Gifts of the Irish

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 O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, and Eamon de Valera. The dramatists are also here in strength — Goldsmith, Wilde, Synge, O’Casey, 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 O’Sullivan 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.



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