(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Edited and “presented” by Eilís Dillon, Vivian Mercier’s widow, this volume is both a definitive study of Irish literary sources and a memorial to its author, who died in 1989. For the painstaking efforts of Dillon, readers will be grateful, especially because Mercier had originally intended to publish a two-volume study that he had considered “his most important work.” How much of this proposed text has survived in the present tome one can only guess. In reconstructing Mercier’s work, Dillon was fortunate to have her husband’s first draft and “many relevant footnotes,” but much of the research may well have been lost. Dillon concedes that she has brought to press “a part, at least, of [Mercier’s] larger plan.” To place the reconstructed book in the context of Mercier’s wide range of interests, Declan Kiberd’s scholarly introduction clearly establishes the direction of the author’s research and his lifelong, engagement with Irish literature.

As such, the volume commemorates Mercier’s achievements. Included is an appendix of his published works from 1943 to 1982—a massive listing of books, monographs, articles, and reviews treating not only Irish language and literature but also English and Continental topics. A reader needs to understand Mercier’s range as a scholar/historian in order to appreciate the depth of his research. Other scholars may have published more titles, but few show Mercier’s dedication to the task. As Kiberd points out, Mercier in his mid-thirties “suddenly” decided to study and master the Irish language. Coming to the discipline relatively late in his career, he brought to this study a comprehensive knowledge of literature and sharp critical skills. Other twentieth century philologists have also brought distinction to Celtic studies, but none surpass Mercier in his particular grasp of Irish literature in the larger setting of European cultural traditions.

Finally, as Kiberd demonstrates, Mercier applied to his scholarship a rich understanding of the Anglo-Irish milieu in which he was brought up. As a student in 1928 at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, he learned by rote many of the Evangelical Protestant traditions that had earlier influenced Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and other prominent literary figures. Later he attended Trinity College, Dublin, another major educational pathway of his predecessors in literature, most notably James Joyce. From French Huguenot stock on his father’s side and Irish on his mother’s, Mercier was fortunate in his upbringing to experience the richness of two competing cultures, yet to acquire tolerance for each.

If readers are tempted to skip the first four chapters of the volume, which treat historical and social-background material, to move forward to the inviting chapters on the modernist writers, they should resist that impulse. With patience, good humor, and tact, Mercier explains the necessary (but not at all tedious) background information needed to appreciate the likes of George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, and the others. In “The Rediscovery of the Gaelic Past,” he reviews the publications of early scholars (and pseudoscholars, whom he calls charlatans), demonstrating their achievements and failures. Unlike other recent Celtic philologists, who generally skim over the bad writing to hurry ahead to the good, Mercier takes his time to make certain that the reader understands each step, no matter how tentative, in the movement toward rediscovery of Gaelic literature. In fact, Mercier does not skip anything. One has the certainty that the author has reread every scrap of scholarship and has reevaluated every document, every legend, in order to discover for the reader’s sake many long-ignored passages and translations that merit attention. For example, in treating Standish Hayes O’Grady’s erudite catalog of the Irish manuscripts in the British Museum, Mercier writes: “Having read widely in the work myself, I can testify to the pleasure, even where the manuscripts deal with law or medicine, though of course the poetry is the most attractive.”

With the same thorough attention to detail, Mercier reviews in “Irish Writers and English Readers: Literature and Politics, 1798-1845” Anglo-Irish works from a particular point of view: that early nineteenth century Irish literature was truly an amalgam of two political ideologies, one derived from the Catholic Irish, the other from the...

(The entire section is 1810 words.)