Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man


by Denis Donoghue
Knopf, 194 pp., $19.95

Denis Donoghue
Denis Donoghue; drawing by David Levine

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…

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