Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Irish Studies and the Adequacy of Theory: The Case of Brian Friel

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Irish Studies and the Adequacy of Theory: The Case of Brian Friel

Article excerpt

Literary theory arrived centre stage in Irish Studies at the 1985 IASAIL (1) conference on 'Critical Approaches to Anglo-Irish Literature' at Queen's University Belfast. Theory, however, was already in the air. Delegates at the previous IASAIL conference at the University of Graz, Austria, in 1984 had demanded that the association become more alert to the impact of theory on literary studies. Two years previously Methuen launched the New Accents series with the collection Re-Reading English, a venture dedicated to 'stretch[ing] rather than reinforc[ing] the boundaries that currently define literature and its academic study.' (2) The series resulted in an almost unprecedented furore caused by Tom Paulin who stated: 'It's the term "English" which needs to be first deconstructed and then redefined. This involves arguing from and for a specifically post-colonial or post-imperial idea.' (3) The collection of essays in which that review was later circulated, Ireland and the English Crisis, was dedicated to 'Brian Friel and Stephen Rea, founders of Field Day'. Field Day had been founded in 1980 through the production of Brian Friel's Translations, and with its pamphlet series and annual theatre had, in W. J. McCormack's words, 'set the terms for the current debate in Irish criticism'. (4) But it was the Queen's conference which brought the debate to a head.

In Literature and Culture in Northern Ireland Since 1965, Richard Kirkland comments: 'The Belfast ISAIL conference of 1985, seems to me to be of significance. The academics there gathered [...] contributed to a literary conference at which post-structuralist and National questions were foregrounded, perhaps for the first time in Ireland.' This, he says, was 'a combative conference, the issues raised at which are still current'. (5) In view of Kirkland's reading of the conference as foregrounding post-structuralist theory it is worth being reminded of Tom Paulin's horrified, 1982 speculation: 'Perhaps, then, the day is not so far off when a conference of Irish structuralists will meet in Belfast to discuss the latest reading of Barbara Johnson's reading of Derrida's reading of Lacan's reading of Poe's The Purloined Letter.' (6) But what Paulin is opposed to is a form of theory as enclosed and self-referential as that nominally practised by 'traditional' criticism; the circle of reference may now be wider but it is still unremittingly textual--there is no space for the social or the political. That is the realm of theory. And it is this wider context to which Kirkland refers when he speaks of post-structuralist and National concerns being foregrounded. One might object to the reading of the conference as only, or primarily, foregrounding National concerns, for John Wilson Foster's plenary lecture 'The Critical Condition of Ulster' made a powerful and informed plea for theory to be directed across Irish Literature and culture as an analysis of nationalist as much as unionist positions. But Field Day, he still acknowledged, has 'helped us reach a critical point in Irish cultural understanding'. (7)

That 1985 conference might have been a watershed, but this does not mean that theory has now unproblematically found its place in Irish Literary Studies. Indeed Peter McDonald's 1997 study of Northern Irish poetry, Mistaken Identities, makes some harsh judgements on those who, in his terms, bypass the formal and rhetorical aspects of the text and go straight for its thematic content with all of its superficially attractive 'political' implications: 'Of course, poems are hard to write about, while cultural identity is very easy to discuss: so easy, in fact, that it tends often to write its own way through the kinds of critical discourse that accepts it as their subject. In literary studies as in political analysis, it is always easier not to think than to think, and it is quite possible not to think in academically profitable ways: whole schools of not-thinking about literature have established solid institutional presences by finding new ways to ignore the difficulties and perplexities of literary analysis and evaluation. …

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