Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Hidden Ireland: a reading

I have recently been reading Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland (1924), his account of Gaelic civilization and poetry in 18th c. Munster. In all my reading of Irish material, I had never got around to this book before, though I am well familiar with some of the poets Corkery deals with – Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, et al. With all the knocks Corkery has taken from revisionist historians (e.g. L.M. Cullen) for supposedly being narrow or backward-looking, I suppose I had almost believed that The Hidden Ireland would indeed be everything its critics have said. Or not said. To use one example, in Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, its Development and Literary Expression prior to the Nineteenth Century (1996), Joep Leersen barely gives Corkery a mention (except to dismiss him for being a Gaelic League nationalist), when The Hidden Ireland is such an obvious precedent to Leersen’s own work. In fact the two books deal with largely the same time period, the same themes, and much of the same material. Does Leersen really feel that Corkery can be so safely ignored? Without taking too much away from the impressive qualities of Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael – apparently he does.

To be fair, Leersen draws more from contemporary source materials for the bulk of it than he does from more recent criticism, relatively speaking, but one big influence he does acknowledge is Foucault. “Foucault,” Leeresen says, “has questioned the traditional generic divisions between literary, historical and scientific texts,” and this multi-genre approach is central to Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael, as well as to imagology as a wider discipline (“the imagologist,” Leersen explains, “studies the textual expression of an image, and the historical context of its textual expression, rather than its pretended reference to empirical reality”). Yet, in part, this is exactly what Corkery was doing 80 years ago. Primarily a study of Gaelic poetry and poets, it also draws on the history of Lecky and others, the memoirs of Clanricarde and others, the essays of Romain Rolland among others; and the list could go on. It is an attempt to place the poetry in its historical context, but also to focus on aspects of Irish cultural history which had theretofore been ignored. Corkery was of his time, as we all are. Patrick Walsh offers an eminently sensible corrective to the revisionism of Cullen (a “revision” of revisionism?) in his article “Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland and Revisionism” (2001), in which he points out, “The Gaelic League was not wished into existence by romantic nationalist ideologues, but resulted from the unique conjuncture of the political, social, historical, economic, and linguistic conditions of Ireland at the turn of the century.”

I am not trying to offer a defense of nationalism as such here. I think nationalism can be progressive, and a useful strategy in a liberation struggle – as it was for Ireland – but it can also become a conservative straight-jacket – as it was for Ireland later, when the aims of Pearse and Connolly were subverted to the strictures of the Catholic Church and isolationism. But can’t the nationalism of a small, oppressed country still be a bulwark against the homogenizing imperialism of oppressor nations? For these do still exist in a very real sense. (Perhaps nationalism is not even the correct word anymore, because it can also imply exclusion, which is not my intent at all.) In asking this question, I am also familiar with Manuel De Landa’s spectacular book A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (1997), where he writes:
First, although it is true that nation-states swallowed their minorities and digested them by imposing national standards for language, currency, education, and health, the solution is not simply to break up these large sociopolitical entities into smaller ones....To simply increase heterogeneity without articulating this diversity into a meshwork not only results in further conflict and friction, it rapidly creates a set of smaller, internally homogeneous nations. (Hence the balkanization of the world would increase heterogeneity only in appearance.)
At the same time, I can only agree with Corkery in his introduction to The Hidden Ireland: “After all, all that aptness in mechanism means control of force; it is natural. What is not natural is that ‘progress’ should spell ‘uniformity.’ If those whose very dreams have become mechanical still see any use for the arts, it can only be that they pay lip-service to old saws. How anyone who cares for literature can bear to see a language, any language, die is a thought beyond us.”

James McCloskey’s study of the Irish language’s current situation, Voices Silenced: Has Irish a Future? (2001), is also framed in anti-nationalist terms (do I sense a trend?). Nonetheless, McCloskey’s thesis is indisputable to anyone but the most banal of fascists. “The effort to support Irish,” he asserts, “is in fact one strand, or ought to be one strand, in an international effort to open cracks, however small, in the dreary homogeneity of culture and ideology created by global capitalism.” My impression is that the point of Corkery’s nationalism was not to make English-speaking Irish people feel belittled, embarrassed, or threatened, but to arrive at a place where the Gaelic language and culture would no longer be threatened either. That is, a state of mutual respect. Or perhaps, in De Landa’s terminology, a “meshwork.”

Today, with European integration becoming ever more drawn, and the effects of globalization more and more tangible, many of Corkery’s arguments are oddly relevant. While his attack on Renaissance modes of art might seem in a sense anti-modern at first glance, what he was really trying to do was make a case for multi-culturalism and idiosyncrasy: “Caught up at second-hand into the art-mind of Europe – thus becoming international, their effect was naturally to whiten the youthfully tender national cultures of Europe. That is, the standards of a dead nation [Greece, or the Renaissance image of Greece] killed in other nations those aptitudes through which they themselves had become memorable.” Just look at the current euro currency notes, with their bland representations of “European” architecture, but which actually depict no real individual buildings. Corkery shows how the poetry of an Ó Rathaille still carries an intensity and power lacking in the Renaissance-influenced art of his (Corkery’s) day.

Now, James Joyce (for example) would probably have a different outlook on contemporary European art, an outlook that Corkery did not engage with. Nonetheless, aspects of Corkery’s view of the Gaelic poets have at least something in common with 20th c. modernism. Of Ó Rathaille, he writes, “His themes are scanty: one might, indeed, say he had but two; the first, Ireland and it broken...the second, himself, broken too; and sometimes these two themes become one....But in a lyric, the question of theme must ever be of small moment, the method of treatment being so nearly everything.”

To my mind, The Hidden Ireland is far from being a parochial or inward-looking work – in fact Corkery highlights Irish Gaelic links with the Continent (even while Ireland was suffering under the worst of English oppression), draws comparisons between Ó Rathaille and Whitman, Ó Súilleabháin and Villon, and highlights the teaching in the bardic schools not only of Irish, but also Latin, Greek, and English. Instead, this book is a defense of literature, of education, of multi-culturalism, and of multi-lingualism. It is not only a means of access to some of the greatest poets which any language or culture has ever produced, it is a dynamic reproof of the “whitening” forces that still surround us at least as much if not more than they did in Corkery’s time.


Liammac said...

Mike , I am very glad you noted the anti-nationalist tide churning abroad. The Globalist agenda is opposed to insularity , the no nation is an island mentality , to misecho Donne. I believe , as you point out , Ireland is best served by a diversity of glossia. I recommend Patrick W. Joyce's English As We Speak It as a reason to rejoice over the shattered masonry of a fabled ziggurat.

Poet Bloggs said...

Sorry for the unrelated comment;

I am looking for writers' opinions about blogging and the growing social input and collaboration that the web allows. There are a few initial questions in the blog post but any input would be great.

Please pass this on to anyone that you think might be interested.

- thanks for your time.