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Seeking Solace

by Robert Allen

Travellers to Ireland during the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries saw the country as a rustic, romantic place peopled by lazy peasants fond of a drink, a story and a song? Writing personal and public accounts that did not go beyond first impressions, they created an image that has endured. These accounts, which are now being collected into a database by NUI Galway, were often negative. Yet it is fair to say that the scholars who came to study the people in the 19th and 20th centuries did not see beyond this image, often amplifying it with their own cursory reactions, prejudiced by subjective reasoning. Over the decades anthropologists, enthnographers, novelists and writers added to it. The Irish were wanton, dirty, feckless, argumentative and murderous, and consumed by their religious faith. Life didn’t matter unless there was a drink, a song and a story to ease the pain of existence. This image remains, but how true is it? In this sketch the county Down born author robert allen argues that the image has nothing to do with the reality, past and present, of life in Ireland, it is about the ownership of Irish culture, which finally is passing to people who want to tell the truth.

Solace, a glimpse of 18th century rural Ireland by the folkstory collector Daniel Corkery, depicts a scenario that is both authentic and aesthetic. Writing at a time of national expectation - just before the 1916 insurrection and the independence of 1922 - Corkery described a world that defined an image of Ireland for decades afterwards. A poetic snapshot rather than a narrative story, Solace is comically tragic, a cruel reality that mocks its perspectives.

The first is from the inside, deeply personal, acutely poignant and highly subjective. The second is from the outside, also personal, yet cursory but objective. To those ignorant of Irish life, the perspectives might be ahistorical but Corkery wants the reader to understand the social context. The objective perspective is that of a certain traveller, ‘an Englishman’ who writes of his experiences in the south of Ireland. A sort of anthropologist, the traveller comes across a ‘curious scene’ that leaves him, at the end, mystified.

‘It was a strange scene to come on in the midst of lonely mountains at the close of the day; but I could not help reflecting that these strong-bodied, though ill-clad peasants, might have found better employment on an evening admirably suited for ploughing. I noticed in a patch of bogland not far from the hut some ploughing gear lying haphazardly in a half-length of furrow, as if the peasant had flung it down on hearing a call to join the curious throng. But such reflections come into the mind of the observant traveller at every hand’s turn in this strange land.’

The traveller’s reflections have come about because he has observed the remnants of a feast around a hut ‘on the fringe of a bleak upland’ in the Munster twilight.

‘Several peat-fires, which had been used apparently for the cooking of huge meals, had begun to die: but their relics still encircled the house and set it apart from the one or two others in the same district. The house itself, a miserable cabin, was crowded to the door with wild and picturesque figures.’

At the heart of this activity, the traveller is at pains to explain, a ‘huge gaunt man was reciting what was apparently a very violent poem’ in gaelic. Unable to understand what is being spoken, the traveller turns to his ‘Hibernian’ companion for solace. The Englishman is able to recall but two lines.

‘Till through my coffin-wood white blossoms start to grow
No grace I’ll beg from one of Cromwell’s crew.’

The traveller does not understand what he has witnessed. He makes common assumptions. His observations are cursory. They are far from objective, they are as subjective as the traveller can make them because he has not attempted to learn the context of the grand gathering, the reason for the sumptuous feast, which culminate with the mighty ballad. This is because Corkery does not tell the reader. Instead he allows the Englishman’s prejudices about the peasant Irish to rule his thoughts and influence his objectivity, which at once damn him, leaving the reader with a flawed perspective and a head to scratch.

The reader, by this time, is already knowledgeable, for Corkery starts the story with the insider perspective. Solace depicts a mountain townland called Gortinfliuch that was not out of the ordinary for rural Ireland in the decades before the successive famines of the 19th century. What makes Corkery’s story extraordinary is the choice the poet, Eoghan Mor O’Donovan, comes to after a moment’s contemplation not long after hearing that his family are to be evicted from their home.

‘The feasting,’ his pragmatic wife Marie tries to remind him, ‘will not last for long; the poets will leave us in the end as desolate as we are now in this dawning: when at last it comes to the nailing up of the door there will be a few except ourselves to behold it. Have you thought of the days that will follow on the feasting?’

Eoghan Mor is ready with his answer. ‘Woman, the sorrow that has made us desolate has this night given birth to a song that will live for ever; because of it my name and your name and our son’s name, which are woven into its amhrán metre, will not pass: were I given my choice this moment to choose between Gortinfliuch and my song, to which would I reach my hand? This trouble that has come to our door is as nothing to the rapture in my song!’

It is what we are. Ballad, poem, song and story hold a resonance of us - past and present. The Book of Invasions tells us that Amairgen Glúngel, son of Mil, recited this poem on landfall in southwest Ireland after a long sea journey from Galicia.

‘I am a wind in the sea (for depth)
I am a sea-wave upon the land (for heaviness)
I am the sound of the sea (for fearsomeness)
I am a stag of seven combats (for strength)
I am a hawk on a cliff (for agility)
I am a tear drop of the sun (for purity)
I am fair (there is no plant fairer than I)
I am a boar for valour (for harshness)
I am a salmon in the pool (for swiftness)
I am a lake in a plain (for size)
I am the excellence of arts (for beauty)
I am a spear that wages battle with plunder
I am a god who forms subjects for a ruler
Who explains the stones of the mountain?
Who invokes the ages of the moon?
Where lies the setting of the sun?
Who bears the cattle from the house of Tethra?
Who are the cattle of Tethra who laugh?
What man, what god forms weapons?
Indeed, then; I invoked a satirist ... a satirist of wind.’

John O’Leary, a Beara farmer-poet, believes that Irish poetry comes from deep within a spiritual soul. Amairgen would have exhaled his poem in an almost breathless state, the moment he set his right foot on the sand. For the last hour on the swell had been spent racing his brothers in a rowing competition. His senses would have been heightened. Heart pumping. Face flushed. Skin glistening with sweat. Glad to be safe on land, yet aware of his obligation to the bardic gods.

The tradition of song and story, of ballad and poem, resides in the celtic soul.

Storytellers and poets were not part-time farmers or part-time warriors. Amairgen may have been called a warrior-poet but this is revisionism. To be a storyteller, a poet had to undertake a solitary journey, to engage in a spiritual vocation that freed the mind to express itself. Not everyone could be a bard, it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t a vocation for everyone. Above all else, as Corkery’s poet proclaimed, the song is everything. Nothing else matters.

A poet’s education in celtic Ireland was not something taken lightly. We know something of the process from the memoirs of the Marquis of Clanricarde, who, it is said, came across the last of the bardic schools on the island of Barra. O’Leary knows the process. Near the completion of the bardic apprenticeship, a tiny hut was built out of stone with only a small aperture for the apprentice to crawl inside. The master poet would then place a stone slab on the apprentice’s chest and immure him for three days. ‘The idea of the stone on the chest and the darkness? There are only hints to this, really. The stone would restrict and slow down your breathing, making it rhythmical. You’d have to think to breathe. The idea that poetry is breath takes on new meaning when you have to concentrate each time you take a breath. As you were there in the dark, you were expected to compose three epic poems. And when you were broken out after three days and three nights, you were expected to recite, without pause or flaw, your three poems.’

John O’Leary lives an existence that is not out of the ordinary if you are aware of his vocation as a scholar-poet, but once he was a farmer-poet in Allihies on the Beara peninsula in the southwest.

‘I am Raftery the poet
whose light is extinct,
full of mad hope but
dying for drink.
Take a good look at me,
whose bravado and lust,
retails on Mercy Street,
busking for crusts.
At the end of the road
in this dark world and wide,
the last of the bards,
what need I of eyes?
I set my face westwards
where the light dies.’

Charles Robert Browne wrote ethnographic essays for the Royal Irish Academy. He was like a rash all over the west, noting physical characteristics, observing the peasant lives while attempting to collect the oral traditions of the people, who, he noted, were fond of their ballads, poems, songs, stories and superstitions. These, he concluded, were an integral aspect of the peasant folklore. ‘The favourite tales and poems are either ancient myth, or of a semi-religious character,’ he said of the people of Erris in county Mayo. Browne is honest with his observations. Referring to his work on Inishbofin and Inishshark in county Galway in 1893 he said: ‘I regret to be able to give but little information, as the people are chary of taking upon such matters to strangers, and only a local collector working for a considerable time could be expected to gather much.’ To make up for this shortcoming in his research the reader is told to consult Francesca Wilde’s book on the ancient legends of Ireland. The reticence of the people to share their ‘folklore’ with strangers does not appear to upset Browne, for he is able to refer the reader to authors like Wilde. When Browne is able to gather local stories, it is from schoolteachers, policemen and reverend ministers and not from the poets themselves. Legends, traditions and old songs are to be heard at the winter fire side, yet Browne is not able to share the warmth with the people ‘who are naturally reticent ... especially with strangers’.

Where does this leave us? Daniel Corkery’s poet is an imagined one, Amairgen’s poem has been interpreted by scholars, Charles Browne’s poets are reticient to share their work, John O’Leary’s poetry is his own. Which is the authentic voice? Who speaks for the people? The people themselves or those who would borrow or interpret or observe? The 18th century song imagined by a 20th century writer-scholar; the ancient celtic poem interpreted by 12th century celtic christian monks, translated by 20th century romantics and scholars; the 19th century ethnographic observation; or the 20th century farmer-poet?

What is the authentic voice? Where is the stone-shrouded bard? What is the true voice? Who captures the wind, and the sand, the soil, and the sea, the air, the joy, and the sadness, the birth and the death, the bones returned to the earth.

Imagining Ireland, its people, traditions, the continuing transitions from the old to the new has been an intellectual pursuit since the 11th century. By the 20th century, a rustic, primitive image of a poetic people whose lives are ordered by old ways had hardened into a modern literary tradition. It was an image that was hardly ever authentic. We had suddenly been alienated from our own culture; our voices were stilled. As Ella O’Dwyer has Molloy tell us ‘the entire intellectual and cultural perspective has been displaced and our discourse split’. She is writing about the consequences of the unnatural political division of the country in 1922. The real damage was done centuries earlier.

A slender thread and a persistent theme runs through the work of those who have sought to imagine Ireland through their literature and their music. The thread contains the fine hairs of a horse that entwine to produce an iconic image of a diverse place occasionally unravelled and left to decompose, always with remembrance. The theme is harder to describe.

At its simplest it is about culture, about the relationship between the sophisticated centre and the irrational periphery, about street-life politics and about ideological tribalism, about insiders and outsiders, and about heart and soul expression - the language of the people.

On an intellectual level it is about perceptions and perspectives, about the complex range of experiences people gather throughout their lives and how they are interpreted by artists and intellectuals, about the cultural meanings that arise out of place, belonging, identity, change and migration, about those whose voices have been quieted, and about the edges that blur.

With sardonic apologies to all those writers who sought to entertain us with their honestic, authentic, even atavistic, images, the global imagery of Ireland in the 20th century pictured a ‘different’ place, far removed from their prosaic imaginations. It was as if many Irelands existed - imaginary Ireland, real Ireland, romantic Ireland, violent Ireland, primitive Ireland and rustic Ireland.

The primitivist John Millington Synge, writing about his life on the Aran islands between 1898 and 1901, believed he was witnessing a change over, from the old to the modern, of traditional ways that needed to be recorded.

‘It is hard to believe that those hovels I can see in the south [island] are filled with people whose lives have the strange quality that is found in the oldest poetry and legend. Compared with them the falling off that has come with the increased prosperity of this [north] island is full of discouragement. The charm which the people over there share with the birds and flowers has been replaced here by the anxiety of men who are eager for gain. The eyes and the expression are different, though the faces are the same, and even the children here seem to have an indefinable modern quality that is absent from the men of Inishmaan.’

William Butler Yeats, the ascendancy intellectual and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, was responsible for Synge’s presence on Aran. ‘Go to Aran Mór,’ Yeats told him in a Paris hotel in 1896. ‘Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found literary expression.’ Synge, who was more of a cultural nationalist than a political one, needed to express himself and to find his Irishness. He had learned gaelic at college and Yeats knew as well that Synge might find solace in the bleak landscape, which would inspire him to write.

Yeats, the Sandymount-born idealist, desired a modern Ireland that was rustic to the core. He promoted a Celtic renaissance that would preserve Irish identity and folklore. More crucially for Yeats’ Anglo-Irish culture it would give them a crucial place in the new nationalist Ireland, which John McGahern acknowledged in 2001 when he put Yeats at the forefront of modern Irish literature. ‘Yeats,’ said McGahern, ‘almost single handedly established a tradition that wasn’t there before. In fact, he paved the way for Joyce and Synge and you could say even [Samuel] Beckett.’ Synge was a crucial element in Yeats’ vision.

It would be easy to portray Synge as the tortured artist who had to find himself in the authentic Irishness that was denied to him by his ascendancy background and heritage. What is known is that Synge wanted to capture the authenticity of peasant life. His writings and his plays reveal a strict fidelity to the homes, clothes, food, artefacts, stories, songs, poems and language of the people. If any one thing inspired Synge it was probably the ethnographic work of those who had visited the Aran Islands before him. But it was only when he had arrived in Aran Mór - started to listen to the people, to hear their stories and songs, to witness their daily rites of passage - that he began to understand the fragile relationship that existed between them and the unforgiving sea, and their rocky landscape, devoid of mature trees, dependent as they were on creating topsoil by manuring seaweed and sand. And the need for story and song.

This was a period of academic research about the people of the islands off the west coast of Ireland that would attract a flow of scholars. The first could be said to be the archaeologist, George Petrie, who, in his quest to record ancient folklore, monuments, place-names and traditions, visited the islands in 1822, when he made the first scientific record of its monuments, and again in 1857. Synge read about the life of Petrie, who saw the islanders as ‘a fair specimen of the ancient and present wild Irish’ who had a ‘fine intellect and deep sensibility’.

Synge, a pagan at heart, wanted the brutal truth, as much for himself as for any audience his writings might reach. His drama of Aran, The Playboy of the Western World, upset a lot of people for its realistic portrayal of the west. The blingers of the early 20th century didn’t like it one bit, and they rose up in a fury. Some say it was a riot, and perhaps it was because it blew away a lot of stereotypes about the rural peasant and their dialect. Not least, it idealised them.

Synge had used a kind of anthropological authority to idealise the primitive social conditions of the peasant culture. Unlike Corkery, who took the rural peasant voice from the people themselves, Synge appeared to have been seduced by the Celtic revivalists who were claiming ownership of the peasant culture; true to Yeats’ word, Synge found his own voice by expressing the life of the island peasant - using, as Gregory Castle notes, ‘theories of cultural difference and discursive techniques and strategies borrowed from, or analogous to those found in, anthropology’. Yeats and Synge had started something that would have a profound effect on modern Irish culture - they had imagined a rustic Ireland that would not go away, and it clashed with the images being portrayed of real ‘hidden’ Ireland.

Synge had not quite followed George Petrie’s footsteps to the Aran Islands. By the time Synge had settled in Kilronan, Charles Browne and the more senior zoologist Alfred Haddon had already presented their enthnography of the Aran Islands to the Royal Irish Academy, and the islanders had sussed the visiting scholars. A seanchai (storyteller) Synge met, told him about a ‘Mr Curtin’ who had taken his Aran stories to be published in America and made five hundred pounds from the sale of them. ‘And what do you think he did then?’ the seanchai told Synge. ‘He wrote a book of his own stories after making that lot of money with mine. And he brought them out, and the divil a halfpenny did he get for them. Would you believe that?’

The scholars of the world believed alright. So, when Brian O’Kelly came from Killarney in 1917 to unleash a stream of scholars on the Basket Islands, he made sure that the authentic voice would be the first heard. O’Kelly persuaded fisher-farmer and stone worker Tomás O’Crohan ‘who handles words as he handles stones’ to keep a diary. In 1928 about a third of the diary that O’Crohan wrote between 1918 and 1923 was published in Dublin by the new State’s publications office as Allagar na hInise (Island Cross-Talk). O’Crohan, again at O’Kelly’s insistence, also produced an autobiography An tOileánach (The Islandman), which came out a year later in 1929. O’Crohan had started a literary tradition that would establish the Irish-speaking seanchai of the ancient folk culture among the emerging Irish intelligentsia of the 1930s. He would also alert the scholarly world to the plight of his dying culture, when he closed his book with words that would come back to haunt the people of the west. ‘I have done my best to set down the character of the people around me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again.’ By the time The Islandman was translated into English and published in 1937, the year of his death, the ethnographers had arrived in Ireland to see and record for themselves the dying embers of this ancient folk culture.

Community and family life in Ireland was changing rapidly during the 1930s, war in Europe was imminent and everything seemed as bleak as it had been a century earlier. The notion of a homogenous community isolated from the rest of the world, as the Arans and the Blaskets undoubtedly were when O’Crohan was thriving in his youth, attracted anthropologists in search of the ‘real’ Ireland - the Ireland of Browne and Haddon, of Synge and Corkery - the like of which would never be seen again. Anthropologists Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball arrived from America to record what they believed would be the collapse of this world - of communal and familial co-operation and mutual aid, of folklore, of story and song, of the mighty ballad and of the epic poem. They choose the Burren in County Clare as their study area and, for three years, between 1931 and 1934 they observed the collapse of Ireland’s traditional peasant culture. Perhaps if someone had handed them a copy of Brinsley MacNamara’s 1918 novel, The Valley of the Squinting Windows, they might have understood better the idealised view their Irish subjects had of themselves, and not taken the whole thing so seriously.

The problem Arensberg and Kimball faced was the changing society around them; they could either ignore it or involve it. In much the same way that the Dubliner Synge had come from France to the west of Ireland, the Aran islanders themselves were off further west to America and were not shy to write home with their experiences. Travel was not only for the ethnographers, as anthropology’s harshist critic James Clifford would confirm, it was also for those being studied in their native environments, even if it was more spatial than actual for many. No one in the Ireland of the 1930s was ignorant of the world around them, not even Blasketman O’Crohan. The world of O’Crohan had indeed changed; and, as Corkery feared, the world of the west Cork and south Kerry peasants that he had taken his stories from. Rural was no longer, if it had ever been, static.

Anthropologists claimed to be in search of the real Ireland, the authentic celt and the peculiar gaelic customs, not a bit bothered that the peasants they were describing as authentically gaelic were the remnants of a sorrowful society, people who no longer had a stake in the country and, it appeared, no future - like Corkery’s poet and his family. To some ethnographers they didn’t even have a past; if they did it was defined as primitive.

This rural stereotype has permeated everything about the country since the 1880s, when the people that were left after successive decades of forced evictions and imposed starvations began to modernise themselves at a time of rampant industrialisation. Nevermind the historical reality that the rural peasant and the urban poor of Ireland, significantly Michael Collins’ generation, those born around 1890, had risen up to challenge the might of the British empire and with intelligence and organisation had brought it to the negotiating table - the first success of any colonial people in the 20th century. Crucial to this success was the joyful realisation that the majority of the rural fisher and farmer peasants and urban working poor could fight for a stake in the country, to be part of a brand new Irish nation; what is not recorded so comprehensively is the sad realisation that many of those who understood what they were fighting for died in the War of Independence and in the Civil War that so tragically followed. The economic aftermath plunged the new nation into a conservative depression that would last until the 1960s, amidst the globalisation of the country.

Still the rustic image of rural Ireland remained and it infuriated the urban working poor; it frustrated those honest intellectuals who would emerge from the post-Treaty era; it fascinated anthropologists, historians, journalists and sociologists from America, Britain and continental Europe; it held an iron grip on the country’s dramatists, novelists and songwriters; and it seduced foreign movie-makers. The worlds of drama, prose, poetry, film, music and ethnography revealed the Irish to be backward-looking, struggling to break free from a colonial past that had stunted their growth.

Traditional Ireland was rural and religious with a fascist undercurrent, and the anthropologists and ethnographers amplified this with their studies of rural community, which, in a word, were an ‘anomaly’. Away from the dusty shelves containing anthropological books, storytelling on stage and in print, poetry in newspapers and magazines, and lyrical ballads and songs presented a hybrid that defined the divisions in modern Ireland well into the 1960s.

On one side were the middle-classes, largely the Anglo-Irish protestant ascendancy elite, who took great delight in revealing the lives of the rural poor; they preferred to show an Ireland that had a peculiar romanticised image of its simple self. On the other was the authentic gael imagining modern Ireland as it evolved throughout the late 19th and early to mid 20th century.

The novel that defined this imagery in the eyes of the rural peasant and the urban poor, for several generations, was Charles Kickham’s 1879 novel Knocknagow or The Homes of Tipperary, which began a genuine Irish literary tradition that continued with Brinsley MacNamara, Seán O’Casey, Liam O’Flaherty, Frank O’Connor and Seán Ó Faoláin, who would shatter the rustic image, only to reveal a mirror of Irish society that romanticised the elements Synge and others among the ascendancy elites believed they had captured for themselves.

When Kate O’Brien, Walter Macken, Edna O’Brien and John McGahern attempted to look in the mirror they realised it was double-sided. Their early novels, which appeared to expose the reality of rural Ireland, were banned.

Expression was denied. It seemed that Irish culture was somnolent, forced to remain in an Arcadian dream, the balladeers, poets and storytellers unable to free their imaginations, least the mirror shattered into thousands of tiny shards that would reveal the true nature of the people and their culture. Irish fiction, moaned the more urbane critics, was trapped in a world of moral and religious repressions, taboos and values.

Charles Kickham’s rural Ireland (more real than most interpretations) would inform successive generations, as a contemporary proclaimed, ‘of the highest impulses of the Celtic character, and traditions of our land and race’. His was a rural landscape. Urban Ireland was different. Corkery would later go on a mission to record the oral tradition of the peasant and urban poor - an even more real and more hidden Ireland - especially the urban areas, which meant wasteland of the people as well as of their environment; MacNamara would attempt to shatter the cosy world of the 19th century Irish novel and hold up a mirror to rural life, both real or imagined; while Seán O’Casey and Liam O’Flaherty would reveal the dark side of hidden urban Ireland - a different place altogether from rural Ireland.

This literary, often times intellectual, battleground was essentially about authenticity, but it was also about the ownership of culture. It was manifest in the demands of the urban centre and in the needs of the peasant periphery, but it was also about claiming the moral high ground and a stake in the new nation that appeared to be an inevitable consequence of the land wars of the 1880s.

O’Flaherty and O’Casey imagined an urban Ireland that was real to many of its inhabitants. Historian Peter Hart has written about the sense of place the rural peasant and urban poor felt during the years of transition, the period O’Flaherty and O’Casey wrote about. ‘The revolution had to be imagined before it could be enacted,’ Hart wrote, ‘and the revolutionaries had to imagine themselves into history to give themselves the power to change it.’ This was a different Ireland to the one that was being imagined by Yeats, and by Synge, and by Joyce. It was much more brutal, ugly and violent. It sure wasn’t romantic.

Aran Mór born O’Flaherty imagined in his novels the mood and the language of the urban poor in a fashion that suggests he had an intimate knowledge of their daily rites of passage. His empathy with them is that of an informed and acutely sympathetic outsider. But, if Joyce was a meticulous observer of his own class in Dublin, O’Flaherty, more than Corkery, was closer to life and living in the decripid tenements and tightly packed slums of the urban poor. O’Flaherty’s descriptions of slum life in the Dublin of the 1920s could have come from an ethnographer’s notebook. Corkery had a different eye. There was nothing romantic in O’Flaherty’s depiction of Dublin’s slum people, just a harsh, brutal and violent reality. Corkery chose to idealise his slums, the lanes of Cork city.

O’Casey was somewhere in between Corkery and O’Flaherty as a chronicler of the early decades of the 20th century. Born into the tight streets of Dublin that O’Flaherty so vividly described in The Informer, O’Casey developed a literary voice that could not have been more authentic, even if some thought it flawed. It was heard from the stage and it infuriated those who weren’t sure about an authentic voice that seemed more political than literary. While O’Casey’s grand trilogy of plays - The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars - is now seen as an integral aspect of the emerging nation’s literary tradition, it was the rejection by the Abbey of The Silver Tassie - a final straw that sent him into exile.

It is easy now to say that O’Casey, the pragmatic socialist, should have stood up to Yeats, the romantic capitalist; it would be revisionist to state that with O’Casey’s leavetaking the authentic voice, the revolutionary voice, the peasant voice went with him. Only four years after partial independence, a new battleground emerged; this time the war was about ownership of the culture, and it would last much longer; some would say the war continues today.

To those keen readers of Irish literature, there is a sense of rural sameness about Brinsley MacNamara’s The Valley of the Squinting Windows, published in 1918, and John McGahern’s That They May Face the Sun, published in 2000. These two books, that span almost a whole century, tell us how far Irish literature has come with its depiction of rural life. McGahern’s mirror was never going to be shattered; he had already served his time of exile and seen his books banned. In 1916 MacNamara was only starting out as a novelist and he knew his mirror might cause trouble.

‘When a country has made a long fight for freedom there is a feeling, pardonable enough, that it is in a sense traitorous to delve too deeply into the frailties of one’s own people. If a writer ... believes that the best service he can do his country is to raise its self-respect by attempting to lift it out of the dark realm of sham and cant and humbug by holding up the mirror truthfully, he is set upon from all sides as if he has committed a shocking crime.’

MacNamara did commit a shocking crime. He took the romantic rustic imagery out of the Irish novel and replaced it with images that contradicted the notion that the rural Irish - poor and not so poor - were caring, sharing people living in communities with the emphasis on humility. The Valley of the Squinting Windows instead depicted a fascistic regime fuelled by pernicious gossip, malicious envy, and religious hyprocrisy. Even at this early stage of the 20th century, MacNamara had touched a raw nerve. It was one thing to clash with the new bourgeoise, which MacNamara, as a director of the Abbey, managed to avoid; it was an entirely different thing to clash with the religious extremists and the social purists, who, more than anyone in the new State, were not going to stand back and allow artistic freedom of expression, especially if it revealed a social truth.

The new rural novel would essentially be about a clash of different cultures, even if the authors did not consciously intend such.

Thus, it was film, that giant mirror and the peculiar presentation of story, that merged the hidden and the dominant. Nowhere is this better explained than in the story of the making of John Ford’s Hollywood epic, The Quiet Man. Compared to the original stories contained in Maurice Walsh’s Green Rushes, the film is mediocre, stripped of its authenticity, robbed of its soul. It’s a great story, standing on its own, but it exists totally out of context.

So, when John McGahern asserted in 2001 that William Butler Yeats had ‘made it difficult for the mediocre to get a footing’ the reader might assume that that dominant thread is now a mighty long one, glorious and colourful. For there are those who would declare on the contrary that the modern Irish imagination could not be more mediocre, and that the authentic imagination was suppressed a long time ago - when Yeats himself was struggling to free his creativity from the chains of the mediocre.

‘I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.’

So what really happened to the Irish imagination during the fin de siecle of the 19th and 20th centuries? Yeats expressed in his verse disgust for those who would both suppress and appropriate his art, who would scratch for a scholarly hold on Yeats’ precipitous outcrop.

‘Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear'

It is too simplistic to assert that Yeats, with his own romantic notions about Ireland and its people, created an image that has remained with us. He borrowed from the enthnographers the same expression that he took from his idealised view of ancient gaelic Ireland; he wasn’t selfish about it, he passed it on, to Synge in particular, and, in his desire to delve deep into the heart of the Irish soul and its relationship with the landscape, he produced an iconic image, one that would be stolen by those who wanted to establish an elitist literary voice - the thread that has become dominant in Irish society and among the Irish intelligentsia.

James Joyce in his day deplored the romanticism attached to rural Ireland, to the west specifically, to Aran in particular and perhaps unfairly to Synge whose playboy has since metamorphosed into an alluding image. ‘The tramper Synge is looking for you,’ Stephen Dedalus is told, ‘he said, to murder you. He heard you pissed on his halldoor in Glasthule. He’s out in pampooties (cowhide shoes) to murder you.’ If this allusion to Synge in Joyce’s Ulysses is meant as a mark of respect because Synge refused to romanticise the west of Ireland, it is ironic; modern Ireland is still defined by the work of Joyce, writing about Dublin, and Synge, writing about Aran, and their Irish worlds are long gone, but not forgotten, simply changed, dramatically different.

Joyce - more than any other Irish writer including those whose literary reputations have remained entact into the 21st century, Patrick Kavanagh, Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien in particular - has come to represent the elitist literary tradition of modern Ireland. Kavanagh has a special place in the hearts of the traditionalists; Beckett is understood by few while his characters have taken lives of their own; O’Brien is seen as the joker in the pack.

The Ireland of Joyce and Kavanagh and Beckett and O’Brien was once the place of all the people, with their cunning and guile, and wit and humour, and strategy and plan. It was a complex place that, essentially, was about survival. These lads with their crisp imaginations just took that streetlife to a different level and, by doing so, created an artform that has hardly ever been bettered anywhere in the world.

Neil Jordan, Danny Morrison, Roddy Doyle and Frank McCourt, with their brutally honest, Tarantino-like in-your-face snapshots of Irish society, shattered the stereotypical images of rural and urban Ireland. Suddenly Ireland was a real place, a country not unlike anywhere else in the so-called civilised world. No longer twisted and distorted into an Arcadian place by adroit film-makers, revisionist scholars and prejudiced foreigners, it was the way it was, the way it looked in everyday life to everyday people.

Neil Jordan’s Ireland was a fairly ugly place. It was violent, selfish and very modern. Angel, his film about a love-sick gunman, had an idealistic edge to it but its underlying current was not a river flowing free, it was damned, damned to hell. We’d never been there, not in the films and not in the books.

There was more to come. Danny Morrison’s novel West Belfast was a fiction with a twist, politics as art, and it was celebrated and criticised as such. West Belfast the novel was as authentic as West Belfast the place. Its theme, the loss of innocence, was autobiographical, its subject matter highly political, which, Morrison later recognized, was ‘usually the death knell of art’. Nevertheless he had touched a nerve that needed to be exposed. ‘Art,’ he said some years later, ‘sublimates, illuminates, enriches and celebrates life, [and] also protests against the wickedness of humankind and injustice.’ Morrison would revist his Republican roots to produce The Wrong Man, a modern version of The Informer, with many of the same themes. Violent Ireland had arrived in Irish fiction. Morrison expressed the reality of street violence, revealing an Ireland that was already very real to many of its inhabitants.

When Roddy Doyle wrote The Commitments and film maker Alan Parker saw something, in Doyle’s snapshot of working class Dublin, that he could turn into an authentic modern musical in 1991, it was as if the old Ireland and the new Ireland had morphed into something that everyone recognised and wanted to celebrate. This was an Ireland everyone could relate to, even if it seemed slightly unreal. By the time Parker put McCourt’s autobiographical sketch of 1940s Limerick lanes hardship on supersound widescreen just as the century was about to end, romantic Ireland disappeared up its own hole. Even rustic Ireland was no longer romantic, it was revealed as a cruel hard place - repressed, lonely, sad, drunken, rainy, blustery and heartless.

But was it? Did Angela Ashes not represent an exile’s revisionist memory? Some people thought so. The radio phone-ins screamed with indignation once the people of Limerick realised what Frank McCourt had done to their city. It was as if they were saying, no we don’t want this reality, even if it is in the past, we want the romance we’re used to.

Now in the 21st century, with the hundredth anniversaries of 1916 and 1922 still a few years away, do we lament the passing of our romantic past with our bog men and shawled women, quaint villages, white-washed cottages, thatched roofs, peat smoke, sawdust floors, rowdy sessions, comely maidens, gurgling babies, laughing children, bronzed farmhands, drunken fellas, fist fights, and, in the twilight, dancing at the crossroads? Of course we don’t. Nothing has changed, just the props and the medium.

–  Robert Allen

This is a work in progress from the forthcoming book, Imagining Ireland: Storytellers, Quiet Men and Scholars

Alternative URL: http://www.bluegreenearth.com/site/extracts/2009/allen-2009-01.html.