Will the Center Hold?

Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives/John J. Burns Library/Boston College
Brian Friel at home in County Donegal, Ireland, 2011

“Confusion,” according to the schoolmaster Hugh in Brian Friel’s play Translations, “is not an ignoble condition.” Confusion is rife in Declan Kiberd’s energetic, imaginative, exasperating literary history After Ireland, both as a description of the current state of the Irish nation and as a reflection of his explosively scattershot approach to Irish cultural experience. The book follows Kiberd’s earlier surveys, Inventing Ireland, Irish Classics, and The Irish Writer and the World; Inventing Ireland in particular has exercised a huge influence on a generation of students, at once pioneering a synthesizing, comparative, and internationalist approach to Irish writing through the centuries and paying close attention to the fortunes of the Irish language. Kiberd is uniquely qualified to make these connections, and has been doing so since his markedly original and still indispensable study Synge and the Irish Language (1979), published nearly forty years ago.

Kiberd’s work continually returns to the theme of how the written word both reflects and complicates the idea of national identity. This preoccupation resurfaces in After Ireland, though it is not always clear where the argument is going, partly because of the book’s idiosyncratic construction. Chapters of varying length address individual works by a wide range of writers from the mid-twentieth century to the present. These are organized by specific work rather than author, so writers such as Friel or John McGahern recur in discrete compartments, rather than being the subject of extended study.

The sections of the book are separated by brief “Interchapters,” bearing titles such as “Secularization,” “Emigration,” “Northern Troubles,” and “Europeanization.” These interchapters are for some reason unpaginated (using the index is a hazardous pastime). They are identified by historical subject, so one expects the subsequent literary studies to sustain these themes. Thus an interchapter on the “Women’s Movement” is followed, logically, by a chapter on the poet Eavan Boland, which does full justice to the heft, influence, and elegance of her work. But the next three chapters of this four-chapter section are devoted to McGahern’s Amongst Women, Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, and Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, shifting the focus unexpectedly away from feminist consciousness.

Several of the book’s chapters (such as the one on Richard Power’s neglected novel The Hungry Grass and a full-on discussion of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls) originated as introductions, essays, or reviews. This may partly explain the arbitrary structure of the book, and why some of the parts bear a rather eccentric relation to the whole. Kiberd’s sparkling and probing style goes some way toward overcoming this kaleidoscopic effect, but it is not always an easy ride.

There is also the abiding difficulty of “literary history,” in that it involves history as well as literature. Much in After Ireland concerns writers and their works (drama…

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