The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction

Edited with an introduction by Colm Toibin

This mighty tome begins with Jonathan Swift and ends with an extract from Emma Donoghue’s ‘Going Back’. Indeed, about a third of those represented are women writers. Not for Colm the accusation of female under-representation levelled at Seamus Deane’s three-volume Field Day Anthology (1991) – which otherwise remains unassailable.  With the imminent publication of a fourth volume, rectifying the omissions, the Field Day Anthology will represent the definitive compilation of Irish literature in its broadest sense (including seminal historical documents and political writings).

What isn’t clear from Toibin’s introduction is the criteria he used to decide who to exclude in what the publicist’s blurb boasts as ‘the definitive anthology of Irish fiction’. He spends over a page justifying elevating to the status of Irish writer, Englishman Anthony Trollope, who spent eighteen years in Ireland. No doubt Ireland rubbed off on Mister Trollope but that hardly justifies this ill-founded bodysnatching, even if it has the support of Owen Dudley Edwards and Roy Foster.

He makes almost a complaint that nineteenth-century Irish history reads like a form of fiction. Most of our rebellions and risings being elitist affairs, not mass uprisings, tended to mythologise the (tragic) individual, thus encouraging a tradition of believing that the novel couldn’t compete with the world.

‘Ireland, in the years around the Famine, could produce songs and stories, but had trouble with a deeply layered structure like a novel, in which the individual choice and the individual destiny are central.’

But you cannot draw an analogy between the cultural production of a country of eight million people, many of whom were poor and illiterate, split between two languages, in the agony of Famine and mass emigration, to that of booming imperial Britain which in the 1840s alone had the Brontes, Dickens, Thackeray and Mrs Gaskell, to name but a few, at the height of their powers. Or analogies with the state of the novel in France or in Germany in the same period.

I found remarkable the omission, among the modern writers, of thoroughbred Belfast man, Ronan Bennett, a former Long Kesh prisoner, who, no doubt under the new definition, may actually now be an English writer for having spent over eighteen years in London. Toibin must know Bennett, his contemporary, given that they have performed readings together and were both nominated in 1991 for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus First Novel Award. It would appear that when revisionists are at the helm suspect hush-puppies have to serve after their release a further probationary period of decontamination.

Toibin singles out for special mention John Banville’s 1973 novel ‘Birchwood’: ‘the most radical text in Irish revisionism’, he tells us. He extols it for making ‘fun of rebellion and land wars and famine, Irish myths of origin which had been dear to the hearts of the founding fathers.’ According to Toibin ‘Ireland’ needs to rid itself of the burden of history, ditch nationalism and embrace Europe – as if Europe isn’t without its self-made myths, as if a hegemonic Europe does not have the potential to draw us into funny wars over which we’ll have little say, leaving little countries with funny famines. Of course, Toibin’s ‘Ireland’ is a Twenty-Six-County Ireland where the nation stops at Dundalk.

The truth about revisionists, however, is that their self-righteous perspicacity has answered no problems. Indeed, at the political level their so-called objective stance, which wobbles between ‘let-the-Orangemen-march’ to ‘a plague-on-both-your-houses’ does not challenge the injustices which are at the core of our conflict. This jaundiced view of history, in turn, informs their view of culture.

I am not a native Irish speaker. I love the English language and I love world literature. I was brought up on Coronation Street and The Beatles. With the Home Service rather than Radio Eireann. But I am proud to be Irish and republican, particularly given the potential empowerment of nationalists in the North as a result of the peace process. To me, to crack a joke about the Famine would be like cracking a joke about the Holocaust. To me, the men and women of 1916 and of the Tan War period had feet of clay but were revolutionaries, deserving of respect. It is not only disingenuous but slanderous to lump them all and their memory with the reactionary politics (the Catholic ethos of the state, the Censorship of Publications Act, for example) that emerged subsequently.

Similarly, in the South it had been simpler until quite recently to deny or ignore the underlying causes of violence in the North. For two decades censorship largely ensured that unpalatable truths were not aired. Republicans and entire nationalist communities were demonised. They were atavistic, reactionary, locked into an inexplicable nationalism which spawned mindless violence. Why couldn’t they grow up – or grow away. Reading Toibin’s remarks on the sources of Irish Gothic in the nineteenth century I found he missed the ironic comparisons that can be made between the Protestant Ascendancy’s sense of guilt at its treatment of the locals (which led to its fear of the locals), and the sense of guilt people in the South may have towards the dispossessed nationalists of the North, a guilt which revisionists see it as their function to allay.

Having said my piece I must also state that Colm Toibin has brought together a comprehensive body of writing which could well fill a void in the syllabus market, given the increasing popularity of the study of Irish literature in universities in Britain and North America. Sterne, Carleton, Joyce, Bowen, Stuart, Beckett, Kiely, Healy, the McCabes, the Moores, Bardwell, O’Connor – the lesser known of which you may not be immediately able to put a first name. But time will sort out the wheat from the chaff, will shape the canon. ‘The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction’ is certainly more portable than Field Day’s ultimate Four Volume series, though conscientious students might have to add the likes of Patricia Craig’s ‘The Belfast Anthology’ to their satchel for that little bit extra.