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A Nation, Yet Again

A Nation, Yet Again
The Field Day Anthology

Francis Mulhern
Anthologies are strategic weapons in literary politics.

Authored texts of all kinds – poems, novels, plays, reviews,
analyses – play more or less telling parts in a theatre of
shifting alliances and antagonisms, but anthologies deploy
a special type of rhetorical force: the simulation of selfevidence. Here it is as it was: the very fact of re-presentation, flanked by equally self-attesting editorial learning,
deters anyone so merely carping as a critic. And so, in
principle, whole corpuses, genres, movements and periods
can be ‘finished’ – resolved, secured, perfected or, as the
case may be, killed off. Anthological initiatives may be
purel y antiquarian, but more often they are not. The venerable
Oxford compilations of English verse functioned for many
decades as the official gazette in their field; Michael Roberts ‘s
F aber Book of Modern Verse, published in 1936, reordered
the recent past and, by suggestion, indicated the future
course of English poetry. Anthology-making has played a
significant role even where the main means and stake of
battle are not only symbolic and not at all polite. There
cannot be many nations on earth that have not affirmed the
integrity of their struggles or triumphs in such rallies of the
national imagination.

The Field Day Theatre Company has for more than a
decade played a conspicuous role in Irish cultural politics.

Formed in 1980 in Derry to produce Brian Friel’s nowclassic play Translations, it has become a constant factor in
Irish theatre. The company’s repertoire now includes, as
well as Friel’s subsequent work, Tom Kilroy’s Double
Cross, Tom Paulin’s version of Antigone (The Riot Act),
and Terry Eagleton’s Saint Oscar, all touring well beyond
the familiar city venues and some adapted for television.

Impressive in itself, this is only one aspect of Field Day’s
activity. Academics, critics and poets feature largely in its
membership – Seamus Deane, Seamus Heaney and Tom
Paulin are all three, and have recently been joined by the
equally versatile Eagleton – and a second notable Field Day
project has been its pamphlet series. These productions are
often more occasional in character, and correspondingly
more pointed; in other cases they promote a counteracademic discourse in which familiar literary topics are
boldly reframed. Paulin, speaking from a northern Protestant
background, explores the existing cultures of language in

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

Ireland; Heaney addresses an open letter to the London
anthologists who have assimilated him to the history of
‘British’ verse; Edward Said writes on Yeats and
decolonisation; J oyce is refocused by Fredric J ameson, in a
synoptic discussion of modernism and imperialism. I
Meanwhile, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, retuned for Irish
voices, plays in the school halls of provincial towns, and the
Belfast actor Stephen Rea, co-founder of the company,
introduces southern audiences to their latest and least
probable ‘saint’. This is a vivid, sometimes startling record
of activity, and even if its cumulative meaning eludes
summary, nothing so determined is likely to be merely
eclectic. For any who are still inclined to make light of the
company’s ambition, there is now the overwhelming testimony of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. 2
The ambition is patent in the very scale oftl)e anthology,
which must be among the most extensive of its kind anywhere
in the world. Efforts at qualitative description, overcome by
mounting feelings of sublimity, quickly lapse into
blurbspeak; but the measurable proportions of the work are
telling enough. Three large-format volumes bind some
4,000 pages of double-column print presenting 1,500 years
of writing and recorded speech from St. Patrick to the
present. The roll of authors numbers something like 600. A
crude count gives six languages of composition (with
translations where needed): Latin, Norman French, Medieval
and Modem Irish, Middle English, and what may be called,
in inadequate shorthand, Modem English. Twenty-three
editors have collaborated to produce a selection ordered in
forty-three categories, all with introductions that would
themselves fill a substantial book.

Together with vastness of scope goes complexity of
design. This is not a pageant ofthe centuries. Chronological
marking is constant, but does not imply a single temporality;
calendar time is cross-cut here or there by any of six
parameters. Some of these are familiar: language (Early and
Middle Irish Literature, Latin Writing in Ireland), period
culture (Anglo-Irish Verse 1675-1825), mode (Poetry,
Prose Fiction, Drama, Political Prose), or biography (Swift,
Edgeworth, Joyce). Others are less so: genre (Irish Gothic)
or historico-thematic (Constructing the Canon: Versions of
National Identity). The effect is of an irreducibly plural

23

history, polyphonic and differential, in which voices are
echoed or answered by other voices, are heard again, and
differently, in the changing acoustics of the period, place
and interest, in which events (the plantations, the risings, the
Famine, independence) are in some ways punctual and
decisive but in other ways go on happening with unabated
subjective force.

Seamus Deane’s general introduction gives direct expression to the editorial self-consciousness of the project.

Understanding that the excuses proper to such occasions are
both counter-suggestive and naive, he moves directly against
critical common sense. The anthology is, as it must be, a
selection, neither comprehensive nor neutral, not a transcript of ‘cultural creation’ in Ireland but ‘one further act’

in that history. Further, the selected material is not proposed
as a ‘canon’. The substantive term of the title is not ‘literature’ but ‘writing’: here, as in the eighteenth-century
convention, ‘many forms of discourse are “polite” and …

literature is one of them’ , but the idea of the literary neither
controls the corpus of eligible writing nor serves as an index
of distinction within it. The notion of an Irish canon is
similarly discounted. The return of the northern crisis has
exposed the lack of ‘any system of cultural consent that
would effectively legitimise and secure the existing political
arrangements’ of the island, least of all one based on the
usual nationalist appeals to an originary identity. Indeed,
Ireland is ‘exemplary’ as a real-world mise-en-abfme, the
place where canon-making achieves little more than the
exposure of its own political partiality. Nor is there salvation
in the ideal of history ‘as it really was’, Deane continues.

The anthology is, perforce, ‘at the mercy of the present
moment’; its governing question cannot be answered in the
perspective of eternity, but it may at least be posed in the
relative freedom of self-awareness: ‘How, in the light of
what is happening now, can we re-present what was, then
and since, believed to have been the significance of what
“really” happened?’ And thus, the grand modesty of the
editorial aim: ‘to re-present a series of representations
concerning the island of Ireland[,] its history, geography,
political experience, social forms and economy’ , and to do
so without appeal to the essences of art or nation, instead
exploring ‘the nexus of values, assumptions and beliefs in
which the idea of Ireland, Irish and writing are grounded’ .3
Deane proposes a bold venture in what someone will
sooner or later call ‘post-anthological reason’. Avowedly
situated and committed but repUdiating customary
foundational assumptions, it illustrates a cultural orientation
that the northern critic Edna Longley has captioned ‘Derry
with Derrida’. Yet Derry-as-sign is the nemesis of
deconstruction, and the ‘post’ marks of Deane’s opening
statement are not unambiguous tokens of its provenance.

‘There is a story here,’ he writes, ‘a meta-narrative, which
is, we believe, hospitable to all the micro-narratives that,
from time to time, have achieved prominence as the official
version of the true history, political and literary, of the
island’s past and present. ‘4 This cool recall of the ‘micro- .

narratives’ and their vicissitudes is in keeping with the’

general theme of the introduction (though the disarming
24

appeal to the ‘hospitality’ of narrative echoes the manner of
mid-century Anglo-American literary criticism, with its
self-consciously ‘civil’ versions of art as reconciliation).

But the main claim, registered with sudden, proleptic
emphasis, remains an alien, unsupported and not even
elucidated in the pages that follow. It can hardly concern the
‘national story’ (nationalism, Deane asserts, is ‘no more
than an inverted image of the colonialism it seeks to
replace’) and no other meta-narrative is seriously considered. Late on in his text, Deane entertains the possibility that
the work as a whole may turn out to be a supersubtle gnostic
compilation, within which the ‘story’ awaits the adept. ‘If
we could claim that in every corner of the anthology one
could find contained, in parvo, the whole scheme and
meaning of it, then our ambitions would be fulfilled. But if
the scheme … is not so discovered, we have little doubt that
some alternative to it will be revealed, whatever page is
opened, whatever work or excerpt is read. It is the endless
fecundity of such reading that gives justification to the
selections with which we here attempt to define our subject. ‘5
It is not the least provocative feature of this sequence that it
should close on the incongruous verb define. Nothing could
be further from the ‘attempt to define’ than these teasing
sentences. But they are the more significant for that: and not
as tokens of a familiar literary-academic coyness (Deane’s
characteristic style, splendidly exercised in his local introductions, is quick and biting) but as symptoms of a splitting
of know ledge and belief – belief in a ‘story’ that, in spite of
so many critical probabilities, remains compelling …

The Feminist Response

However, Deane was not mistaken in his expectation of
‘alternative’ meta-narratives. ‘Fecundity of reading’ was
confirmed immediately, though not, it seems, in a spirit the
editors had foreseen. The ‘story’ now discerned was of an
all-male editorial team sponsored by an all-male company
and an anthology in which women and their distinctive
concerns had been swept to the margins of cultural life.

Over the past year or more, this case has been elaborated in
newspapers and magazines, television programmes and
public meetings in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere, and it is
not easily answered. 6 The selectivity of the anthology is, in
an odd way, downright resourceful. Some forty of the
identified authors are women – well under 10 per cent of the
total. They are, of course, better represented in the twentieth
than in earlier centuries, but not nearly so strongly as
comparative historical probabilities would indicate. If the
eighteenth century can show a dozen women writers (half
or more of them part of Swift’s circle), the twentieth can
surely muster more than sixteen, including only five poets.

The representation of specifically feminist writing is bizarre.

The anthology contains only two self-identified feminist
texts, and both are by men: William Thompson’sAppeal of
.0 ne Half of the Human Race … (1825) and Francis Sheehy. Skeffington’s ‘Feminism and War’ (1914), which, as it
happens, is a polemic against the positions of Christabel
Pankhurst. Thompson’ s friend and co-thinker Anna Wheeler
Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

appears in the biographical apparatus, but her role in the
production. of the Appeal is minimised and her literary
collaboration, as ‘Vlasta’, with Robert Owen goes
~nrepres~nted; apart from Sheehy-Skeffington’s pacifist
mterventIOn, the files of the suffragist Irish Citizen are left
to the mice. Nell McCafferty has observed that, while the
anthology rightly makes room for Ian Paisley’s oratory and
for the late Harold McCusker’ s moving Westminster speech
on the Anglo-Irish Agreement, it passes over a signal
mo~ent in the recent history of the south: Senator (now
PresIdent) Mary Robinson’s parliamentary intervention on
behalf of legalised contraception in 1970. 7 (McCafferty
would not add, but others may, that her own pioneering
work as an Irish Times columnist is also central to an
understanding of Irish public life in the seventies.) The
more strictly literary domain of feminist writing is,
appa:ently, an u~tilled field. In 1781, ‘An Irish Lady’

publIshes The Tnumph of Prudence Over Passion” two
centuries later, Nuala Ni Dhomnhaill writes an inv~ctive
against rural machismo, a short poem in Irish with the Latin
title ‘Masculus Giganticus Hibernicus’. But now and in
English, as the story goes, there is little or nothing. Declan
Kiberd, who finds a ‘sharp feminist intelligence’ in The
Importance of Being Earnest, proffers an explanation that
Myles na gCopaleen would have enjoyed: ‘In the south, the
struggles of women against a patriarchal church and an
archaic legal code are, if anything, under-represented in
con~emporary poetry. ‘ He mentions, but does not represent,
the cool elegance’ of Eavan Boland’ s poems on middleclass suburbia, before commending her more public concerns, instanced here by a poem on emigration. (Boland, a
veteran feminist, is a fierce critic of the anthology.) The
‘general political reticence’ that limits the range of female
expression may be, he concludes, ‘a measure of the
privatisation of all poetry … ‘ .8 – And, as the whole world
knows, feminism has nothing to say about private life.

After months of nearly complete silence, Field Day
respond~d to .its critics with the offer of a supplementary
volume m whIch the shortcomings of the original trio might
be made good. This was a large admission and a large
~~sture of reparation, but many will judge that it is inadequate
If It serves to lull critical interest in the selective mechanism
at work in the anthology ‘proper’. Seamus Deane, in an
early, individual response to critics, conceded ‘a serious
flaw’ le~t by, :prejudice, which is all the worse for being
unconSCIOUS. These are plain words, but not, on that
account, revealing ones; further probing is called for. The
inference encouraged here, as by the pattern of the
controversy as a whole, is that Field Day’s editorial
judgement has been misled by generic sexism. However, it
may be that the marginalisation of women and feminism
together with a certain lightness of touch in matters of
sexuality in the public sphere,1O is more than a local instance
of universal ‘prejudice’; that it is the spontaneous negative
effect of positive preferences – all the stronger for being,
perhaps, unconscious – in the assessment of ‘Irish’ writing.

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

Identities and Their Others
‘Irishness’ is, unsurprisingly, a constant preoccupation in
the anthology, whose avowedly critical purpose is to
dramatise and test the notion in its various, more or less
refractory historical meanings. Perhaps not one of the
numerous cultural-nationalist writers presented here would
freely underwrite the work in which they now appear. Irish
birth is neither a necessary nor a sufficient criterion for
inclusion: Edmund Spenser is present, as having devoted
much of his literary and political life to the island, while
C?ngreve, merely born there, is not. Old English, AngloInsh an~ Ulster .Protestant traditions participate on equal
terms WIth GaelIc Ireland and its rivalrous posterity. The
aporias of authenticity are traced in frequent returns to Field
Day’s founding theme of cultural translation. Yeats’ s
Celticist programme for the Literary Revival makes its way
against ‘Irish Ireland’ positions and in the face of critical
fire from the universalist John Eglinton. In the ranks of
militant nationalism proper, and even during the run-up to
the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence , the meanings
of Gaelic Irish identity continue in debate. And so on, past
the Treaty and into the partitioned Ireland of the past
se:enty years. In a culture so marred by identitarian dogma,
thIS foregrounding of discrepancy and difficulty, this
methodic hesitation, seems an exemplary departure.

But the ulterior suggestion of the project is less novel’:””
at least as it emerges in the contributions of Luke Gibbons
whose edited sequences on the national canon and its critics’

rehearsing in parvo a principal theme of the work as ~
~hol.e, ~onvey more than the usual freight of political
ImplIcatIOn. The purpose of the earlier sequence (c. 1895″‘:’

1940) is to confound the hostile stereotype of Irish
nationalism as a monolithic, exclusivist or even racist cult
of ethnic essence. II Writers like D. P. Moran, Patrick Pearse
and Daniel Corkery sponsored such tendencies, and were
countered by the ‘radical humanists’ around the magazine
D~n~. What is ?ecisive for Gibb~ns, however, is the presence
wIthm the natIOnal movement of an unmystified, pluralist
current of thought, instanced in the work of Thomas
MacDonagh and Aodh de Blacam. The point is well made
and must be taken, but we do well not to rush to conclusions.

For it is one thing to seek an ample and diversified Irish
identity, we discover, quite another to do so in the name of
an alternative, non-‘national’ cultural sovereignty. James
Connolly’s proletarian humanism is the historic crux here
and Gibbons acts boldly to resolve it. Not content with
reiterating the simple truth that Connolly decided, for good
or ill, to fall in with the insurrectionary plans of the Irish
Republican Brotherhood, Gibbons renders the question
more profound, discovering a ‘strategic’ rejection of ‘theory’

in favour of ‘history’ and a coordinate political focus on
‘nation’ rather than ‘state’. 12 It is worth pausing here to
recall that Connolly’s indifference to the encyclopaedic
pursuits of Second International Kathedersozialisten did not
extend to ‘the materialist conception of history’ (his own,
orthodox phrasing), which he actively promoted as the
theoretical key to social understanding, in Ireland as else-

25

where; and that his last free act was, after all, a set-piece
illustration of state-focused revolutionary politics. But to
continue so would be literal-minded. This critical farrago is
less an offering of know ledge than a defence against cultural
anxiety. For ‘history’ and ‘nation’, read ‘dominant local
tradition’; in ‘theory’ and ‘state’, mark the presence of those
others who resist that tradition and decline its authorised
versions of identity.

The others are duly named. Gibbons’s second sequence,
running from the mid-century to the present, dramatises the
struggle between ‘canonical’ culture and ‘revisionism’.13
Conor Cruise Q’Brien, the academic historian Roy Foster,
and Edna Longley are among the representatives of the
‘progressive’, ‘modernising’, ‘universalist’ anti-nationalist
intelligentsia that Gibbons here assembles for judgement
and dispatch. Their role has been destructive, he explains:

the essentialist, racist nationalism they polemicise against
is an ugly stereotype of their
own making, ill-founded in
the complex history of Irish
cultural politics. However,
they are now themselves
anachronistic. ‘The modernisation project has lost
its way in Ireland. ‘

Cosmopolitan reality has
turned on its votaries,
delivering not bourgeois
affluence but recession, not
a belated Enlightenment but,
as we might say, Cultural
Studies. ‘Exposed to the
theoretical voltage of
Marxism, psychoanalysis
and post-structuralism, [the
revisionists] have advocated
a new fonn of intellectual
protectionism, thereby emulating the most conservative
strands of cultural nationalism of the past. It is not just the
rearguard but the avant-garde that threatens their critical
composure, the fusion of “Derry with Derrida” … ‘ . And the
avant-garde, of whom Gibbons is unmistakably one (and
with whom he here associates his general editor), can see,
as the masochistic revisionists cannot, that the discomfiture
of progressive schemes in the eighties was not the handi work
of benighted peasants: for in ‘an international perspective’

it can be argued that the recrudescence of Irish clericalism
was ‘part of a general offensive in Western societies against
the social-democratic advances of the post-war years’ and
that, far from favouring such advances, ‘incorporation in
theEC’ and ‘the Anglo-American cultural complex’ left the
country undefended against the ‘backlash’.14
It is hard to say where, in all of this, opportunism sinks
into sincere confusion. Marxist ‘theory’ must yield to Irish
‘history’, but, given the favouring conditions of economic
deconstruction and intellectual slump, will still serve to
electrocute modernising liberals. The ‘Anglo-American
cultural complex’ is bad when it propagates old-fashioned
26

humanist universalism but, presumably, good when it
markets textbooks on ‘difference’. The public ethos of the
fifties and earlier sixties, deprecated by some for its stunted
welfarism and unchecked clerical arrogance, is remembered as the abandoned national ‘defence’ against the
‘international’ neo-liberal and fundamentalist revanche of
the eighties. And then there is the category of ‘revisionism’

itself, through which Gibbons perpetrates his gravest misrepresentation. A liberal current generally termed
‘revisionist’ has been salient in Irish culture and politics
over the past twenty-five years. It is obviously right that the
anthology should represent and assess it – and right too, in
my own view, that it be assessed stringently. In the career
of Q’Brien, the critic-turned-censor of Irish public discourse, the democratic pretensions of one kind of liberal
have been tested and found wanting; and Longley’ s
commonplace literary utopianism is well epitomised in the
motto
she
borrows,
apparently without irony,
from Derek Mahon: ‘A good
poem is a paradigm of good
politics. ’15 Yet, it is
tendentious to reduce Irish
cultural controversy since
the forties to a drama of
nationalism and its critics;
and it is inexcusable to
stereotype the latter in the
image of bourgeois liberalism. In this phantasmagoria,
nationalism is plural,
‘revisionism’ monolithic.

Q’Brien and kindred
commentators are offered as
a synecdoche for those quite
different critics whose
language and themes may
be mimicked for radical effect but not granted an autonomous
presence. Gibbons is of course aware of socialist and
feminist critiques of Ireland’s canonical culture. He even
volunteers that the nation is, in Benedict Anderson’ s phrase,
an ‘imagined community’ tom by conflicts of ‘class’ and
‘gender’ .16 But these words echo strangely in the context he
has made for them. Just a few volts of psychoanalysis
illuminate them as a case of negation, to be interpreted in
reverse. Socialist and feminist discourse will inevitably
trouble a nationalist cultural canon, because of their shared
appeal to some version of ‘international’ or ‘humanist’ or
‘Enlightenment’ values. Yet Gibbons cannot venture the
absurd claim that they are merely radical variations on
patrician liberalism. Post-structuralist ‘heterogeneity’

legitimates Gibbons’s neo-nationalism, but the rhetoric of
nationality insists on closure, on the ultimate sublimation of
class and gender antagonisms in the sameness of national
‘difference’ . And thus socialism must be domesticated and
feminism silenced outright, each in its,way too radically
other to share in the resolution of this strictly-plotted
cultural narrative.

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

‘Irishness’ and the Merely Irish
Gibbons’s position in the anthology is less than official: he
cannot be assumed to speak for those editors who abstain
from intervention in the large political issues of the anthology, or who, like Bill MacCormack, imply a different sense
of social priorities. 17 Yet no one charged with a c~itical tas.k
so central as his can be discounted as a mavenck. He IS
perhaps best viewed as giving unusually i~tense, and
unguarded, expression to a wider tendency. HIS comI?ent
on Thomas MacDonagh is particularly revealIng:

“‘Irishness” for him was not a genetic or racial inheritance:

it was something to be achieved as part of a concerted,
cultural effort.’ 18 These words reiterate the familiar theme
of ‘prospective’ nationalism: there never was an Irish nation
in any of the canonical senses, but it is possible and
necessary to achieve it in the future. Here, if anywhere: is
the motivating conviction of the anthology. No other meamng
can be attached to Deane’ s claim that, organising all the
literary evidence of contradiction and discontinuity, ‘there
is a story .. .’. There is merit in this cultural formula: the
normal generosity and frankness of the editors bear witness
to it. But there is also grave limitation. The ideal of a common,
consenting ‘Irishness’ is crucially ambiguous: open to ~he
extent of acknowledging historical complexity, yet confimng
in that it prescribes an order of legitimate cultural initiati.ve.

Field Day takes its distance from one after another verSIOn
of cultural nationalism but holds on to the axiom that founds
them all: the proposition that the sovereign cultural concern
of the Irish population is its national identity. To a nationalist
this is self-evident truth; others, not nationalist at all, may
say that in Irish conditions it is, if not perennially valid, at
least historically pertinent. But even this down-to-earth
consideration can be exaggerated. The assumption that
Irish life is centrally the drama of an unresolved national
question – that ‘Irish writing’ is, above all, writing a?out
‘Irishness’ – undermines the very sense of cultural projects
whose engagement with the country’s realities, while ta~ing
all due account of a specific situation, follows beanngs
other than those of national identity. The result is the
spontaneous pattern of misrecognition, overs~ght and exclusion that compromises the marvellous achIevement of
these volumes.

The problem may be stated topographic ally . The anthology is largely a Dublin production – most of the editors
teach there, and half of them are present or past members of
Deane’s own faculty in University College. But its spiritual
centre is Derry, birthplace of Field Day. Dublin is the capital
of an independent – and, by the emerging standards of the
late twentieth century, relatively old – nation state. But
Derry is the symbolic capital of the northern crisis, and it ~s
from there that all of Ireland is effectively seen. In thIS
imaginary present – Dublin as Derry -. southe~ soci~t.y is
rendered marginal to itself. The data of ItS specIfIc polIucocultural history are centred or marginalised, lit up or
shadowed, cued or cut according to a vicarious monocular
‘northern’ scheme. The intensified capitalist development
of the past thirty years has generated antagonisms in every

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

area of southern life, and again and again the most formidable conservative actor has been the Catholic church. The
northern crisis has of course exerted a constant pressure in
southern politics, but the recurring issue has been that
unbroken confessional ascendancy. Irish feminists have
been the exposed vanguard in a prolonged struggle to end
clerical usurpation of women’s reproductive rights, and
thus to open the way to a fully secular public domain. But
this tempestuous history is all but erased from the cultur~l
record. The ‘forces of conservatism and reaction’ and theIr
opponents are noted as figures in the landscape, but neither
is adequately represented. The prolific literary output of
Irish clericalism – newspapers, magazines, pamphlets,
pastoral letters, edifying fictions and prized legal statutes goes unsampled; the culture of the opposition is ign.ored or
declared non-existent. The fiercely contested abortIOn and
divorce referenda of the early eighties receive passing note
as moments in a thwarted liberal crusade to make a constitution fit for (northern) Protestants. It is as if the south must
be forever the old Free State, caught in the terms of an
unended colonial past; recent history, where not made
across the border, is so much luckless modernisation. 19 (In
Heaney’s manly metaphor, ‘ … the South /’s been made a
cuckold’, and an ‘impotent’ one.) 20 Once ‘Dublin’ is overwritten as ‘Derry’, much latter-day Irish culture becomes
hard to imagine. ‘Revisionism’ and ‘the Anglo-American
cultural complex’ are the sour tropes by which alone it is
possible to acknowledge critical cultural tren.ds that do ~ot
privilege nationality as a value, that see fIt to be Insh
without ‘being Irish’.

Field Day’s proposition is that a process of critical
cultural exploration can assist a new politicaf settlement in
Ireland. In so far as this goes beyond truism – after all, there
is no politics without culture – it passes into question.

Attempts to define an autonomous political role for culture
are normally circular. High humanism and poststructuralism, the two most likely sponsors of such attempts, are indifferently prone to deny that cu~ture ?ives to
politics little more than it borrows to ?egm WIth (f~r
evidence, see, respectively, Longley and GIbbons), and thIS
because politics, in one of its defining functions, is always
already a practice in culture. Field Day’s intervention, as
this anthology illustrates it, is adapted in advance to an
unexamined hierarchy of values in which the crux of
Ireland-as-unfulfilled-nation is paramount, with the
consequence that culture neither civilises nor deconstruc~s
the national question but essentialises it as an Irish fate. ThIS
variety of cultural nationalism appears less exclusive, more
sceptical and probing, precisely because it assumes en~~nced
powers of cultural validation: all are. welcome ~o Par.tIcIp~te,
on the tacit condition that their guidmg theme IS nauonalIty.

An unresolved national question encourages nationcentred cultural tendencies, yet principled, democratic
response towards the one does not entail indulgence t~w~ds
the other: certainly not in the south, where the valonsatIOn
of Irishness as the main collective identity is more often
than not repressive, and not even in the stalemated north,
where the colonial aftermath has fashioned a society and a
27

pattern of interests and identities more complex than tradition
willingly acknowledges. Eamon McCann’s analysis of the
passage from civil rights agitation to renewed armed struggle
is worth having; but his memories of the politico-cultural
hierarchy of Catholic Derry in the fifties, recorded elsewhere
in the book excerpted here, tell an equally important and
rarer story.21 James Simmons features only as a poet; the
polemics he wrote as founding editor of The Honest
Ulsterman, an eclectic ‘handbook for a revolution’ that
quickened northern literary culture in the tantalising climate
of the mid-sixties, go unremembered. And Van Morrison
(not polite, granted, and an icon of the Anglo-American
cultural complex, what’s more) furnishes the missing
evidence that Ulster Protestants know more than one way of
singing about Belfast. McCann registers the high tide of
political class-consciousness in the Catholic north.

Simmons’s editorial effort, resisting all religious puritanism
in the name of a moralised sexual frankness, reminds us, the
more strongly because of its period quality, that ‘the British
presence in Northern Ireland’ has been more than a matter
of repression and hereditary dole. Morrison’s song-writing
is scarcely ‘national’, but anyone who thinks Madame
George indifferently mid-Atlantic has forgotten to turn on
the hi-fi. And here too, with apologies to none, are elements
of actually existing Irish culture.

‘A Nation, Yet Again … ‘

A decade ago, in an early Field Day pamphlet, Seamus
Deane wrote: ‘It is about time we put aside the idea of
essence – that hungry Hegelian ghost looking for a stereotype
to live in. As Irishness or as Northernness [it] stimulates the
provincial unhappiness we create and fly from, becoming
virtuoso metropolitans to the exact degree that we have
created an idea of Ireland as provincialism incarnate. These
are worn oppositions. They used to be the parentheses in
which the Irish destiny was isolated. That is no longer the
case. Everything, including our politics and our literature,
has to be rewritten – i.e. re-read. That will enable new
writing, new politics, unblemished by lrishness, but securely
Irish. ’22 The crux of this bold and necessary prospectus lay
in its last two phrases. Everything would turn on the
determination with which the distinction registered there
was observed and made actual. The Field Day Anthology is
the mixed result – in most respects a tour de force of critical
reconstruction, but in others a further attempt to discover an
appropriate ending for the long story of the nation (and, in
the hands of its more ‘avant-garde’ contributors, an exercise
in the current mid-Atlantic routines of identity politics).

Politics concerns states and the social relations they secure.

The peoples of Ireland face a political agenda as long and
difficult as any. But nationality need not be its decisive
term, and – arguably – cannot be. Deane notes that Ireland
illustrates the final embarrassment of canon-making, but is
then inclined to act as if believing that a super-canon may
yet lift the curse of incompleteness. His undischarged
assumption is that’ Irish’ is a qualifier in need of a substantive
‘nation’ . Yet it may be that the moment of Irish self-identity,
28

such as it could plausibly be, has already passed. Unable to
make good its claims upon its putative citizens in the north
or to staunch the flow of those who really were its own to
every corner of the English-speaking world, confined in an
autarkic economy with the Church for wisdom and the
Gaelic Athletic Association for exercise, De Valera’ s
Republic was, nevertheless, the fulfilling moment of cultural
nationhood. Sovereignty remained as its great achievement, but the unravelling of the associated social-cultural
formula meant, in effect, the obsolescence of ‘the Irish
nation’ as a sustainable cardinal value – and not only the
dismal narcissism of De Valera’s vision but cultural
nationalism as such. Irish culture since that time has been,
in a risky phrase, ‘post-national’: in important respects
‘Anglo-American’, increasingly ‘European’ (whatever that
may turn out to mean), still deeply and variously ‘traditional’.

These are the heterogeneous scripts, none of them internally
coherent, in which a diverse society, tom by class, gender
and other conflicts, reads its situation and prospects. The
‘story’ now in process is not ‘national’ in any sense that
would satisfy the adepts of origin and destiny; nor is it
simply ‘international’ in the schematic terms of liberal
utopianism or traditionalist phobia. Irish culture, like so
many late-twentieth-century cultures, is an unprogrammed
hybrid, the shifting repertoire of social initiative and
resistance in the island. Both Irish populations show a
growing readiness to tackle old and disabling certainties. 23
It would be a pity if their critical intelligentsia, scanning a
society but dwelling mainly on the elements of a nation,
failed to keep pace.

Notes

2

3
4
5

See Field Day Theatre Company, ed., Ireland’s Field Day,
Hutchinson, London, 1985, reprinting six pamphlets: Paulin, A
New Look at the Language Question; Heaney, An Open Letter;
Deane, Civilians and Barbarians and Heroic Styles; Richard
Keamey, Myth and Motherland; Declan Kiberd, Anglo-Irish
Attitudes. See also Eagleton, Nationalism: Irony and Commitment; Jameson, Modernism and Imperialism; and Said, Yeats
and Decolonisation, Field Day Pamphlets 13, 14 and 15 respectively, Derry, 1988 (now included in Deane, ed., Nationalism,
Colonialism and Literature, Minnesota University Press,
Minneapolis, 1990).

Deane, ed., Field Day Publications, Derry, 1991. Distributed by
Faber & Faber, London. 3 vols. £150.00. The work is cited here
by volume and page number, thus: Ill, 107.

I, xx, xxii, xx, xix, xxi, xx.

I, xix.

I, xxvi.

6

See, for example, Siobhan Kilfeather, ‘The Whole Bustle’,
London Review ofBooks, 9 January 1992, and, in the same issue,
Edna Longley, ‘Belfast Diary’; Nell McCafferty, ‘Written Out
of History’ , Everywoman, February 1992. British Channel 4′ s
Rear Window series devoted a programme to the anthology and
its critics (Bright Through the Tears, July 1992); the discussion,
chaired by Tariq Ali, included Tom Paulin, Eavan Boland,
Siobhan Kilfeather, Nell McCafferty and myself.

7
8
9
10

‘Written Out of History’.

Ill, 1316.

Cit. McCafferty.

See Kilfeather.

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

11

‘Constructing the Canon: Versions of National Identity’, 11,
950-1020.

12

11,953.

13

‘Challenging the Canon: Revisionism and Cultural Criticism’,
Ill, 561-680.

14

111,567.

15

‘Poetry in the Wars’ (1986), Ill, 648.

16

111,568.

17

See his introduction to ‘Language, Class and Genre (17801830), , I, 1070-1172.

18

111,563.

19

As the novelist Colm Toibin wrote, reviewing the anthology in
the Dublin Sunday Independent: ‘Unreconstructed Irish nationalists have always had real difficulty with the 26 Counties …

[which] are limbo, they believe, waiting for the day when our
island will be united and the British will leave. This leaves out
any idea that Southern Ireland has been forming its own habits
and going its own way’ (cit. Longley, ‘Belfast Diary’). Although
inattentive as a characterisation of Field Day’s project (which is
precisely not an unreconstructed nationalism) and rather blithe
in its phrasing of southern ways and days, Toibin’s protest has

undeniable force.

20

‘Open Letter’, Ireland’s Field Day, p. 27.

21

War and an Irish Town, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1974.

22

‘Heroic Styles’, Ireland’s Field Day, p. 58. (The sub-heading
above, repeating my main title, is borrowed from a poem by Tom
Paulin, who bears no responsibility for my use of it. The poem
appears in Ill, 1408.)

23

The second southern referendum on abortion, in December
1992, was signal evidence of this: clear majorities affirmed Irish
women’s constitutional right to information and freedom of
travel, while rejecting a highly restrictive abortion protocol
designed to appease Catholic extremism and absolve the legislature from further responsibility in the matter. Only the prochoice coalition called for this combination of votes. (See Ann
Rossiter, ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, Women Against FundamentalismJournal, 4, winter 1992-93, pp. 6-8). Across the border,
inertia has come to seem uncheckable. Social justice has not
been won, and the terms of the political crisis have hardly
budged. It is all the more interesting, then, that there should now
be attempts to re-imagine a northern settlement in the perspective
of approaching European confederation.

The second Foucault and Politics Conference
Organised by the London History of the Present Network
and supported by Economy and SOCiety
CALL FOR PAPERS! • CALL FOR PAPERS! • CALL FOR PAPERS!

The Centre for Critical Theory,
University of Bristol
Tuesday 11th January 1994
10.00am – 6.30pm

Tickets: £10 waged £5 unwaged
This conference will look at the ways in which empire
is inscribed in cultural production. The focus will be
threefold: an exploration of the ways in which cultural
production has been, and continues to be, shaped by
colonial histories; an exploration of the role culture
itself plays in shaping both colonised and coloniser;
and the strategies with which ‘post-colonial’ cultures
attempt to deal with this colonial past. The debate is set
in the context of recent work in this area, most notably
Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism.

Speakers include:

Bhikhu Parekh, Benita Parry, Homi Bhabha,
Annie Coombes, Kadiatu Kanneh, Richard Dyer.

For further information contact:

Derek Duncan, Catharine Edwards, David Feldman
or Judith Squires, University of Bristol:

telephone 0272 303030

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

ALTERNATIVE POLITICAL
IMAGINATIONS:

The Logics of Contestation
a-9th April 1994
Goldsmiths’ College, University of London
CALL FOR PAPERS! • CALL FOR PAPERS! • CALL FOR PAPERS!

The conference will bring together papers that address
the rationalities, strategies and techniques of a wide
range of politics which have contested their political present:

feminist strategies and the contestation of everyday life;
anti-racist struggles and the politics of ethnicity; radical
democratic alternatives to ‘bourgeois democracy’; the
political rationalities and strategies of socialism. We
welcome papers that make international comparisons
and which locate resistances and alternatives within the
field of transnational and geopolitical relations. It is
envisaged that the conference will be organised around
a number of themes – ‘Strategies of contestation’,
‘Mobilisations of resistance’ and ‘Governing differently’.

Enquires about the conference, and proposals for
papers, in the form of abstracts of no more than 200
words, should be sent to Andrew Barry or Vikki Bell
at: Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths’ College,
University of London, New Cross, London SE14 6NW
(Telephone: 081 6927171 Fax: 81 694 1062)

29

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