• Email
  • Print

Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man

Warrenpoint

by Denis Donoghue
Knopf, 194 pp., $19.95

To any Irish person who has paid the least attention to public affairs in the past decade or so, the name of Warrenpoint, County Down, will bring to mind before anything else the slaughter of eighteen British soldiers near there on August 27, 1979. On that day the Provisional IRA exploded a land mine at the gate of Narrow Water Castle, on the Newry-to-Warrenpoint road, as a patrol of the parachute regiment was passing by; a second bomb was detonated half an hour later, when rescue services and police had arrived “to help the wounded and count the dead,” as the Irish Times report put it. Also on that day, on the other side of Ireland, in the “Yeats Country” of County Sligo, a Provisional IRA bomb planted on a boat killed Lord Louis Mountbatten, as well as two fifteen-year-old boys, one of them Mountbatten’s grandson; a relative, the eighty-two-year-old Dowager Lady Brabourne, was grievously injured, and died later.

A memorable day, then, even by Ireland’s savage standards. At the close of Warrenpoint, Denis Donoghue reproduces, without comment, two paragraphs from the Irish Times report of the killings of the British soldiers; the Mountbatten murders he does not mention. I have no doubt that Professor Donoghue was as much appalled by these and other such killings as any “slobbering moderate,” which is what the Republican Movement used to call the rest of us in the days before they had mastered the subtleties of PR-speak. However, there are many in Ireland—and in the United States, too—who remember August 27, 1979, as a day of glory. As Professor Donoghue has put it:

There are men and women who despise the notion of a plural society and who are ready to kill and be killed for the sake of national purity. [Conor Cruise] O’Brien does not understand such people, or the aboriginal loyalties which mean far more to them than a contemptible liberal peace…. But Republican will assert that there are things more glorious than liberal tolerance—a martyr’s death, for instance.*

All this may seem a puzzlingly weighty introduction to a review of a short memoir. However, in Ireland nothing is simple (is it anywhere?), and this book is much concerned with the matter of Ireland.

Denis Donoghue, Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at New York University, was born in Tullow, County Carlow, in southern Ireland, in 1928. His father had been a police sergeant there until the Government of Ireland Act—under which the country was partitioned—led to the disbandment of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and he moved to the new, ministate of Northern Ireland to take up a post in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. As a Catholic and a southerner, Denis Donoghue senior was among a small minority in the Protestant-dominated RUC, and so had little or no hope of promotion; he continued in the rank of sergeant in Warrenpoint until his retirement in 1946.

The figure of Donoghue père dominates this book, like a benign but stony Commendatore:

I felt that my father was not only a strong man but the source of strength for me. Not strength to be developed in me by conflict. He was to me an example, an image; it was sufficient that I contemplated it, and not at all necessary for me to vie with its power. Merely by looking at him or by watching him as he crossed the square, I saw that it was possible to be fearlessly at large in the world. I imitated him, as a devout Christian lives by imitating Christ, not by challenging his authority or by strutting in his presence.

This almost mystical reverence for the father is the most affecting aspect of Warrenpoint, but also it sheds a faintly eerie glow over these pages, like that which used to mark the appearance of Hamlet’s father’s ghost in old-fashioned stage productions. Of Donoghue mère we are told not very much. In the opening sections there is a tender portrait of her, a wan, gently incompetent woman afflicted by a mysterious falling-sickness; after that she fades under the huge shadow of her husband.

As is inevitable in a memoir, numerous deaths are recorded in these pages, but the strangest of them, or at least the one that leaves the strangest effect, is that of the author’s brother, John, who died of pneumonia at the age of fourteen months, when Denis was four. John’s funeral, three days after Christmas, 1932, is remembered, but little else of the elfin child remains:

I never heard John mentioned again in our family, except by my sisters many years later, when my parents were dead. In Ireland…a dead child is either talked about in the family as if still alive or is never mentioned again after the funeral.

There is a photograph, we are told, the only one known to exist: “When I see it, John smiling out of his pram, I think, with some irritation: What had he to smile about? But then I wonder: Why do I feel irritated?” Why indeed. “The smile, caught by the Brownie box camera and fixed in my mind so long as I recall it, is the sign of a child’s body in its felicity. Let be.”

But the figure of the dead child is not to be let alone; many pages later it rises again: “Sometimes I think the things that never can come back are innumerable; at other times, only a few. John, my brother, can never come back. That’s as far as I want to count.” Odd, this harping on a person (if a fourteen-month-old child can properly be called a person) of whom the memoirist has only the vaguest memories. It is as if this poor, lost mite is here to represent other, greater losses too painful to recall. One might reasonably have expected the book to be dedicated to Denis senior, but it is not: it is “For John, who died.”

Denis Donoghue grew up in Warrenpoint (pop. 2,000) and went to school there, to St. Peter’s, a splendidly Dickensian establishment

with three rooms and three teachers: Mr. Clancy, Mr. Crawford, and Miss McDonald. Mr. Clancy was the principal. Every morning, half an hour after class started, he left his room and walked down to the Liverpool Hotel, where he drank till he was well drunk, then came back to school to assault Miss McDonald.

From St. Peter’s young Denis transferred to the Christian Brothers’ school in Newry (“perhaps because Mr. Clancy’s suicide drew more attention to the school than it could withstand”).

He hated Newry, he tells us, “mainly because it was there I discovered that my body was wrong.” At the age of twelve he was five feet nine, at fourteen he was six feet; “I stopped at six feet seven.” He was a diligent and, one suspects, a brilliant pupil. After the Christian Brothers, he came south to study at University College, Dublin, where later he was to head the English department. He must have been—must still be—a wonderful teacher.

Certainly he is a superb critic. American readers in particular must find him congenial: from his student days onwards he has preferred American to English exemplars, and while others of his generation on this side of the Atlantic were still under the sway of Leavis and Leavisites, he was reading Thoreau and Emerson, Blackmur and Tate, Ransom and Kenneth Burke. His work has benefited from his decision to go with the American grain. He is more open to new theories than many English-speaking critics—but newness alone is not enough to win his approval; for example, he has been notable for the levelheadedness of his response to apocalyptic trends in French literary theory. He is, as any good critic must be, a great and enthusiastic reader. The excitement that he derives from books, the happy buzz that comes off his pages, makes one realize anew what a miraculous thing is art, and the work of art.

As well as being a memoir Warrenpoint is something of a confessio, though not of the Rousseauesque kind. Professor Donoghue puts a decently tactful distance between his past self which suffered and his present self which writes of that suffering. All the same, at times there is heard the voice of “some infinitely suffering, infinitely gentle thing”:

The priest listens to one’s confession, decides that one is genuinely sorry for having offended God, and conveys God’s pardon. That’s all right for God. But to whom do I confess my humiliations, my self-disgust, my hatred of my body? And who will dispose of the matter by conveying pardon? Whose forgiveness would make any difference?

However, this is an uncharacteristic passage, with its subdued Dostoyevskian sense of anguish and alienation. There are sunnier moments (“Girls:…I recall mainly their names and the opulent lapse of one syllable into another”) even if life in general was grey in that dour little Northern town. And there are one or two startling revelations. Some years ago, I remember, in a review of a book on T. S. Eliot, Professor Donoghue confessed that while others might think trivial the information that Eliot in his young days was an enthusiastic frequenter of dances at the Hammersmith Hippodrome, he found it fascinating. Well, echoing the professor, I must say I am enthralled to learn that as a youth Denis Donoghue, all six feet whatever of him, was adept at dancing on roller skates.

Donoghue père‘s advice to his son was that in dealing with others he should be “civil, but strange,” and no better formula could be found to describe the tone of Warrenpoint. It is an odd book, in which at times it is hard to distinguish subtlety from evasion, wit from malice, humility from indifference. It is, as readers of Professor Donoghue’s limpid essays will expect, clearly and often beautifully written. The author has a deep reverence for clean and decent prose (“I am sure the authority of a written sentence and the authority of my father were one and the same”); sometimes, however, clarity can become mere transparency. Warrenpoint wears a common-sense, unassuming air, touched with melancholy and wry humor; the image we are to have, I think, is that of a middle-aged man sitting by the fire of an autumn night turning over old snapshots, old letters, family documents. Outside this firelit study, however, strong and occasionally bitter winds are blowing.

From humble beginnings, Denis Donoghue has risen to a position of some eminence in the world. Didn’t he do well, though, would be (and I’m sure has been) the comment in Ireland, delivered in a tone rippling with contempt and envy. To “do well,” to “better oneself,” is in this country somehow a betrayal of something: one’s class, one’s less successful contemporaries, or just one’s past, for as a nation, North and South, we like to think of our past as our most precious possession. Before we came out of our mother’s womb generations guided us. In fact, a large part of an entire generation of Irish people sacrificed its right to the pursuit of happiness so that its children might make the great trek from a lower to a higher rung of the class ladder. Denis Donoghue’s father

was grimly related to the present tense and determined to gain a better future for his children, so he hadn’t much time for nostalgia. He seemed to consider his life as merely a preparation for someone else’s; mine, to be specific. He had an acute interest in the future, but it was my future rather than his.

Many of us in this country, the new Irish bourgeoisie with lower-middle-class or peasant backgrounds, might say the same thing—though I suspect it is of mothers rather than fathers that most of us would speak: the Irish mother is every bit as formidable as her American Jewish sister is reputed to be.

And many of us will identify, and identify with, the strain of baffled anger that runs beneath the controlled and urbane tone of this book. Denis Donoghue, on the evidence of these pages, regards his parents and the sacrifices they made for him with something of the same awe and irritation that the photograph of his lost baby brother provokes in him: What had they to be noble about?

However, it is mostly awe that is directed at the parents; the irritation, if I am right and it is there, is likely an effect of the tension felt by the tightrope walker who has had to perform for all of his adult life without the safety net of solid class structures beneath him.

Professor Donoghue’s reverence for his parents, for his father especially, is remarkable; most of us, were we to attempt a book such as this, would get forebears and all that out of the way as quickly as possible and move on smartly to more congenial subjects: travels, first loves, that first poem printed in a mimeographed little magazine…. It is true that this is by no means exclusively a memoir of childhood—Warrenpoint is not all set in Warrenpoint—and there is much talk of matters aesthetic, of books and music, of poetry and politics. All the same, it is the past, the past of childhood and adolescence, that is the work’s main focus, however widely the glass may be turned.

I think the benignity of Professor Donoghue’s backward glance may be accounted for in part at least by the fact that he is still a practicing Catholic. I say “still” because most of us members of the upwardly mobile intelligentsia of the new Ireland dropped that “vast moth-eaten musical brocade,” as Philip Larkin eloquently calls it, at the same time that we were smoothing down the rough edges of our accents. But religion, as distinct from faith, is continuity. Even if his God is a far more complex being than the God of his father, Denis Donoghue still practices the rite practiced by his parents, and their parents, and their parents’ parents. I envy him this link with lost worlds.

I envy him, but I do not sympathize with his beliefs. He does not harp on his religion, contenting himself with a mildly phrased and dignified defense—or exposition, for I suppose the true believer does not consider defense is called for—in the course of which he remarks:

I have never understood why people hate Christianity, especially people who express shock at the least trace of anti-Semitism. Why are Jews supposed to be cared for but not Christians? Is it because of the Holocaust, and despite the fact that Jews in Israel have shown themselves just as merciless as Arabs or Germans or Japanese or Irishmen or anyone else? Or because there are more Christians in the world than Jews?

This is a not unreasonable question; in pondering it, one comes up with, for a start, the mild and, it is to be hoped, dignified response that whatever the state of Israel may be doing now, Judaism did not, century after century, march hand in steel glove with the robber barons of Europe as they set out to plunder and pollute vast tracts of what we now call the third world, as the Christian Churches did.

This is a delicate matter. I grew up in Ireland in circumstances very similar to those Denis Donoghue knew in his youth, and I understand, even if I cannot still feel, the power and persuasiveness of Catholicism, not only as a religion, but as a way of “being in the world.” Like him, I “learned the truth of the Catholic faith mainly by memorizing the penny Catechism”:

I can’t recall how I received these doctrines and dogmas. It was not a case of approving or disapproving, any more than the character of the Latin subjunctive called for debate. The dogmatic character of the Church was what most fully satisfied me. I wanted to belong to a church that knew its mind because it had received that knowledge from God by way of scripture and tradition. I assumed that the dogmatic character of the Church was innate in its character.

That he discovered in later years that dogma is not innate, but a development forced on the Church by the threat of Gnosticism, is beside the point; Catholicism filled a need for certainty, a Stevensonian rage for order, in the young Denis Donoghue, and the adult saw no evidence to make him change his mind.

In Ireland, however, religion is more than a matter of the soul and angels and the afterlife; it is a social force of extraordinary potency. Those “new Irish” who long ago gave up the practice of religion still in their hearts identify themselves as “Catholic” or “Protestant,” much in the way that second-generation Americans will think of themselves as “Irish” or “Polish” or whatever. Over the centuries the native Irish lost their rights, their land, their language, but clung fiercely to their Church (not half as fiercely, let it be said, as it clung to them). Now, the Protestants, the great majority of whom live in Northern Ireland, are facing different but equally devastating losses, and so they proclaim their faith ever more loudly. Non-Irish readers of Warrenpoint should not be misled by Professor Donoghue’s mild tone of voice: this is a matter of life and death.

If I understand the appeal of Catholicism to Professor Donoghue, even more do I appreciate the lingering ressentiment he feels in the presence of certain upper-class Protestants. He tells a revealing little anecdote in which he is “silently corrected in a matter of usage” by T. R. Henn, an “Anglo-Irish Protestant scholar who spent his childhood in a manor house called Paradise.” At the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Henn mentioned that he was going fishing, and Professor Donoghue asked if he would catch salmon or what; “I hope to kill salmon,” was the reply.

A Catholic wouldn’t be expected to know the right word…. When Henn spoke of the Big House, he gave his audience to understand that his experience of that institution was at once personal and historical. One kills a salmon.

Note how apt is the setting for this encounter, which might have made the matter of one of Yeats’s knotty meditations in the poet’s late style. Professor Donoghue knows very well the role Yeats would have assigned him in his verse: one of Paudeen’s sons, a mere generation away from the greasy till. (Is it not ironic that Yeats was involved in choosing the designs for Irish coinage after Independence, and that an image of him, looking at once indomitable and visionary, now adorns our twenty-pound note?)

The dialogue, one might say the struggle, which Professor Donoghue has been engaged in with Yeats’s work since the beginning of his career has resulted in some of his most passionate and most perceptive criticism. Yeats is for Donoghue an emblematic figure, perhaps the emblem of divided Ireland. On one side there is the Anglo-Irish, Protestant Yeats, the Yeats of the famous “We are no petty people” speech to the Irish Senate in 1925, the Yeats who could claim that his was “blood that has not passed through any huckster’s loin.” On the other, far on the other side, there is Yeats the extreme nationalist, whose play Cathleen ni Houlihan Conor Cruise O’Brien, writing in The Times of London, and quoted by Professor Donoghue, considers to be “a straightforward, red-hot piece of physical-force nationalist propaganda” that could be put on “as a benefit performance in support of the Provisional IRA.”

It is the spirit of this latter Yeats which in Warrenpoint is called forth to give evidence against the new breed of Irish “revisionist” historians, of whose work Professor Donoghue is skeptical. The revisionist school—Roy Foster, J. J. Lee, the late F. S. L. Lyons, among others—seeks to “present the history of Ireland in social, economic, and cultural terms, rather than in terms of revolution and defeat,” as Professor Donoghue puts it, in a slightly different context. What is being revised is that mythologized version of the Irish past which is a mingling of Yeatsian rhetoric and the blood-boltered sentimentalism that passed for history in Catholic schools, especially those run by the Christian Brothers. Professor Donoghue, however, is not convinced that the myth is entirely to be deplored:

It is easy to denounce the Christian Brothers for teaching a dangerous version of Irish history, and to point to the renewed violence in Northern Ireland since 1968 as the inevitable fulfilment of that pedagogy. It is true that any historical interpretation that features dramatic acts, unique individuals, and deeds of heroism turns life into theatre and violent men into tragic heroes…. Social history is an attempt to remove from Irish history the glamour of its sacrifices and martyrdoms. Revisionism is a project of slow history, or confounding the drama, thwarting the narrative. Unfortunately, Ireland without its story is merely a member of the EC, the begging bowl our symbol.

Professor Donoghue’s view of the national question, insofar as I can discern it in these graceful pages, is one with which I wholly disagree. Personally, I believe that history as it was taught to me and my contemporaries was and continues to be a goad and a source of sustenance to murderers on both sides of the Irish conflict; I believe that myths of blood and race should be, not discarded, perhaps, but constantly reexamined; I believe that Ireland must break free of its insular subjectivity and look towards Europe—and Europe is much more than the Common Market—if it is to have any reasonable future. I know very well that while Professor Donoghue’s opinions on this question will anger many people in Ireland, they would meet with the enthusiastic approval of a great many more. These latter, however, will be for the most part people who would not dream of reading a work as measured and humane as Warrenpoint.

  1. *

    We Irish (Knopf, 1986), p. 150. For a concise summary of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s views on Northern Ireland, see The New York Review, July 19, 1990, pp. 33–36.

  • Email
  • Print