Liberating Imaginations

Modern Irish Fiction

 A Let’s Talk About It series developed by Greg Winston, Husson University

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, published in 1916, the year the Easter Rising initiated Ireland’s war for independence, represents Joyce’s own manifesto of intellectual and artistic liberation.
  • The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, brought Edna O’Brien early literary success and international acclaim; it also gave her much notoriety in Ireland when it was banned by the Catholic censorship board for its bold treatment of sexual and religious themes.
  • The Collected Stories by John McGahern most of these masterful stories are set during the author’s upbringing in the 1940s and 50s, in the conservative, agrarian Ireland of the de Valera years.
  • Antarctica by Claire Keegan this debut collection from one of Ireland’s most exciting new fiction writers received the prestigious Rooney Prize for Irish literature in 2000.
  • A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle bringing the series full circle to 1916, A Star Called Henry takes a gritty look at the Easter Rising and subsequent War of Independence through the upbringing of its title character, Henry Starr, a boy who seems part mythic hero, part self-inspired tall tale.

From the growing pains of de-colonization and independence, through the insular conservatism of mid-century, to the recent roaring prosperity of the so-called Celtic Tiger, Irish writers have, as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus describes, forged the “uncreated conscience” of Ireland.

Over the past century Ireland has experienced as rapid a transformation as any nation at any time.  It emerged from hundreds of years as a colonial laboratory of the British Empire into a newly independent state, and, more recently, into one of the principal economic engines and political powers of the European Union.  Ireland has evolved in a hundred years from a rural, mostly agrarian culture into a high-tech, urbanized society.  The advent of electricity and mass communications–from transatlantic telephone cables to satellite and computers–linked remote corners of the country to Dublin and the rest of the world.  Longstanding religious traditions were challenged and supplanted on many levels by an expanding secular culture.  The new nation quickly became a model for former colonies and emerging countries around the world.

Global fascination with the island has only increased in the last two decades, with the country’s rise to prominence in a united Europe.  A country that experienced a net population loss to immigration into the 1980s has witnessed a repatriation of many who once left for greater economic opportunities in Britain, America or Australia.  In addition, with a recent influx of immigrants from central and Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, the face of Ireland’s population has undergone a drastic change as well.  Dublin and Cork, and to some extent, even Galway and Limerick, have changed in just a generation from quiet provincial towns into bustling multicultural centers.  The expansion of education across former barriers of class and gender has brought more people than ever into these cities to work in occupations that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

Literature has been a remarkable catalyst in the making of modern Ireland.  The nation achieved its independence in the first decades of the twentieth century through a revolution that was spurred in large part by a group of cultural-nationalist writers.  The Irish Literary Revival, led by W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and George Moore, among others, planted seeds that in many ways germinated in the Easter Rising of April 1916, when the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army occupied the General Post Office and other Dublin landmarks, proclaiming an Irish republic.  The outnumbered rebels held out for just six days before the British army forced their surrender, but their action reified a process of de-colonization that had begun with movements in literature, language and politics.  Moreover, two of the military leaders, Padraig Pearse and Thomas McDonagh, were themselves poets.  This strong activist role place for writers was perhaps due to the prominent place Irish society had afforded poets as early as Celtic times.  Or it may have stemmed from the recognition that creative response was the best method of expressing dissent in a British colonial system that had long ignored Irish voices.  For whatever reason, subsequent generations of writers have continued to make literature both a constant agent and witness to living, documenting the intense changes that have characterized Irish society for the last hundred years.

Liberating Imaginations is a reading and discussion series that attempts to define modern Ireland through its fiction.  The year of the Easter Rising, 1916, serves as both starting-point and terminus for the program.  It was the year of publication for James Joyce’s revolutionary novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; it is the setting for Roddy Doyle’s recent novel of the Irish revolution A Star Called Henry.

In between these moments, the series explores novels and stories by three other writers who have helped Irish literature achieve worldwide prominence.  Their works have entertained and informed readers with the power moving potency of good storytelling, and at the same time, re-defined Irishness by unabashedly confronting such complex issues as gender, religion, sexuality, family, and class identity.

From the growing pains of de-colonization and independence, through the insular conservatism of mid-century, to the recent roaring prosperity of the so-called Celtic Tiger, Irish writers have, as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus describes, forged the “uncreated conscience” of Ireland.  This series invites readers to consider how five of those writers have imagined their nation for readers at home and around the world.

 

Session One:

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Published in 1916, the year the Easter Rising initiated Ireland’s war for independence, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man represents Joyce’s own manifesto of intellectual and artistic liberation.  He wrote the book during his first decade of self-imposed exile from his native land, yet like the rest of Joyce’s work, its focus remains on the Ireland he left behind as it grapples with questions of social, cultural and political identity.  A combination of experimental novel and fictional autobiography, Portrait relates the boyhood and adolescent years of Stephen Dedalus, from his schooldays at Clongowes Wood College, to his sexual and spiritual awakening in Dublin, to his decision to leave Ireland in order to pursue the life of an expatriate Irish writer and aesthete.

The bookis divided into five chapters of limited-omniscient third-person narration that trace its protagonist’s intellectual, social, sexual and spiritual development-including glimpses of family life and masculine school culture in the period, as well as vivid scenes of sin (in Dublin’s renowned red-light district) and of salvation (in literature’s most celebrated depiction of an Irish Catholic retreat).  It concludes with a drastic narrative shift to Stephen’s diary entries for the final days before his departure from Ireland, in which he begins to realize a desire to “fly by those nets” that are restricting him in order to take up the life of a liberated artist.

Session Two:

Edna O’Brien, The Country Girls        

The Country Girls brought Edna O’Brien early literary success and international acclaim; it also gave her much notoriety in Ireland when it was banned by the Catholic censorship board for its bold treatment of sexual and religious themes.  Written in a time generally known for quaint literary conservatism or avant-garde experimentalism in Irish literature, O’Brien’s novel stood out for its candid look at female identity and uncompromising depiction of dysfunctional family life and relationships.

The novel tells the story of two teenagers growing up in the rural west of Ireland.  Caithleen, daughter of an absent, alcoholic father, searches to fill the void with a succession of poorly chosen men, including the wistful Mr. Gentleman.  Her friend Baba, daughter of the local veterinarian, comes from a more stable home life, but with its own set of problems.  Narrated in Caithleen’s likeable voice, The Country Girls follows the two friends from their sleepy western village to the oppressive isolation of a convent boarding school, then, finally, on to the independence and adult promise of Dublin.  It is an extraordinary account of the ups and downs of ordinary life, friendship, and romance, at some moments heartbreaking, at others hilarious; it is also an engaging portrayal of the possibilities and limits for women in 1950s Ireland.

 

Session Three:

John McGahern, The Collected Stories

Most of these masterful stories are set during the author’s upbringing in the 1940s and 50s, in the conservative, agrarian Ireland of the de Valera years.  Son of an Irish Republican Army veteran and police sergeant, McGahern was raised in the Gardai barracks at Cootehall, Co. Roscommon, in a family run in regimental style by a domineering widower.  The stories draw frequently from this harsh family dynamic, many featuring abusive patriarchs who are at once brutal, demanding, and at the same time childishly dependent on their own children.  Many of McGahern’s tales reflect in a vivid, often touching fashion, the gentle comforts, odd quirks and consistent hardships of life in a close-knit rural community whose people are at once capable of the most magnanimous gestures and petty jealousies.  A number of the stories demonstrate as well the interrelated aspects of economic scarcity, sectarian division and class tensions that McGahern’s enlightened central characters must often navigate if they are to survive, much less succeed.

The stories often recount the tension between modernization and traditional ways.  They frequently include the growing movement of young people toward the opportunities and allure of city life in Dublin or London, departures that speak to boundless hopes but also harsh realities.  These rural-urban migrants, having traded the back-breaking labor of farm life for civil service jobs or teaching posts, also find themselves lonely and adrift in the anonymous life of the city, displaced men and women searching for love and stability in a kind of post-lapsarian Ireland.

Many scholars and critics consider McGahern, who died in 2007, the finest practitioner of the Irish short story since Joyce.  The Collected Stories is a compilation of his three collections in order of publication, plus two additional stories.  Therefore, the book can be read and discussed in its entirety or with a focus on one of the three collections, Nightlines (1970) (“Wheels” to “The Recruiting Officer”) Getting Through (1978) (“The Beginning of an Idea” to “Gold Watch”) and High Ground (1985) (“Parachutes” to “Bank Holiday”).

Session Four:

Claire Keegan, Antarctica

This debut collection from one of Ireland’s most exciting new fiction writers received the prestigious Rooney Prize for Irish literature in 2000.  In their accounts of deep longing, imposed loneliness and damaging betrayal, many of the stories in Antarctica are as chilling as its title.  Moving between rural and urban settings, Keegan depicts an anonymous, modern society in which many characters seem to have lost their mental or emotional bearings.  A number of the selections, including the leadoff and title story, offer disturbing but riveting psychological portraits of victims as well as victimizers.

The majority of stories in Antarctica center on female characters who dare to explore new social and emotional territory in a male-dominated society that is at times reluctant to cede them ground.  Such exploration comes with irreversible risks as well as profound rewards.  In this regard, the book documents a cultural moment of arrival for women in Ireland, if not modern western society overall.

Drawing upon time spent in the United States and Britain, Keegan also sets several stories in those countries.  She experiments with American and English voices, sometimes in isolation, at other times in conjunction with jet-plane Irish immigrants or short-term tourists.  These transnational elements offer additional relief to the interesting literary topography of Antarctica and exemplify the late-twentieth-century globalization of Irish writing.

 

Session Five:

Roddy Doyle, A Star Called Henry

Bringing the series full circle to 1916, A Star Called Henry takes a gritty look at the Easter Rising and subsequent War of Independence through the upbringing of its title character, Henry Starr, a boy who seems part mythic hero, part self-inspired tall tale.  The story works as an allegory of Ireland’s own coming of age, yet the humorous dialogue and sketchy characters serve as constant reminders not to take anything too far or too seriously.  (This is, after all, from the author of The Commitments.)  Humor is the principal means by which the characters themselves manage to survive the horrific realities of poverty and violence in the Dublin tenements, much less the combat of war against the superior numbers and firepower of the British army.

Doyle’s witty storytelling and knack for historical detail put readers right inside the General Post Office with Pearse and Connolly in Easter Week, in clandestine meetings with Michael Collins, and on the run through the countryside with the guerilla campaigns of the I.R.A. flying columns.  A Star Called Henry provides a hilarious read as well as a memorable Irish history lesson.  It is also, readers should be forewarned, a most realistic portrayal of Dublinese, so readers should be warned that it contains a fair share of cursing and other graphic vocabulary.

 

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