that could be seen as a revival of the ideals of the United Irishmen with their continental influences. Those who supported this path also accepted the English language and Anglo-Irishness as being legitimate elements of Irishness. There were others who believed in an Irish Ireland, a place which was Catholic, anti-materialist and where the only sports played were Gaelic ones. It was a view of Ireland which only looked inward and which would affect even our economic policy up until the 1960s. As Eugene O’Brien says in his book The Question of Irish Identity in the writings of WB Yeats and James Joyce, “Literature, in many ways the genre that allows for the expansion of a reality that has not yet been achieved in historical actuality, would lead the way by producing a new socio-cultural meaning of Irishness that would far outstrip the narrow, Gaelic, insular nationalism that would come to dominate Ireland politically in the early twentieth century.” In fact, it could be argued that the novel itself is an inherently cosmopolitan form. Irish literature historically has been created in the oral tradition and there is nothing particularly ‘Irish’ about the novel.

An obvious candidate for the cosmopolitan Great Irish Novel is, of course, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Here there is a total rejection of the concept of an authentic Gaelic rural Ireland. Ulysses is urban, written in English, influenced by Greek myths and structured in a classic Western narrative. It firmly sets Irishness in an urban setting; there is little time for the romantic views of the Gaelic peasantry in the West. For Joyce Irishness could be urban. Irishness could be Jewish. Irishness could speak and write in English. Joyce’s interests lay in the European drama and he very much saw himself in the context of European modern tradition.

Ulysses is also of course so much about Dublin and for Dublin. This poses a quandary – can a book that is so much about one city truly be described as Irish? Is Ulysses, in fact, the Great Dublin Novel? Is it even possible to write an Irish novel that can truly encapsulate a national mood or spirit or identity at a point in time and can an entire people be reflected or will someone always be left behind? Perhaps. In America, Grapes of Wrath does not reflect an entire nation and yet it still viewed as a National Novel.

Ulysses was published at a very important time in Irish history at the tail end of the Civil War and just a couple of months before the foundation of the Irish Free State with Arthur Griffith as its President (who of course features in Ulysses). The Literary Revival were looking for an epic for their burgeoning nation-state and Joyce had provided it for them.

Continuity with the past was something which was much desired by some revivalists and for many of them, the focus came in the form of the Irish language. The idea that Irish Literature could be written in English represented a clean break with the past and a distancing from the idea of a pure race of “the Gaels”. It is a naive view of Ireland: one that rejects our history and fails to understand culture as being a living, breathing thing rather than a stagnant entity. Language remained a fundamental but controversial part of the movement. Could a literature ever be Irish if written outside of the Irish language? Leaders in the literary movement were torn. DP Moran spoke mockingly of the “Celtic Movement” as a kind of half-way house: still existing between two cultures without being a culture in its own right. Moran believed in an Irish Ireland where Irish was the de facto language (though he had failed to learn the language himself). Douglas Hyde said that Ireland “stood or fell by its cultural identity”. The chaplain and writer Stopford A Brooke gave an inaugural address of the Irish Literary Society in London entitled The Need and Use of Getting Irish Literature into the English Tongue whilst also saying, “A people who are only politically national are weaker in a national sentiment than a people who love their ancient literature and language”.

A focus of the Gaelic Revival was the idea of repossession or as James Connolly puts it “the reconquest of Ireland”. Ireland would have to be de-anglicized before it could become a true nation state. And Irish literature in Irish was a large part of this.

Cré na Cille by Máirtin Ó Cadhain is written in Irish and is set in that romanticised West. But Ó Cadhain’s Connemara is not the one of the guidebooks or the idealised version provided by the Revival. He plays around with the perverse idea of an “authentic Ireland” and the idyllic views of Gaelic peasantry, particularly those in the West. He argues against the view of the Gaeltacht as being somehow separate from modern life or backwards. To cast those who in the minds of many represent the inhabitants of “Irish Ireland” as jealous, pigheaded, low-cultured delinquents is a cruel trick.

Cré na Cille comprises of a series of monologues which are directed by the deceased inhabitants of a graveyard in Connemara. The dead gripe and complain. They are angry and jealous and have created their own social hierarchies which depend on whether they are in the pound or 10 shilling plot and on how many people came to their funerals. Ó Cadhain mocks the idea of Irish as being a dead language by having it literally be the language of the dead. Prof David Greene described it as, “the only book by an Irishman which is worthy of comparison with Ulysses” and indeed Ó Cadhain’s own publishers rejected it on the grounds that it was “too Joycean”. Praise indeed.

In Cré na Cille, Ó Cadhain shuffles between European modernism and Gaelic traditions: the form is modernist but the content not. It follows from the Irish oral tradition but is presented in a format which is experimental and cosmopolitan. It is a book about nothing in a sense: it has no plot. But in larger terms, it is a book about people, a social novel perhaps. It conveys a changing Irish society. It is historical, it is political, it is local and also global: it is set during the Second World War (when Ó Cadhain himself was interned in the Curragh) and the graveyard inhabitants talk of the war and food rationing and Irish neutrality. They chat about American movies and popular novels. They are well-versed in the goings-on in the wider world. Cré na Cille depicts la condition humaine constructed solely through caint na ndaoine. As the translator of the book, Alan Titley says, “this novel is a better reflection of the concerns of ordinary humanity over thousands of years than those which deal with the great and the good.”

One of the primary effects the revival had on future literary endeavours was to set a sort of benchmark for Irishness. As Declan Kiberd puts it in ‘Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living’: “The art of self-invention may recommend itself not just to individuals but to nations. If a country hasn’t had a happy history, it may be tempted to invent one – that is, to rewrite the national story along lines more helpful to current self-esteem.” No wonder so many writers at the time concentrated on our mythological heroes and on perceived Irish exceptionalism. Douglas Hyde, Lady Gregory and WB Yeats all used images and characters from mythology in the formation of a version of Irishness which created a continuous link with the past. In setting out to find an identity for a nation which was barely even a nation it unwittingly created a most inwardly, limited view of itself, what Frank O’Connor would call “the backwards look”. It set in stone a notion of Irish identity which denied the country’s history. Any foreign influence was bad. In a sermon in Cork in 1914 Father Peadar Ó Laoghaire talked about erecting “falla cosanta” (protective walls) around Ireland and its culture while Pádraic Ó Conaire suggested a more temporary “wall thirty cubits high, the same as Tibet” that would incubate Gaelic culture from any “idea from the outside” until it was once again ready to partake in European society.

We see this type of simplistic storytelling even later on in 1966 during the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising: it is sectarian in its Catholicism and scarily militaristic. But then again fifty years is not a long time, it had been even less since the end of the Civil War and not yet two decades since the Declaration of the Republic. No wonder people were forced to be so safe. No wonder their version of the Rising was so uncomplicated. Nation-building is a controversial and tense undertaking. The Revivalists’ primary failing was looking to one solution, to one vision of Ireland, to a purity that has not and never will exist. But countries are messy. Nations are complicated. Identities are malleable. Prior to the Famine the dominant vernacular in this country was Irish, by the time of the Easter Rising we were a lot more British than we would probably like to admit and now in recent years we have become closer to North America and the European continent. We are not one thing. We are the sum of our parts. What is considered ‘Irish culture’ now was not ‘Irish culture’ one hundred years ago or even fifty years ago. And that is no bad thing.

So what does the future hold for the Great Irish Novel?

The concept of the National Novel was one that would galvanise a nation and provide a literary version of a population but are we still in the process of nation building? And is the novel the best format for these reflections? From the early 20th century onwards much has been written about the so-called death of the novel. Some writers have railed against what they believe to be an outmoded form of literature. Perhaps our next national literature will come in a form other than a novel: the Great Irish Play, the Great Irish Short Story, the Great Irish Video Game…

Ireland and Irishness have undergone a huge upheaval in recent years. We as a people have become more cynical, more knowing of our learnt views of “Irishness”. Our entry into the EU has caused us to become a more cosmopolitan, more European nation. The Catholic Church has seen its power fade. We have experienced a huge increase in immigration. Our understanding of Irishness has developed greatly. It has been heartening to see in this centenary year that the commemoration of the Easter Rising has expanded to include an insight into the lives and roles of women and those outside the republican framework like British soldiers and civilians who were killed Easter week.

But more has to be done. Browsing through lists of “Top Ten Irish Novels” it is rare to find a book that is written by someone who is not male – only Edna O’Brien and Elizabeth Bowen ever seem to get a mention. Is it possible to write a great national novel from the outside or is it in fact an exclusionary ideal?

The Irish Literary Revival created an elemental idea of Irish identity which was accepted as fact for far too long. It is an idea that has infiltrated our politics, our economics and our collective consciousness. We have held onto a false idea of ourselves and though change has come still more is needed. But perhaps something needs first to be built in order for it to be broken down.

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