Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Introduction: Tracking Utopia in Irish Culture(s)

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Introduction: Tracking Utopia in Irish Culture(s)

Article excerpt

The contributions to this special issue on the Irish utopian imagination arise out of the work of members of the Ralahine Centre for Utopian Studies at the University of Limerick. Since its founding in 2003, the Centre has encouraged research in all aspects of utopianism, but it has a particular commitment to the comparative study of utopianism in Irish culture. (1) The aim of this collective project is that of opening--or continuing to open--Irish culture to the interpretive work of a utopian problematic, to the insights of a utopian gaze (even as that problematic and gaze will change as it encounters its Irish objects of study).

To date, there has been little or no systematic study of Irish utopianism. To be sure, individual scholars have written about utopian aspects of Irish culture. Colin Graham (Deconstructing Ireland." Identity, Theory, Culture) deploys the tropes of "utopia" and the "future" in his analyses of contemporary Irish culture; Luke Gibbons (Transformations in Irish Culture) notes the utopian strain in the mobilization of the sense of "tradition" in several Irish texts and contexts; Declan Kiberd (Inventing Ireland and Irish Classics) addresses utopian elements in writers such as Oscar Wilde and W. B. Yeats; Carmen Kuhling (The New Age Ethic and the Spirit of Postmodernity) traces a utopian spirit in the culture of Irish New Age Travelers; Ralph Pordzik (The Quest for Postcolonial Utopia) places certain Irish novels in a postcolonial and postmodern utopian framework; and Michael Griffin ("Utopian Music and the Problem of Luxury") reads the utopian dimension in the music of eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish culture. While each of these is important in its own right, no larger, collaborative, project has worked from a utopian problematic to examine the utopian strains in the sweep of Irish social and cultural history.

That lack, however, is now being addressed. In a significant scholarly shift, studies of utopianism in other cultures have been more actively pursued in the last decade or so. In "The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited," Lyman Tower Sargent called for such work as he made his argument that the utopian proclivity, while not a human universal, can be found in cultures around the globe and throughout history. The bibliographic research he has done on Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand utopian texts and the ethnographic research that he and Lucy Sargisson carried out on New Zealand intentional communities mark important steps in studying utopianism outside the Anglo-American tradition. Sargent himself has recently ventured into Irish archival research; and he is developing a bibliography similar to those he did for Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Catalyzed by Sargent's work as well as by initiatives such as the European ACUME Research Project on "Utopia and National Identity," the task of researching Irish utopianism is being taken up by Ralahine's faculty and graduate students. (2)

So, can we look at the historical span of Irish culture through a utopian lens? And if we do, what might we see? Graham, in Deconstructing Ireland, considers utopian tropes in Irish culture as a way of investigating the meanings of "Ireland" and the uses to which it has been put. In doing so, he interrogates the tensions and differences between apparently stable "realities" of Ireland and its "other" possibilities. In this perspective, his recognition of the contested meanings of "Ireland" and its anticipatory possibilities points toward a way of understanding how utopian imaginaries have, and can, work in Irish history to break open to new meanings, new concrete possibilities. While Graham goes a good way toward developing a "utopian" reading of Irish culture in the meanings of "Ireland," he does not attempt a single-handed systemic analysis that works within a utopian problematic. …

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