Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'Tracing Again the Tiny Snail Track': Southern Protestant Memoir since 1950

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'Tracing Again the Tiny Snail Track': Southern Protestant Memoir since 1950

Article excerpt

To certain minds the real, the actual, is imbued with romance, simply because it was the real. To such minds the fact that a thing took place gives it a significance quite unaffected by the fact that now, as part of the past rather than the present, it has scarcely any greater validity than a dream. Once it was real. Even in the quite trivial memoirs of uninteresting people they can detect something which--because the image reflected is from life--fiction lacks.

Monk Gibbon, Mount Ida

'We Protestants in the Irish Republic are no longer very interesting to anyone but ourselves', remarked the essayist Hubert Butler in 1954. 'A generation ago we were regarded dramatically as imperialistic blood-suckers, or, by our admirers, as the last champions of civilization in an abandoned island.' Yet by mid-century, Butler concluded, 'we merely exist and even that we do with increasing unobtrusiveness'. (2) The story of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy's decline and fall is tightly woven into the fabric of popular narrative about Ireland's struggle for self-determination and the achievement of the Irish Free State in 1922. Consequently, the burning of numerous Big Houses in the early twenties has become a convenient symbol for the Anglo- Irish retreat from power, though in fact the process of withdrawal had been under way since at least the 1870s. Likewise, the marked reduction in both the number and visibility of Protestants in the years immediately following Independence, while undeniable, certainly did not constitute the minority community's disappearance. (3) Scattered thinly across the countryside and clustered in the suburbs of Dublin, the Protestants who chose to remain in their native land instead faced the task of reconciling themselves, practically and psychologically, to the reality of a new dispensation. And while Hubert Butler might justifiably characterize the collective experience of this evolution as one of 'increasing unobtrusiveness', the memoirs that individual Protestants have produced over the last fifty years testify to a varied and often passionate engagement with questions of Irishness. Any truly comprehensive approach to twentieth-century Irish culture, therefore, one cognizant of inconvenient multiplicities and uninhibited by the tidy corners of an ideologically-driven narrative, must join Southern Protestants in taking an interest in the decidedly untidy reality of their survival.

Admittedly, the effort to appreciate this reality is not made any easier by the readiness with which many Protestant writers themselves have embraced, or at least acquiesced in, the imagery and language of extinction. The trope of Anglo-Irish ruin was to be central in the later career of W. B. Yeats, who linked the end of the Ascendancy both to his own sense of mortality and to wider forebodings he had about imminent world collapse. As George Watson has observed, to interpret the Ascendancy in such emblematic terms 'is enormously to dignify its passing', though even more important than the legitimacy of Yeats's valuation is the way it schooled his mind so rigorously 'in the aesthetics of endings'. (4) He thereupon refashioned himself as an elegist for the whole tradition, a gesture which may have ensured his continued development as a poet, but one by which he also lent credibility to a deeply limiting structure for conveying the Protestant story. This form Ian d'Alton has broadly defined as the 'grand tragedy' model of historical interpretation, one whose dramatic proportions and foregone conclusions have made it perennially appealing to the Irish literary imagination. Yet in almost always resorting to either the rotting or burning Big House for its setting, this narrative form has produced some good fiction but proved a poor guide to the internal diversity of the minority community. (5) For as d'Alton rightly points out, only a limited proportion of the Southern Protestant population inhabited this milieu in the first place, so to generalize about all levels of Southern Protestantism on the basis of what happened to the Anglo-Irish landed classes is merely to indulge in Yeatsian myth-making. …

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