Reviewed by Karen Steele (Department of English, Texas Christian University)
Published on H-Albion (April, 2006)
The Irish Muse Called Aggression
In the two decades that preceded the Easter Rising of 1916, Ireland seemed to be forever erupting in dramas of contention that crossed barriers of class, creed, religion, language, philosophy, and politics. Intense public debates emerged that became immortalized in lasting literature, such as the deposing of Ireland's "uncrowned King," Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell, in the early 1890s. Other cultural battles, such as the Abbey theater's staging of unflattering Irish behavior, served in retrospect as critical plot points in the bildungsroman narrative of Ireland's national theater. The growing political unrest stemming from Ireland's colonial condition inspired militancy on many fronts: the middle-class nationalists in the Irish Volunteers; the stone-throwing suffragettes in the Irish Women's Franchise League; the buff, hurley-sporting members of the Gaelic Athletic Association; and the rag-tag working class Irish Citizen Army. Each organization, indeed each impatient confrontation, contributed to the sense that rebelliousness was a byword for Irishness during these remarkable years.
In her richly rewarding study, The Irish Art of Controversy, Lucy McDiarmid identifies in fascinating detail how this very aggression functioned as the muse for the age. Studying five key cultural contests of the Irish Revival, McDiarmid uncovers how such rancorous battles inspired stunning literature; she also reveals how cultural controversy repeatedly betrayed the way the Irish people--especially Dubliners, about whom this book is largely concerned--were staking a claim to the future of the Irish state and the institutions that would help usher it into existence. These controversies continue to have relevance to those seeking to understand the Ireland of today because the center of each contest--whose version of Ireland would dominate?--continues to influence and even frame many of the cultural, social, and political questions that confront Ireland in the new millennium.
In writing a book about Irish controversies, McDiarmid faced a daunting challenge in narrowing her selections to a manageable, representative set, given the preponderance of cultural and political battles to choose from during these years. Her choices are carefully balanced between revisiting well-known high literary affairs and introducing readers to cultural battles that deserve to be more widely studied. In five tightly shaped chapters, she investigates Hugh Lane's efforts to establish a Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin; Father O'Hickey's campaign to make Irish language fluency compulsory for entrance to the new National University; Lady Gregory and Bernard Shaw's efforts to stage Blanco Postnet to provoke the censorious eyes in Dublin Castle; the socialist effort to transport Dublin's hungry children to England during the 1913 Lockout; and the lingering question of authenticity regarding Roger Casement's diaries.
Although, as McDiarmid notes, "the colonial condition of Ireland provided a paradigm for these controversies," what is most acutely analyzed is how Irishness served as the heart of every battle, though whose Ireland is never easily or convincingly resolved, even decades after the major combatants have died. Her chapters confront readers with how Ireland in the last century has faced not merely battles for literary and political independence but also a series of struggles over its engagement with modernity: each fight tapped important currents and anxieties regarding Ireland's fledgling, diversely imagined national identity.
McDiarmid brings to her investigation enviably deep, rich knowledge of the Irish Revival, building on her influential literary scholarship on Yeats, Gregory, and Casement. Her cultural studies method--which is lucidly theorized in her co-edited collection, High and Low Moderns--exemplifies what is most suggestive and necessary in Irish studies today. Instead of simply drawing on history, folklore, high and popular art, gossip, interviews, and private letters as background materials, which would have been no small task in itself, she brings these high and low texts to the center of her investigation, and provides superbly nuanced close readings to clarify how deeply these debates resonated with a large public audience that was, at heart, fighting over nationalist discourse.
In The Irish Art of Controversy, Lucy McDiarmid provides the sustained, masterful intellectual engagement that one would expect of a leading critic in Irish studies. She possesses the persuasive, illuminating power to reshape multiple debates about high cultural nationalism, language studies, sexuality, censorship, and socialism, to name but a few of the key topics studied here. As admirable, she has the narrative command and stylistic flourish to educate and edify non-specialists too. Very few scholars today attempt, let alone achieve, such balance.
. Lucy McDiarmid and Maria DiBattista, eds., High and Low Moderns: Literature and Culture, 1889-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
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Karen Steele. Review of McDiarmid, Lucy, The Irish Art of Controversy.
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