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A rich miscellany on the Emerald Isle. Superlative essays

We Irish, by Denis Donoghue. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 272 pp. $18.95. IRELAND, according to Denis Donoghue in this splendid collection of essays and reviews, is ``a notoriously quarrelsome country.'' In this instance, the Irish-born New York University professor is speaking of Irish letters, but the observation applies equally to Irish politics, and, while never quarrelsome, Donoghue is a decidedly combative voice on both subjects. Indeed, the very title ``We Irish'' is ironic: The distinctive Irish experience, we are told, is ``divisive,'' and the author takes Yeats (among others) to task for his conception of a distinctively Irish mentality.

Yeats is the subject of four initial essays, followed by an equal number devoted to Joyce. The rest of the book is a rich miscellany on everything from Northern Ireland to Trinity College, Dublin, to Irish writers O'Casey, O'Connor, and O'Faolain. The format makes sense, especially since -- as Donoghue demonstrates in the second half of the book -- later Irish poets (like Austin Clarke) and novelists (like Flann O'Brien) had to find their way clear of the long shadows cast by Yeats and Joyce.

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Seamus Heaney, for his part, has avoided Yeats by paying allegiance to Patrick Kavanagh, a poet whom the author says Heaney has already surpassed. As for Yeats himself, while Donoghue is disposed to bypass the questionable ideology inherent in the later poems, he suggests that we have recently entered an era in which political judgments are almost immediately imposed upon poetry, a development that has cost Yeats a sympathetic reading both in Ireland and abroad.

His own political judgments include the exception he takes in his introduction to what he believes is the present Irish government's tacit acceptance of partition, and exception in several essays to what he sees as a revisionist view of Irish history, which posits that the mythology of a romantic, revolutionary Ireland has done more harm than good. What he tells us of his own roots -- he was born in Northern Ireland, son of a Royal Ulster Constabulary sergeant whose Roman Catholicism precluded promotion -- probably helps to explain his position on these matters. Yet, any dream of Irish unity seems increasingly elusive, given recent events in the North, and Donoghue offers no alternatives to current Dublin policy. His advice on Irish history, ``Put up with it, as with any other ill that flesh is heir to,'' scarcely indicates where the politicians should go from here.

An exceedingly abstruse essay, ``Bakhtin and `Finnegans Wake,' '' confirms a previous observation that Joyce's novel is largely ``a private place for scholars,'' but as a rule the undeniable erudition is as accessible as it is instructive. His consideration of a biography of George Russell (AE) offers up Joyce's lampooning of ``the master mystic'' in ``Ulysses,'' while other reviews are occasions for capsule biographies themselves: James Stephens is ``a second-rate writer who wrote one first-rate book, `The Crock of Gold'. . . .'' Frank O'Connor, who has recently taken a critical drubbing in Ireland, comes in for high praise, though.

Among the many delightful nuggets is the following critique of Joyce by the playwright Synge: ``I cannot think that he will ever be a poet of importance, but . . . if he keeps fairly sane he ought to do excellent essay-writing.''

Superlative essay-writing is precisely what Donoghue offers us here.

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