Selected Essays on Irish Writing and Criticism
by Gerald Dawe
I like literary essays so this book was a pleasure to read, but, as it turned out, a bit difficult to review as I darted back and forth to compare, for example, what Dawe wrote in 1987 with what he wrote in 1997, to see what changes to his views, if any, there had been.
Dawe is caught in a bit of a bind. So much of one’s youth, one’s early, formative years, particularly if one was happy, enter into one’s blood to create a native love and loyalty. But the East Belfast Protestant kid now earns his bread as a middle-aged lecturer in Dublin and though both experiences inform his attitudes to culture and politics, north and south, the tensions are palpable.
“It is impossible for me to think, or write, objectively about the relationship between poetry and today,” he candidly admits, “because of my experiences in Belfast during the early 1970s,” when the violence destroyed even ‘the innocence’ he enjoyed pre-1969. What this means is that Gerald is just as coloured and biased as those Irish writers he finds fault with. Thus there is an irony to his identification, for example, with the Edna Longleys of this world and their limited challenges to unionism, and his criticisms of Field Day and Heaney.
He applies Auden’s criteria to Heaney (“Every poet is at once a representative of his culture and its critic”) and concludes that Heaney has fulfilled one side of the aphorism but not the other. He also approvingly quotes Damian Smyth’s criticism of Field Day for allegedly flagging ‘user-friendly Prods’ (presumably a reference to Stephen Rea and Tom Paulin) but later attacks Paulin for the using the same vernacular term, ‘prod’.
He says that the Protestants lack a ‘recognised’ cultural home and that this sense of displacement inspires the excessive proclaiming of their ‘Britishness’. But because Protestant/unionist culture has no image of itself, “it consequently accepts those stereotypes which have been created for political purposes, be that within Northern Ireland or from London or Dublin,” which is a bit simplistic and makes a claim that generally Protestants themselves don’t make. It was not others who created the inextricable images of bonfire, Old Testament, Orange collarette, painted kerbs, lambeg drum, Protestant Parliament, etc., but the unionist establishment of government, pulpit and press.
Others, mainly those who escaped the stifling northern atmosphere, were able to find a voice, and write, sing and recite about their hybrid identity, not a little unlike Gerald Dawe.
“My feeling,” he writes in the essay, ‘The Sound of the Shuttle’, “is that critics, literary and cultural, have stayed away from looking at Belfast simply because it seemed a dour, unimpressive cousin to the cosmopolitan flamboyance of Dublin and that, fraught as it may well be with bloody themes, the romance of Dublin’s 20th-century history shines marvellously in comparison with the monotonous siren of the half-baked and surly northern city.”
He also has a look at the nature of the Irish literary community, the reluctance of individuals from the community to honestly appraise each other’s work, and the alleged preference in taste down the generations in favour of the Poet as Hero (“a view sanctioned by Irish political history seen from a nationalist perspective”), and how the cliches about poets being lonely, morose figures, or mystics, is still perpetuated in teaching. Here, again, he favours those who reject the temptation to become ‘a representative of the people’ and he accuses those who have pandered (my word) to public opinion of actually patronising and exploiting ‘The People’ and their historical condition. But surely his is also a form of political prescription? That the poet’s role should, in part, be one of opposition to the ancien regime, or at least actively stirring the social pot? “Rather than showing possible imaginative ways out of this morass, [Irish] poets and poetry all too often consort with it.”
That it is as political as that is confirmed by his statement that hope arose with the election of Mary Robinson, when a new “imaginative alternative took root”. True, she represented a breath of fresh air. I was on remand in Crumlin Road jail at the time of her campaign, supported her (for what it was worth), but found it curious that many of her key supporters and spokespersons wanted to corral republicans inside the reactionary camp, simply because it didn’t suit the straitjacket of their revisionism that we could also want radical change. If they thought it was only unionists who were stereotyped they ought to think again. Republicans were adapting to changed times, were prepared to compromise (thus the eventual cease-fire), and I bet you the poets that Dawe so much admires, like Durcan, Kennelly, Muldoon and Carson, were poor trainspotters along the republican track.
I have singled out those of his views which I find provocative but there are also excellent essays on, among others, Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Louis McNiece, and interesting pieces on the 1981 hunger strikes and on the Shankill Butchers (which, unfairly, quotes from an anonymous informant in order to denigrate Gerry Adams).
A nicely produced book, also, but the price – like an orange grandmaster’s upper lip! – is a bit stiff.