Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing, 1790-1870: Politics, History, and the Family from Edgeworth and to Arnold

By Mary Jean Corbett | Go to book overview
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Introduction

In Seamus Heaney's allegorical lyric, “Act of Union” (1975), the coupling of England and Ireland issues in the conception of “an obstinate fifth column, “the heaving province” of Ulster. 1 Identifying the masculine position with English imperial power, the poem links the colonized Irish land with the feminine, carrying a fetal body that will never be born into separateness; even as it marks the geopolitical site “where our past has grown” (8), Ulster is itself a product of the past that has survived into the present, cleaving to the mother from whom it cannot be divided. With a heart that throbs like “a wardrum / Mustering force” (21–22) and “ignorant little fists” (23) that “Beat at your borders” (24), this angry child of Union punishes its mother from within and threatens its father, too, “across the water” (25). The “legacy” (13) of force and violence, the poem suggests, is more of the same: the crossing of two cultures under conditions of imperial masculine dominance and colonized feminine subordination produce only a bitter fruit, with Union's offspring both a part of and apart from its parents signifying Union's enduring brutality.

Now, more than thirty years after the renewal of “the troubles, it may be difficult to read the “legacy” of the Act of Union in any other way. The terms that Heaney's poem deploys, however, should make feminist readers suspicious not of the fact of conquest the poem describes, but of the sexualized and gendered binary it superimposes on the colonial relation, and of its attendant use of rape as a metaphor of imperial exploitation. When I teach Heart of Darkness, I must often remind students that to equate the Euroconquest of Africa with heterosexual rape is to engage rhetorically in a version of the act they liberally claim to condemn. Similarly, Heaney's poem aims to demystify, to reveal that the heart of an immense darkness is beating still, not just in London, but in Dublin, Derry, and Belfast as well. Yet we might better understand the gendered rhetoric of the poem as itself a product of

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