"Preying on Foresaid Remains": Irish Identity, Obituaries, and the Limits of Mourning

By Greenlaw, Duncan | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2001 | Go to article overview

"Preying on Foresaid Remains": Irish Identity, Obituaries, and the Limits of Mourning


Greenlaw, Duncan, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


In a 1989 obituary written for the Irish Times, John Banville, the paper's literary editor, remembers Samuel Beckett for being always gone and always there. By striving for "an autonomous art, independent of circumstance," he writes, "Beckett has been more successful than any other in this century in achieving [a] state of luminous absence." Beckett's "abiding presence," he adds a few lines later, has set an essential example for a new generation of writers ("Samuel"). Reworking the same obituary for an English audience in the Observer, Banville casts his indecision about absence and presence in national terms. Beckett was "a lord of language" who chose to abandon both his native tongue and country and was famous for "preferr[ing] France at war to Ireland at peace." And yet, Banville insists, "the accent [of Beckett's writing] was Irish, and remained so long after he had left the country." While "his Irishness was not that of Joyce, nor even that of Yeats," it was always there in his fondness for a particular kind of stereotypical Irishness: "He liked the mutter, the singsong, the hawked-up curse, liked too the undernote of lamentation and remorse" in Irish expression ("Waiting"). The lamentations of a series of Irish obituaries--of Yeats and Joyce as well as Beckett--are haunted by a similar uncertainty. They enact a discourse of mourning in which "Irishness" is uneasily established through a recollection of authors repeatedly defined as both absent and present, distant and near, apart from and a part of Ireland. Cast in the role of the other, which, in Derrida's terms, both constitutes and divides the present, these writers' remains allow the Irish simultaneously to gain and lose a fixed sense of themselves.

These obituaries are a part of a historically familiar discourse about Ireland. One of the sources most often invoked in academic and popular descriptions of Ireland as a nation formed by mourning is the rhetoric of Patrick Pearse. Both David Lloyd and John Brannigan, for example, cite Pearse while analyzing an Irishness made by memories of the dead. Lloyd describes Pearse's Proclamation of the Republic (co-signed by Pearse with other members of the Provisional Government in 1916) as a performative act of constitution that requires an "allegorical state" to engage in "repeated acts of commemoration [...] to revalidate the legitimacy of its representative function." Pearse's insistence on sacrifice and remembrance in both the Proclamation and his other writings, Lloyd argues, epitomizes the need for such a perpetually reiterative national identity to "constantly locate the foundations of social forms in violence and death rather than continuing organic life" (Anomalous 72-73, 79). Brannigan reads both the Proc lamation and Pearse's poetry as utterances of a nation constituted by death, a "culture of death that lives at the limits" (64). Before he was executed for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising, Pearse delivered a graveside speech for the Fenian hero O'Donovan Rossa. "Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations," he said. The English are "fools," he added, for "they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace" (136-37). He enshrined this view of mourning as a maker of nations in the Proclamation, which called for rebellion and sacrifice "in the name of God and of the dead generations from which [Ireland] receives her old tradition of nationhood."

Repetitions of this nationalist discourse of mourning in obituaries, as well as in recent political agreements in the North, expose mourning as an ambiguous rhetoric that both contains and disseminates Irish identity--a rhetoric that both buries the dead and exhumes them. This is an undecidable dynamic that Derrida calls "impossible mourning," impossible because the coherent identity formed by introjecting the lost other in what Freud describes as the "work of mourning" is endlessly deferred. …

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