December 1992By Aaron W. Godfrey
Aaron W. Godfrey teaches Classics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing [in three volumes]. Edited by Seamus Deane. Field Day Publications (Norton). 4,044 pages. $150.
The Irish have always had a way with words the incorporation of blarney into the English language and the more than 4,000 pages of this anthology are ample testimony to this.
Irish literature has been inextricably linked with the English; the Irish, after all, were a captive people for more than seven centuries. It was the Papal Bull Laudabiliter of Hadrian IV (1155), the only English Pope, that authorized Henry II to invade Ireland in the interest of Church reform. The English stayed; since that time the two cultures have been in conflict, with the English language achieving dominance despite strong periodic efforts to revive the Irish.
Prior to its conquest, Ireland was a warrior/agricultural society. St. Patrick brought Christianity, and a modicum of order, in the fifth century, and changed the social and cultural focus to the monasteries, which became the administrative centers of the island. The enthusiasm generated by Irish religious feeling was transferred to Britain and the Continent in the sixth and seventh centuries, as wandering Irish monks and bishops extended the frontiers of Christianity and established famous monasteries in Scotland (Iona), England (Lindisfarne), Germany (Fulda), Switzerland (St. Gall), and Italy (Bobbio).
This was the Golden Age of Irish culture. It essentially ended with the Anglo-Norman invasion and the attempt to suppress the Irish language and modify religious practices. This domination changed the composition and language of the ruling class.
The critical time for Ireland was the Reformation. Most Irish remained loyal to Rome despite the establishment of the Church of Ireland, a branch of the Church of England, in which membership was a prerequisite for higher education. Consequently, prior to the 20th century most well-known Irish writers were Protestants, as were many activists for Irish independence.
Irish survival was due to deep religious faith, which enabled the Irish to endure repression of their language, culture, and Catholicism suffering most under the Calvinist ascendancy of Cromwell in the 16th century and Balfour earlier this century.
This anthology is a monumental work providing a broad sweep of writing in Ireland whether in Irish, Latin, French, or English over more than 14 centuries, ranging from St. Patrick to Ian Paisley. There are writers I forgot were Irish, such as Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, and G.B. Shaw, and those I never knew had Irish roots, like Laurence Sterne. The anthology has adequate and often substantial samplings of Irish writers, especially the more well-known: Swift, Edmund Burke, Yeats, and the exiles Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, and Joyce.
There are also political writings from both the North and the South, Protestant and Catholic, such as Daniel OConnell, Charles Stewart Parnell, and Eamon de Valera. The dramatists are also here in strength Goldsmith, Wilde, Synge, OCasey, and contemporaries like Brian Friel.
Fiction, short stories, and novels are well represented, including some of the 18th- and 19th-century writers responsible for the Irish stereotype of the indolent, happy, and incompetent buffoon. The infinite sadness of a people living under alien domination is an undercurrent of the writing of the last two centuries.
But it is the poetry, the lyric, in which the Irish surge. God and nature, the saints and daily life, are never far from the images of their great poets. Present are Padraic Pearse, Tom Moore, Wilde, Yeats, and Seamus Heaney. There are surprises like Padraic Fallon (1905-1974), a shy poet of surprising grace whose poetry was published posthumously. It would have made sense to have included Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest who lived and taught in Dublin, since Edmund Spenser, a British planter of the 16th century, is given generous space, though he was anything but generous in his opinion and treatment of the Irish.
Each section, introduced by a comprehensive and scholarly essay, provides the reader with balanced historical and intellectual background. Biographical sketches place each writer in historical context.
Perhaps my only criticism is a failure to offer a guide for the pronunciation of Irish. It requires a stretch of the linguistic imagination to realize that Muiris O Sulleabhain is Maurice OSullivan or that Ceallaigh is Kelly. Many of the selections are printed in Irish with English translations, but it is nearly impossible for the unskilled reader to get a sense of the sound and rhythm.
This anthology will give countless hours of delight. If the price seems steep, consider that it is boxed, well-bound, printed on good paper, and the equivalent to at least 30 books that one might purchase and discard after a single reading.