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 not expect promotion, and he retired as he began, a sergeant. Shea, a far more adaptable man, became the second Catholic ever to attain to the rank of Permanent Secretary of a department. Partly this is because he encountered “decent” sympathetic superiors: “I am ready to believe,” Donoghue says, “that his masters were fine fellows: so were they all, all honourable men. It was easy for them to be fine, when every Papist knew his lowly place.” But partly also because Shea survived into those final days when Stormont Castle was frantically and fruitlessly dressing up the shop by putting a few Catholics on display in conspicuous windows.

Donoghue quotes from Shea, with grave detachment, such pearls of wisdom as that “the influence of Orangeism was, I believe, considerable.” Then it is as though an Elizabethan headsman, solicitous of his client’s comfort, were delicately to unlace the doublet, draw down the lawn shirt, part the long, impeding hair, accommodate the neck gently to the block, and raise the axe:

His autobiography, after all, is justified chiefly as a success story: how a Catholic won the keys to a Protestant kingdom. It is a good story, vigorously told, but there is nothing in it to interest either Patsy O’Hara or Bobby Sands. Besides, If Shea’s judgment had obtained, there would have been no Easter Rising, no Irish Free State, Ireland would have been united, but as a colony, John Bull’s other island. My children and I would now live under a government we could not accept as legitimate. When I think of that, as Yeats said, “my tongue’s a stone.” Violence is an appalling thing, but Mr. Shea’s comfortable judgment is merely a function of his success in accommodating himself to a government many Catholics found intolerable and illegitimate.

The reference to O’Hara and Sands, both IRA men who were to die on hunger strike, should not permit the assumption that Donoghue’s sympathies lie with the present Irish Republican Army. “The Literature of Trouble,” which addresses literary responses to the violence in the North and, more generally, violence as the provocation of much of modern Irish literature, opens with a fact of history presented with an objectivity that does not leave Donoghue’s attitude in doubt. On February 17, 1978, a bomb was exploded by the IRA in the La Mon Hotel in County Down. Twelve people were killed out of five hundred who were in the hotel, “most of them attending the annual dinner of the Northern Ireland Junior Motor Cycle Club; these included several boys who attended to receive their prizes. Other people were in the hotel as members of the Irish Collie Dog Club.” Donoghue does not specify the denomination of the dead. Most were probably Protestant, but that doesn’t matter. Nowadays, the IRA and their Loyalist paramilitary equivalents are fairly precise in their targeting, but in 1978 they were equal-opportunity murderers.


Donoghue properly specifies in his introduction that his professional concern is not with politics but with literature. Yet his subtitle, “Essays on Irish Literature and Society,” suggests that in Ireland at least, to look no farther, the two are not to be kept unentangled. As he says:

It is well known that much of modern Irish literature has been provoked by violence, and that images of war soon acquire a symbolic aura in this country. Our traditions are histrionic and oratorical. The themes of Irish literature are few: if we list childhood, isolation, religion, and politics, we come nearly to the end of them.

One of Donoghue’s central strengths as a critic derives, quite simply, from a literary intelligence so confident of its powers that he can move with ease among Bakhtin and Foucault and Kristeva while remaining intellectually loyal toward those writers who helped to shape his sensibility—Ransom, Tate, Blackmur, and, above the others perhaps, Kenneth Burke.1 In some of the present essays—in, for example, his astonishing and bravura application of Bakhtin to Finnegans Wake—the subject and occasion allow him to function as a “pure” critic. For the most part, and for the reason he has himself set forth, Irish literature draws him, of necessity, to the politics of Irish culture and even, in some of the shorter pieces (“Drums under the Window,” “De Valera’s Day,” “Castle Catholic”), to “pure” politics—how people live from day to day in his divided island—their strategies and resources of spirit.

But the book is dominated by its first two sections, on Yeats, the contriver and heroic embodiment of “Romantic Ireland,” and on Joyce, whose work can be seen as the equally heroic deconstruction of that myth. Donoghue cautions us, though, that

a full account of Joyce’s work in the deconstruction of Romantic Ireland…would eventually begin to deconstruct itself, and would find Joyce baptised by desire, as deeply as by revulsion, in the naivete he would officially expose.

“We Irish, born into that ancient sect.” The sect, which of course existed only in Yeats’s imagination, as Donoghue reminds us in the essay called “Romantic Ireland,” extended backward to an abyss of time where dwelt the heroes of pagan Ireland: Finn, Oscar, Oisin, and above all others Cuchulain. Unlike most historical narratives, that of the “sect” grows more hazy as it moves into later centuries. It is peopled by an unnamed host of swordsmen, monks, lechers, porter drinkers, shepherds, “renowned generations,” lords and ladies who were beaten into the clay “through seven heroic centuries.” Then, suddenly, as we approach our own day, the members of the sect become named, vivid—Yeats’s father, John O’Leary, Parnell, John Shawe Taylor, Standish O’Grady, John Millington Synge, the “indomitable Irishry.”

A curious list, whether measured as being indomitable or as being Irish: all suffered some form of defeat, and all, save O’Leary, were Protestant. Presumably, O’Leary’s long imprisonment and exile atoned for the fact that “his ancestors probably kept little shops.” A second Catholic, Kevin O’Higgins, the Free State minister assassinated in 1927, was later added to the list. Apparently his ruthless measures against Republicans during the Civil War helped to encourage in Yeats the eugenic belief, expressed in On the Boiler (1939), that Catholic military families of the future would produce men with a Protestant-resembling strength of intellect and will. They would be refutations of those Catholic hucksters, the “Paudeens,” who “fumble in a greasy till and add the halfpence to the pence.”

Little shops seemed to enrage Yeats, not big ones. At the time he wrote the words just quoted, 1913, most of the great Dublin shops, except those owned by pals of the odious William Martin Murphy, were in Protestant hands: they boasted staffs and mechanical cash registers, thus eliminating greasy-till fumbling. Yeats’s own blood, as we are reminded in the dedicatory poem to Responsibilities, was “merchant” blood “that has not passed through any huckster’s loin.” And this, as Conor Cruise O’Brien has said, is quite true: his mother’s people, the Pollexfens and the Midletons, were strictly wholesale.


But it is easy to make fun of Yeats’s pretensions. George Moore and Gogarty and of course Joyce did so in their day, and Dublin is not yet tired of doing so. But Donoghue reminds us that there are serious issues behind the jokes and real stakes on the table:

In Ireland, it is fair to say, Yeats is resented; not for his snobbery, his outlandish claim to the possession of Norman blood, or even for his evasion of history by his appeal to two classes of people who existed only as shades—Gaelic-Irish and Anglo-Irish—but because he claimed to speak in the name of the “indomitable Irishry.”

Now this resentment is in effect, as Donoghue says, “a political judgment imposed upon poetry,” and he is therefore bound both by principle and by temperament to resist it. But it would be equally fair to say that the resentment has been provoked by the political attitudes struck by Yeats in his late poetry. Central among these is a claim not merely to speak for the “Irishry”—a word that can no longer be used in that country without a blush—but to define them as a spiritual and social community, and to prescribe for them. Thus, in the very section of “Under Ben Bulben” which contains the notorious phrase, he bids Irish poets to learn their trade, generously providing them with themes upon which (jointly with Synge and Lady Gregory) he held the copyright—peasants, horsemen, and the other anachronistic members of the Irish Literary Revival repertory company.

“Resentment” may in fact be too mild a term. Donoghue writes:

In the past few years, Yeats’s dealings in the rhetoric of “We Irish” have been much resented. Seamus Deane is not alone in arguing—I’m thinking of his Field Day pamphlets and other essays—that the wretched state of the North is at least partly due to the fact that its two communities have inherited stereotyped images of themselves which, subconsciously, they live and die to resemble. These images, in turn, are based upon a presumed spirit or essence which is to be identified with the very soul of Ireland, the special privilege of being Irish. Yeats, according to Deane’s argument, did much to present the question of Irishness as a moral criterion.

Deane, like Donoghue a Northerner and as it happens his successor as professor of modern English literature at University College, Dublin, does indeed seem persuaded that a fearsome specter called “essentialism” has been stalking Europe since the days of Hegel at the latest, and is at present squatting among the chimney pots of Derry. It can only be exorcised, he thinks, by deconstructive and decentering incantations. It is a persuasion shared by the other Field Day writers, and as my tone suggests, I share Donoghue’s reservations.2 But Deane, as he would surely agree, is too serious and resourceful a critic to be dealt with so summarily. Thus, Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature3 is more revisionist and far more ideological than is Donoghue on that subject, but its shrewd and challenging essay, “Yeats and the Idea of Revolution,” closes upon words that might have been Donoghue’s: “He was a revolutionary whose wars took place primarily within himself, and he knew that in the end, struggle as he might, it was a losing battle. Not even art could quite compensate for that.”

My only other reservation offers a curious counterpart. Conor Cruise O’Brien floats into a number of these essays, lingers in them for a sentence or two, and then floats out again, wraith-like, blighting, almost “un-Irish.” O’Brien is faulted, because although Irish nationalism plainly stands in need of a certain amount of demythologizing, this should not go beyond a certain line and O’Brien has crossed it.

But his subordinate sin, displayed most elaborately in his 1965 essay “Passion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W.B. Yeats,” is a readiness to treat literally the political violence, expressed at moments by a deliberate savagery, of Yeats’s final poems and of such prose as On the Boiler. O’Brien, Donoghue argues, “can’t imagine what it would mean for a poet near the end of his tether to recite such promises and threats.” But I cannot accept a charge of imaginative failure on such a point against a critic who can write as movingly as does O’Brien about Yeats’s hero Edmund Burke, when Burke was at tether’s end (in The Suspecting Glance4 ):

During his very last period, the tragic last two years—after the death of his beloved son and just before his own death—when his sense of a gap between reality and prevailing conventions swelled to the dimensions of nightmare, the irony which is his way of responding to this gap becomes copious, furious, almost feverish, especially in the Letters on a Regicide Peace which are the most reckless and unbalanced of his political writings, but the finest of his prose.

Donoghue, O’Brien, and Deane are in agreement that poems are written by real people, in what Donoghue elsewhere and winningly calls the “ordinary universe,” that they are addressed to real audiences, and that they handle real passions and emotions. In the critical mood of the moment, one has to thank God for that. But on all else, it is likely that they disagree: as political animals, as the particular kind of political animal called an Irishman, and as critics they differ in particular on the ways in which literature and politics are situated toward each other.

O’Brien, in his essay on “Nietzsche and the Machiavellian Schism” (in The Suspecting Glance):

But the real creative and destructive process of communication goes on in jumps, and criss-cross jumps at that. Each mind, and each age, takes from the messages what it can absorb and feels it needs, and in this process it is irrelevant whether the signaller or the receiver is classified as politician, poet or philosophical writer. Machiavelli is more important for Nietzsche than were the “purer” men of letters of the sixteenth century. Nietzsche, and later Burke, and an idealized picture of Renaissance Italy, were more important in the development of Yeats’s imagination than were any of the poets of those places and times. A few lines of poetry, the selected aphorisms of a retired man of letters, may liberate the daemon of a charismatic political leader. The whole imaginative and intellectual life of a culture is one interacting field of force.

And now Donoghue, in the introduction to We Irish:

I find it hard to maintain an appropriate voice when political issues are in question. In retrospect, my few political interventions now strike me as respectable, but erratic in tone. But in any case my concern is with literature. I don’t disavow an occasional inclination to set statesmen right; their being so regularly wrong is a sufficient excuse. Professionally, I am concerned with politics only when it invades literature and prescribes the gross conditions under which poems, plays, stories, and novels are written. The fact that the same conditions impede the general work of the intelligence hardly needs to be emphasised.

There is no formal disagreement between these passages, save that of tone. But there is an implicit disagreement over the relationship between literature and politics, the two being taken in their broadest sense. This disagreement, though, may be less extreme than either writer would admit.

One of the finest and most illuminating essays in We Irish is “Yeats, Ancestral Houses, and Anglo-Ireland.” It illuminates not only its subject but Donoghue’s procedures as a critic and his literary conscience. He traces, with a subtlety that joins literary taste with historical and specifically political shrewdness, Yeats’s complicated relationship with what the poet took to be Ireland’s surviving tradition of gentility, centering upon Lady Gregory’s Coole Park. He begins with the entry in Yeats’s journal for August 7, 1909, which later that day would turn into a draft of the poem “Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation,” but he turns then not to an immediate consideration of the poem, but rather to the specifics of the agitation, the pieces of legislation that it effected, and the immediate consequences of these for Coole Park—a 20 percent reduction of rents secured by fifteen tenants of the Gregory estate of July 30, 1909, in consequence of their application to the Land Court.

This may seem, in my summary, a scholar’s dutiful provision of “back-ground.” Instead, it opens the dialectic which Donoghue establishes between Yeats’s imagination and the richly circumstantial world upon which it played, moving forward through those days (evoked in “Ancestral Houses,” the first poem in “Meditations in Time of Civil War”) when he “gave up thinking of ‘the Big House’ as an emblem of intelligence in active relation to power. He saw it now as an aesthetic image of defeat, the enslavement of the strong to the weak.” And so forward, to the remaining poems of the sequence, in which Yeats seeks “to escape from ‘Ancestral Houses’ by Nietzschean devices and tones.” And finally (another formulation of his disagreement with O’Brien) those last poems that “embody, with two or three exceptions, a certain hysteria of the imagination, and display a Nietzschean will at the end of its tether.”

Tether’s end has always seemed to me the normal location for Nietzschean wills. But that is not my point, which is that Donoghue’s real quarrel is not with O’Brien, but rather with writers such as the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, who does indeed, as Donoghue puts it toward the close of this essay,

make readers feel that the political issue, the nature of political attitudes, takes priority over every other consideration, and especially over those which would be represented as formal or aesthetic.

Jameson, it is true, genially allows on the opening page of The Political Unconscious, that

traditional literary history has, of course, never prohibited the investigation of such topics as the Florentine political background in Dante, Milton’s relationship to the schismatics, or Irish historical allusions in Joyce.

But he says that such information remains just that, and anyway is usually recontained by “an idealistic conception of the history of ideas.”5

Maybe so, but for Machiavelli and the Florentine background to Machiavelli I commend the reader to O’Brien, and for Joyce’s dialectic with history—and with Yeats—I commend the reader to Donoghue and We Irish. About Milton and the schismatics, I know little and care less.

This Issue

March 31, 1988