Good Faith in Religion and Art: The Later Poetry of Eilean Ni Chuilleanain

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This essay is an exploration of the fertile yet contentious space of intersection between traditional religious faith, existentialist good faith, and aesthetics in Eilean Ni Chuilleanain's three most recent volumes, The Magdalene Sermon (1989), The Brazen Serpent (1994), and The Girl Who Married the Reindeer (2001). (1) Written against the backdrop of the crisis of bad faith that emerged as both cause and product of the collapse of the power base of institutional Irish Catholicism in the later 1980s and 1990s, these collections testify to the recurrent but as yet insufficiently mapped concern in modern Irish writing with the forces of attraction and repulsion between these three forms of idealist consciousness. That a major contemporary Irish woman poet chooses to focus much of her recent work on a positive reassessment of religion seems anomalous on two counts. First, is the circumstance of women's poetry in Ireland acting as a primary interface for the conflict between revisionist, 'moral', individualist vision and post-colonial, 'religious' tribal vision, in The Field Day Anthology debate of the early nineteen nineties. (2) Second, is the fact that issues of gender and sexuality have come to the forefront in the disintegration of the traditional authority of the Irish Catholic Church in the same period. These local struggles more recently have been framed by the international wave of liberal repulsion from religion-fed tribal extremism in the post-9/11 world order. Ireland has become available as an instructive historical microcosm of this order's dark sectarian energy, as religious culture in its authoritarian twentieth-century Irish variant, both north and south of the border, ever more clearly comes into focus as marked by that same collusion of sentimentality, conservatism, brutality, and greed which now patrols both sides of the East/West global divide.

However, Ni Chuilleanain's focus on the liberating potential of religion is fitting precisely because it can be placed in relation to this same contemporary intellectual and popular movement towards postsecularism--that which philosopher John Caputo describes as 'the death of the death of God', and identifies with the overarching cultural eco-system of postmodernity. (3) Post-secularism, in its Irish as well as its international incarnations, has an emancipatory as well as constrictive potential. The positive as well as the negative impacts of a resurgence in religion can be traced, for example, in the burgeoning interest in Celtic spirituality that arose simultaneously with the Celtic Tiger, during which period Ireland underwent a sudden conversion to materialist modernity. Ni Chuilleanain's specific concern with the traditional loci of religious belief places her at an angle to this spiritualist movement. Her understanding of good faith as sustainable faith tends her towards negotiation with the established religious practices of her own background, rather than towards the exploration of their alternatives. She records that as she grew up, 'going to church could be very aesthetically exciting in terms of the liturgy and the visual experience. But it also brought the whole community together'. (4) She goes on specifically to associate her interest in the sacred in history with its facility to communicate 'the history of injustice, deprivation, victimization', noting that 'this is all somewhat filtered out of it, [...] it is not what [people] want to hear'. (5) Thus Ni Chuilleanain suggests religious tradition as a forum that connects aesthetics and politics through its facilitation of communal awareness. Read in the light of her role as the Irish poet who has been elected as the one who 'more than any other [...] coax[es] us to feel the palpable presence of the spiritual', it is this relational and ethical aspect of religion upon which the present essay focuses. (6)

Ni Chuilleanain's negotiation with established religion in Ireland has happened in three main stages in her later career to date, each marked by the publication of a new collection. …