Inventing Ireland

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Declan Kiberd’s work is a major new literary history not only because of the scope of its accomplishment but also because of the carefully structured thesis that guides its examination of a number of the great masterpieces of twentieth century Irish literature. Kiberd, a lecturer at University College, Dublin, who has published previous books on major Irish writers and important trends in modern literature and culture, argues that the modernism that underlies the great contributions of George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, James Joyce, and William Butler Yeats is not the European modernism of the imperialist occupation as it is a postcolonial modernism more akin to that seen in third world countries located in Africa and South America.

Kiberd is not, however, such a slavish follower of Marxist multicultural criticism that he is only concerned with how Irish literature portrays the “exotic” and the “marginalized.” Rather, he approaches the poetry of Yeats, the fiction of Joyce, and the drama of Synge from the Wildean perspective of aesthetic self-creation and the dynamic power of form and style.

Kiberd claims that if the task of the great Irish Renaissance at the beginning of the twentieth century was to shape and reshape the ancient past, the task of the current generation of writers is to translate the recent past of the Irish Renaissance into the terms of the twenty-first century. Kiberd fully intends INVENTING IRELAND to be both a ground-clearing for, and a manifesto of, that important challenge to continually invent Ireland in the new century.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. April 2, 1996, p. 57.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. XLII, March 15, 1996, p. A16.

The Guardian. February 16, 1996, II, p. 21.

Library Journal. CXXI, May 15, 1996, p. 62.

London Review of Books. XVIII, April 18, 1996, p.14.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, November 24, 1995, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, March 17, 1996, p. 6.

The Observer. January 7, 1996, p. 15.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 31, 1996, p. 32.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, March 17, 1996, p. 8.

Inventing Ireland

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The first thing readers will notice about this new literary history of modern Irish literature is the seven-hundred-plus-page heft of the book; it is indeed a major tome. The second thing they will notice when they begin to read it is that it is not a routine literary history filled simply with facts, titles, dates, and anecdotes, and fit only for future reference. For this is a history with a critical thesis—suggested by the title—that Irish literature, and indeed Irish culture, in the modern world is a creative invention of Irish writers disengaging themselves from their European-dominated colonial past.

Kiberd, a lecturer at University College, Dublin, who has published previous books on major Irish writers and on modern literature and culture, announces in his introduction that he wishes to examine a number of central works in Irish literature of the last hundred years in terms of their social context. The result is a book that is half detailed analysis of the great masterpieces of modern Irish literature and half discussion of the considerable political and cultural history that has impinged on Irish literature. As Kiberd notes, “If there is no nationality without literature, there is no great literature without nationality.” Kiberd insists, however, that whereas he does not intend to view works of art in “splendid isolation,” at the same time he is not wiling to give in completely to current critical fashions, for he reminds readers that “certain masterpieces do float free of their enabling conditions to make their home in the world.”

Inventing Ireland is divided into ten major sections that focus on the great writers of modern Ireland, separated by ten short inter-chapters that establish social and political frameworks for those works. Writing a history of modern Irish literature is no small task, for although Ireland has often been seen by its European neighbors as a tiny backward country, it has given birth to, arguably of course, the modern world’s greatest dramatist (George Bernard Shaw), greatest poet (William Butler Yeats), and greatest novelist and short-story writer (James Joyce). The task is further complicated by the fact that there is no way to talk about Irish literature without talking about the long and complex history of Irish political conflict.

It is inevitable that a book about Ireland’s invention of itself should begin with a writer whose main claim to fame is the theatrical invention of himself—Oscar Wilde. Kiberd makes the case that Wilde fought against Anglo-Saxon prejudice by becoming more English than the English themselves and thus challenging the old stereotypes about the Irish. Kiberd also argues that, like Wilde, Shaw used England as a sort of laboratory in which he redefined what it meant to be Irish. Although Kiberd’s argument that Wilde and Shaw exploited stereotypes as a way of exposing them as such sometimes seems sophistical and strained, overall he makes a vigorous case that even those writers who turned to England did so as a way to better redefine Ireland.

Arguing that personal autobiography by Irish writers becomes the autobiography of Ireland, Kiberd attributes the emphasis on style in Irish writing from Yeats onward to the fact that if people create a world that exists by virtue of style, then language becomes extremely important. Yeats, Kiberd says, agreed with Wilde that the self was a creation and that when a self is confronted as if it were external, it leads to a discovery of an answering self within. Thus, Kiberd argues, Yeats, much like the American poet Walt Whitman, created a mask or series of masks that served to mythologize the self, reinforcing his conviction that a poet is not so much the man who goes about everyday activities as one who always speaks through a self-consciously created persona.

Although most of the chapters in Inventing Ireland focus on masterpieces of modern Irish literature, such as John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907) and Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Kiberd devotes other chapters to political and social issues that have affected, and been affected by, Irish writing, such as Douglas Hyde’s arguments for “The Necessity of Deanglicizing Ireland,” the resultant development of the Gaelic League at the end of the nineteenth century, and the 1916 Easter Rebellion (which Kiberd says was staged as street theater.)

In spite of Kiberd’s early disclaimer of not giving in to current Marxist trends in literary criticism, Inventing Ireland is peppered with the paraphernalia and terminology of that approach to the literature and culture of the postcolonial world. For example, in his discussion of The Playboy of the Western World, Kiberd attributes the “exoticism” of Synge’s language to the remoteness of his characters and discusses the “marginalization” of the women in a play that he says is filled with Synge’s “gender- benders.” Moreover, he compares the poetic self-justification of the women in Synge’s play to the “black-is- beautiful” poetry of Martinique in the 1940’s. Kiberd argues that Synge is the most gifted exponent of artistic decolonization in Irish literature, effortlessly assimilating the culture of the English occupation and then immersing himself in...

(The entire section is 2180 words.)