Review of Caroline Magennis and Raymond Mullen (Eds.), Irish Masculinities: Reflections on Literature and Culture

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Review of Caroline Magennis and Raymond Mullen (eds.), Irish Masculinities: Reflections on Literature and Culture (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2011) x + 194 pp.

Questions of masculinities have in the last 20 years become vibrant and significant approaches to the literature, culture, sociology, geography, history and art history of a wide range of historical and contemporary paradigms, though the majority of publications in this vein remain firmly within the "Anglo-American" fields of enquiry. Although there is lively dispute among scholars as to the meanings and significance of masculinities, there is little doubt that masculinity as a site of critical analysis has become firmly a part not only of the debates surrounding the meanings and definitions of gender in culture and society, but more recently also a revitalized approach to the history and contemporary analysis of religion and high politics. The founding of scholarly journals, such as Journal of Men, Masculinities, and Spirituality and others in this vein that foster a critical enquiry of men and masculinities, are testimony to a burgeoning of enquiry in the humanities on the dynamics and relevance of critical enquiry that examines men as gendered beings. The collection Irish Masculinities: Reflections on Literature and Culture is a welcome and genuinely groundbreaking volume in Irish Studies. In a society dominated profoundly by men and religion, social conservatism, sectarianism, violent conflict, and troubled relationships with Britain (historically and contemporaneously), it is remarkable that masculinities as sites of critical enquiry barely exist in this scholarly context.

The lack of scholarly analysis in this area is evident in the challenge the editors have in positioning the wide-ranging 11 chapters within the broader scholarly debates and within Irish Studies itself. A central aim of the volume is to question the production and maintenance of hegemonic masculinity in Irish literature and culture. But because of the absence of this kind of analysis, particularly in history and sociology, "hegemonic masculinity" is assumed in terms of its meanings and formation in the Irish context and is presented as a monolith. The analysis is thus confined to its supposed existence in literary and cultural forms. Hegemonic masculinity is regarded by the editors as a monolith that transcends borders. Although R. W. Connell's problematization of some of the earlier ideas that tended toward the essentialist within masculinity studies is present, the editors have great difficulty in that none of these debates have been thoroughly tested in the Irish paradigm. Debates elsewhere, such as in the British context, have brought nuance to the multivalent ways in which men's historical experience has been figured by specifically British notions of masculine expectation, often transcending class and creating male pecking orders. This is true most significantly for othering and out-groups of men that are not only informed by what masculinity might be but also cast men, such as homosexuals, beyond the pale of acceptable masculinity.

The salient point about Oscar Wilde's disgrace and fall was that it cast him firmly outside of gender, rather than his homosexuality being a minoritized kind of masculinity. Until his foolhardy libel suit against the Marquis of Queensbury that led to his trials and imprisonment, Wilde had presented himself to the world as a married man of letters. British society was remarkable not for its pursuit to expose homosexual men, but for the great difficultly that society experienced in conducting these kinds of trials at all, except when forced to, and the concomitant public discussion it entailed. This tendency to forget the unthinkable is reflected in the banning of serious scientific or literary discussion of homosexuality in Britain, until after the Second World War. All of this is in sharp contrast to the French paradigm, for example, where a basic legal tolerance of male homosexuality, established in the Codes Napoleon after 1805, fostered a public discussion of homosexuality, albeit pejorative in tone; nonetheless it was there, and advertised the existence of homosexual men in the French metropolitan milieu. …