Response to Barra Ó Seaghdha from Justin Quinn

16Jul08

Dear Sirs,

Thank you for devoting so much space to Barra Ó Seaghdha’s review of my Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry (drb Summer 2008). I very much appreciated his detailed and informed response, but some of the points he raised require an answer.

Ó Seaghdha views my approach as unreflective and tired revisionism, and yet his own response sounds like that of an unreconstructed nationalist who has difficulty understanding the basic fact that poetry, as has often been pointed out, is made from words and not ideas. Thus it is that when generations of Anglophone Irish poets have expressed their preoccupation (love, hatred, etc) with the Irish nation, they have done so in the language of the imperial conqueror. Of course it is a critical commonplace to say that this is an enabling rather than a disabling paradox.

My fundamental ambition in writing the book was to show that the English language, and not the Irish nation, was the best framework for understanding the work of writers as various as Yeats, MacNeice, Longley and Sirr. Ó Seaghdha remarks that we’ve always known this, referring to an early critic of Yeats who adduced many English influences. But with the rise of Irish Studies over the last few decades that context has faded, and we have seen the emergence of a critical discourse that, however theoretically sophisticated, rarely questions its own boundaries. To reinstate the old category of genre – in this case poetry, no matter what nation it comes from – can be helpful.

Ó Seaghdha’s negative response seems to arise from our different ideas of the legacy of Irish nationalism, and more specifically the aims of the Literary Revival. He says that in my introduction I pose a series of “non-questions” when trying to define my field of inquiry, one of which is “Is [Irish poetry] written in Irish or can it be written in English too?” He rightly points out that “there is no significant body of opinion today that confines the term Irish poetry to work written in Irish”.

For my purposes, it is beside the point that such a body of opinion does not exist. In my reading of two centuries of poetry, I wished to inquire whether a work can be Irish yet not be in that language. I ultimately don’t think that it meaningfully can be, and that it forms a kind of sub-section of Anglophone poetry, which is not identical to English or British poetry.

Not only Irish poetry, but Irish society in general, tries very hard to forget how its law and culture has remained indebted to Britain. (As index of this, in my introduction I referred to the way that monoglot Irish audiences do not find it strange that The Playboy of the Western World or Translations are performed in English.) To acknowledge this fact is not to fail to “get to grips” with the Revival, as Ó Seaghdha claims, but rather to acknowledge its failure to de-anglicise Ireland.

Ó Seaghdha seems disappointed that my discussion of Allingham “does not lead to any excoriation of unionist ideology”. I don’t see why it should. If I criticised nationalist ideology throughout the book, I did so only because its strong interpretation of Anglophone poetry in Ireland has prevailed in different forms for so long and requires correction. The same cannot be said of unionist ideology. I am not sure whether it is necessary here to point out that this does not make me a unionist (though I see scant difference between an Anglophone Irish Republic and an Anglophone Ireland within the United Kingdom).

I made the point that Louis MacNeice, because he lived in Britain, was edged out of ideas of Irish poetry; Ó Seaghdha remarks that “there has been no conspiracy to remove him from the national annals”. I quoted Austin Clarke in his Poetry in Modern Ireland (1961), where he says of MacNeice that he “achieved rapidly a reputation as one of the leaders of the English advanced group which was so active in the years before the war”, and otherwise says nothing further about him, preferring to dwell at greater length on the likes of Lyle Donaghy and Joseph Campbell. Not a conspiracy (which I did not write), but definitely a hit job, with Clarke’s characteristic resentment.

I asked the degree to which we can consider Ferguson an Irish poet. Ó Seaghdha says: “Ferguson demanded to be read as Irish; outside of Ireland or the field of Irish studies, nobody is laying claim to him; nor has there been any attempt over the last fifty years to evict him from Irish literary history or to call him a British writer.” This is true, as far as it goes. However it simplifies Ferguson so much that we lose his Unionism, and how he saw his translation and original poetry as an integral part of the strengthening of Ireland’s political union with Britain. Such an omission suggests that Ó Seaghdha’s response here, and indeed throughout the review, is somewhat tendentious.

By remarking on the general failure of the Revival, and the opportunist way that Anglophone Irish nationalist culture frequently treated Gaelic culture as a kind of sub-soil, I did not wish to suggest any disrespect towards revivalist aspirations or Gaelic culture. Rather, to unhook Anglophone Irish poetry from the nationalist agenda is also a liberation of sorts for Gaelic culture. The latter has for some time now been learning modes of existence outside nationalism, and to analyse these would require a separate book.

Yours,

Justin Quinn
Prague
Czech Republic

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