Form and Content
Together with A Penny in the Clouds: More Memories of Ireland and England (1968), Twice Round the Black Church constitutes a rare account of growing up, culturally and spiritually, in Dublin at the turn of the century, an account which to some extent parallels and amplifies the classic treatment of the same subject by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Such parallels are interesting in their own right, and are made more so by the fact that Austin Clarke is one of the major Irish poets to emerge in the generation of writers who succeeded Joyce and W.B. Yeats.
The focus of A Penny in the Clouds tends to be on the public and cultural events of the author’s boyhood and youth, as though to complement the private and personal orientation of the earlier work. Like the young Joyce, Austin Clarke was born to the newly emerging Irish Catholic middle class, and, though the term “Victorian” is used in a familiarly pejorative manner throughout Twice Round the Black Church, as a child Clarke clearly benefited from some of the term’s positive, materialist connotations. Unlike that of Joyce, his family background remained stable and disciplined, and his physical needs and social aspirations (including an expensive education, received largely, like Joyce’s, from the Jesuit Order) were attended to if not quite automatically at least with comparatively less strain.
As a result, in one sense Twice Round the Black Church is a loving inventory of Dublin in its material aspects at the turn of the century. The author vividly recalls the street scenes, small shops, and back lanes of his boyhood, recollections which are replete with the spontaneous ebb and flow of childish perception. Since many of the places commemorated in Twice Round the Black Church have gone the way of the wrecking ball or have otherwise sustained modern development, there is an antiquarian as well as an aesthetic pleasure to be derived from the book’s faithful transcriptions of childhood’s fugitive, evanescent observations. Moreover, since these observations are not confined to the author’s home territory on the city’s near north side but include all areas of presuburban Dublin, this work is valuable to students of the city in the final stages of its existence as “the second city of the Empire.”...
(The entire section is 971 words.)