The Quaking Bog

We Irish: Essays on Irish Literature and Society

by Denis Donoghue
Knopf, 275 pp., $18.95

Denis Donoghue, who is among the most lucid and intellectually powerful of modern critics and literary theorists, does not tell us directly what he means by “We Irish.” Certainly this is because the various occasions that have elicited these essays and reviews collected under the title would have made so personal a statement intrusive, and he is a writer of immense tact and grace, rarely moving between his subject and the scrutiny that he is instructing us to bring to bear upon it.

But he also knows that the phrase “we Irish” rests upon a quaking bog. It refers at once to a social and historical certainty and to a great many ideological and aesthetic viewpoints. Derek Mahon, a poet of Northern Protestant “stock” (to use a Yeatsian noun), is not alone in looking forward to the day when the question, Is so and so really an Irish poet? will clear the room. But the day is not yet upon us, and occasional protests to the contrary carry the chill of Quentin Compson saying quickly, panting in the iron New England dark, that he does not hate the South.

Donoghue’s title essay traces the vicissitudes of the very phrase, “We Irish,” from its appearance in a journal of Bishop Berkeley through its transformations in the imagination of William Butler Yeats to its final appearance in Yeats’s late, swaggering poem, “The Statues” (1938):

We Irish, born into that ancient sect But thrown upon this filthy modern tide….

Confronting so lurid a precedent, Donoghue sensibly eschews avowals of identity, rightly trusting that the various attitudes, judgments, and occasional prejudices which inform his essays will assert, implicitly and without fuss, that he writes as a critic and an Irishman. His book is divided into four sections, “Yeats,” “Joyce,” “Contexts” (pieces that bring politics and literature more closely together than elsewhere in the book), and “Occasions” (a category reserved for reviews).

I must here declare an interest, because I am, so to speak, an “occasion.” Donoghue reprints his review for these pages (June 14, 1979) of my first Irish historical novel, The Year of the French. Clearly he liked the book: it was a handsome and generous review. And as clearly, he had some reservations, but they were expressed with a courtliness that made them seem, at first reading, almost like compliments.

On less cordial occasions, the courtliness remains but can be lethal. He reviews the 1981 autobiography of a man named Patrick Shea, a Catholic, Irish-speaking Kerryman who served in the Royal Irish Constabulary until it was disbanded following the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, when he moved to the new statelet of Northern Ireland. To this point, his background and career were identical with those of Donoghue’s father, who took the option of joining the Royal Ulster Constabulary, eventually becoming sergeant of the Warrenpoint barracks. Shea became a clerk of the Petty Sessions in Newry.

But it was made clear to Donoghue’s father that as a Roman Catholic he could…

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