The Irish and the Gift of the Gab
Kelly, John, The Independent (London, England)
Terry Eagleton has nothing to fear from the Trades Description Act. Anyone misled by his somewhat enigmatic title into thinking that this is a book about Emily Bronte or a discussion of the mid- Victorian novel, will find that it is in part all that, but that it is also far, far more. In a series of impressively well-informed and challenging essays, he charts the relationship between Irish literature and politics as they developed between the Act of Union at the beginning of the 19th century and the death of James Joyce.
Literature and culture have played a more prominent role in Irish politics and history than they did in England, largely (as Eagleton argues) because Ireland's colonial situation made questions of identity, representation and language much more problematic than they were on the other side of the St George's Channel. While he sees British culture gradually becoming a bulwark against social unrest, in Ireland it was a powerful contributor to it, and it is hard to think of writings in England which had the long- term impact of those of the Young Irelanders of the 1840s or the Irish Revivalists of the 1890s. A turbulent history produced an Irish society divided by class, ethnicity, religion and language - particularly the latter. Not merely was there the obvious difference between Gaelic and English: even English words had different meanings and nuances, not just on either side of the Irish sea, but between landlord and tenant, Protestant and Catholic within Ireland. After the Act of Union, legislation that made sense in England could turn out to be absurd or even disastrous when applied unthinkingly in the very different economic and social conditions of Ireland. The consequence, Eagleton argues, was an Irish suspicion of language itself and a compensatingly keen alertness to its duplicities, its capacity for play, for parody, for irony, for self-dramatisation or disguise. The gift of the gab, it seems, has less to do with kissing the Blarney Stone than slipping the embrace of crass or coercive laws. And this was true of all classes: "you know about the roguery of it, but you don't know at all about the truth of it", one old woman, prosecuted for stealing a cow, exclaimed. Thus, paradoxically, the Irish learned to be modernists (even post-modernists) before their economic and social structures had entered modernity.
It is this mismatch which fascinates Eagleton and which he is at his very best in analysing and discussing (his essay on the 19th-century Irish novel - an unduly neglected genre - is a brilliant tour de force). In his introduction he explains that his book is intended to bring to Irish history the insights of contemporary cultural theory, though he points out too that Ireland, as one of the oldest colonies, challenges the over- neat categories of much theorising. He also registers his own interests - all four grandparents Irish, and his mother born in the same Lancashire community as Michael Davitt, the architect of the Land League. This, as he anticipates, will give some readers the foreboding that they are to be subjected to the fulminations of a displaced Irish-Catholic Lefty indulging in romantic nostalgia and gratuitous Brit-bashing. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, there is a commitment to a left-wing view of Irish history, but he is far too subtle and agile - and honest - to be sucked into the bog of sentimental pieties.
Eagleton's choice of the essay form is absolutely right for this book. The various pieces overlap and provide an interweaving account of modern Irish culture, but do not impose the over-determined narrative that a purely chronological approach would have involved. What we get, in fact, is eight meditations on a series of complex questions, centring on the Irish famine, the Ascendancy, the Act of Union and the often paradoxical relationship of literature and politics in shaping the modern Irish experience. …