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Werner Huber (Paderborn)
'Pig's Back' and 'Enchanted Isle':
Irish Autobiographers and their I/Is/Ire/land
In Seven Winters: Memories of a Dublin Childhood (1942) the Irish
writer Elizabeth Bowen
remembers the feelings with which she used to consider what appeared to her as the paragon
status of her native country and city:
[...] my most endemic pride in my own country was, for some years, founded on a
mistake: my failing to have a nice ear for vowel sounds, and the Anglo-Irish
slurred, hurried way of speaking made me take the words "Ireland" and "island" to
be synonymous. Thus, all other countries quite surrounded by water took (it
appeared) their generic name from ours. It seemed fine to live in a country that
was a Prototype. England, for instance, was "an ireland" (or, sub-Ireland)-an
imitation. Then I learned that England was not even "an ireland," having failed to
detach herself from the flanks of Scotland and Wales. Vaguely, as a Unionist
child, I conceived that our politeness to England must be a form of pity.
In the same sense, I took Dublin to be the model of cities, of which there were
imitations scattered over the world. (Bowen 1971, 12)
This equation based on a case of mistaken etymology presents an interesting reversal of
perspective, as much postcolonial as it is ironic. Not only does it reverse the structural
relationship of centre vs. margin, but, conceit-like, it also opens up the way for a host of
associations regarding the "island of Ireland." From an etymological perspective it appears
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that islands like Ireland - and not only the Catholic Church, as James Joyce once
observed - are founded upon a pun, or at least a paradox, as will be shown below.
At this point a digression into the realm of national psychology might not come amiss. It is
worth noting that exactly twenty years before Elizabeth Bowen, in 1922, Ernest Jones, disciple
and biographer of Freud, read a paper before the British Psycho-Analytical Society entitled
"The Island of Ireland: A Psycho-Analytical Contribution to Political Psychology." Jones
maintained that the way in which geographical insularity influences the mentality of islanders
can be investigated on the level of subconscious associations. Particular complexes, as
Jones claimed, "to which the idea of an island home tends to become attached are those
relating to the ideas of woman, virgin, mother, and womb" (Jones 1951, 98). With island nations
these associations carry an especially high emotional charge-or, as the Irish professor in
Aidan Higgins's novel Lions of the Grunewald suggests, "'the smaller the island the bigger the
neurosis'" (Higgins 1993, 191). The transformations this mythical deep structure can achieve
are innumerable, and to illustrate this point it may simply suffice to recall the legion of myths
and stories that have accrued round Mother Ireland, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Roisin Dubh/Dark
Rosaleen, the Hag of Beare, the Sean Bhean Bhocht/the Poor Old Woman, the Silk of the
Kine, and the eponymous Irish goddesses Fodhla, Banba, and Eire.
According to Jones, the archetypal myth, the collective metaphor of Mother Ireland as
national allegory, is determined by the idea of the island as the "womb of a virgin mother"
(Jones 1951, 98). Jones goes on to isolate the cluster of uterine associations contained in this
central metaphor. What he calls our "womb phantasies," "our deepest feelings about birth,
death, and mother" (Jones 1951, 107), has correspondences in three different categories of
islands as they are represented in Irish mythology and folk belief: (1) the Fortunate Isle, the
Island Paradise, which corresponds to the period of complete gratification during intraÄuterine
life; (2) the island of birth and rebirth, most directly a maternal image; (3) the abode of the dead,
the Isle of the Blessed, the Land of the Young.
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It is not very difficult to see how via such a central reference point as the national magna mater
all three types of vision are interrelated, how the images are polarised into birth and death.
Furthermore, the "magical island" is not only a westward projection of the islanders but can
also come to be conflated with the real Ireland and seriously influence one's perception of the
island when approaching or leaving it. Jones concluded that it "seems almost impossible for
Irishmen to express their feelings on political subjects without using imagery similar to that
described above" (Jones 1951, 109), i.e. in terms of the emotional responses to the island
home which are expressive of the national psyche.
To return to the realm of etymology - Gillian Beer, in an article on Virginia Woolf, England,
and the island topos, not only stated the obvious when she pointed out that "the concept
'island' implies a particular and intense relationship of land and water," but also drew attention
to the fact that the word 'island' "is a kind of pun" (Beer 1990, 271). While the origins and
meaning of the second part of the word are obvious, the first part can be traced back to Old
English ea/ieg (Gothic *alwa, Latin aqua) denoting 'water.' In strictly rhetorical terms the
compound "island" as 'water-land' could thus be called an oxymoron, a paradox even. A
binary structure of this sort could in turn be seen as running parallel to the psychological
polarization of the island idea in the birth/death dichotomy. And this would furthermore prepare
us for the often ambivalent responses from Irish writers who are obsessed with the island
character of Ireland and who utilize it as a structural metaphor for wider issues of individual and
The theory has been advanced that the close identification between personal and national
aspirations may be the single most defining feature of Irish autobiography, especially in the
20th century (Reilly 1981; Kenneally 1989). If we accept this theory and if we remember the
words of Ernest Jones about the ways in which Irishmen and Irishwomen express their political
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feelings in terms of national allegory, we will find that Irish autobiography is perhaps the one
genre in Irish literature in which the associations of I/Is/Ire/land are most clearly focused: "I was Ireland [...]," as Seán O'Faoláin declared in autobiographical retrospect (1993, 165).
The linking of self and nation implies that Irish autobiographers have recourse to allegoric
representations of their country as the "central metaphor" of the self. One half of Jones's
argument, i.e. a female archetype as national allegory, is covered or supported by some of
the more obvious strategies Irish autobiographers are fond of employing. Examples can be
picked more or less at random. George Moore in his introduction to Hail and Farewell says
that he is writing for Banva (Banba) as Mother Ireland's amanuensis, as it were, and in his
record of the Irish Renaissance, which is intertwined with his life-story, he is doing just that. In
the autobiographies of W.B. Yeats and Sean O'Casey blows are struck for Cathleen Ni
Houlihan. She also looms large in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
(1916) - for example, as the peasant woman at the half-door in Davin's story or as the ethereal
girl with emerald associations, the Celtic muse, whom Stephen Dedalus beholds on
Dollymount Strand. Not to mention the most obvious example of all - Edna O'Brien's Mother
Ireland, in which the author's life-story is connected with an 'oversexed' national allegory of
Ireland's history as a history of violation and forced possession.
In comparison with such instances of national allegory, 'island' imagery, 'island' motifs, and
'island' topoi may, at first sight, appear to be less obvious in Irish autobiographies, but only
falsely so. George Moore, early on in Hail and Farewell, describes what
could be termed an
archetypal experience of Ireland's island nature. Moore, on his self-appointed mission to
strengthen the cause of the Irish Renaissance, is returning to Ireland by sea and eagerly
awaiting the first glimpse of his native land:
But I do remember myself on deck watching the hills now well above the horizon,
asking myself again if Ireland were going to appear to me small as a pig's back or
a land of extraordinary enchantment? It was the hills themselves that reminded me
of the legend -on the left, rough and uncomely as a drove of pigs running down a
lane, with one tall hill very like the peasant whom I used to see in childhood, an old
man that wore a tall hat, knee-breeches, worsted stockings, and brogues. Like a
pig's back Ireland has appeared to me, I said; but soon after on my right a lovely
hill came into view, shapen like a piece of sculpture and I said: Perhaps I am
going to see Ireland as an enchanted isle after all.
(Moore 1985, 107)
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In Irish myth and folklore the story behind the legend taken up by Moore here is that of the
mythological people of the Tuatha De Danann putting a spell on the land of Ireland in order to
hide it from the invading Milesians, the later Gaels, who could only see "land the size of a pig's
back [...] and a black pig at that" (Curtin 1894, 301). The Black Pig serves a representation of
the land of Ireland under a curse, a spell, or in a moment of crisis. In this context it has been
pointed out that Muc Inis ('Pig Island') is also an ancient name for Ireland. In folk mythology,
reference is frequently made to the Black Pig's Dyke, a series of earthworks which roughly
constitutes the southern border of the province of Ulster, and the appearance of the Black Pig
is generally taken as a warning against an imminent Armageddon (O'Malley 1979, 84-85).
W.B. Yeats, in one of his Celtic Twilight poems from The Winds Among the Reeds (1899),
actually used the Black Pig as a multi-dimensional symbol of apocalypse (Alderson Smith
In many cases, the double vision of Ireland as either a pig's back or as an enchanted isle or
as both serves as an objective correlative. It mirrors the highly ambivalent responses of Irish
writers to their mother country. These responses - most superficially on the immediately
biographical level - result in exile and return and are themselves images of the double
expectations of rejuvenation/paradise and/or (spiritual) death.
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The structural possibilities inherent in the island topos are amply demonstrated in George
Moore's Hail and Farewell, published in three parts as
Ave (1911), Salve (1912), and Vale
(1914). The titles themselves point to the basic design. Such structures (whether we call them
polar, dialogic, dialectical, antagonistic, binary, paradoxical, systolic/diastolic) pervade the
whole text. They can best be seen in Moore's attitudes towards Ireland oscillating between
hatred and love. For example, one may compare his motivation in writing Parnell and His
Ireland (1887) vis-á-vis Hail and Farewell, derogatory and defeatist the one, missionary and
zealous at times the other. The changes of locale motivated by Moore's feelings of odi
et amo or nec tecum nec sine te follow the same pattern.
After his voluntary exile in Paris and London
Moore returns to Ireland only to say farewell again when he realizes that his mission has failed.
His sympathies for the cause of the Irish Renaissance are gradually eroded by his archetypal,
almost racially motivated rejection of the 'aboriginal Other' represented in the quotation above
by the figure of the old peasant. As a member of the landed gentry Moore is naturally in
opposition to the Irish-speaking peasants.
Born a Catholic, Moore turned agnostic at the age of 16, and later, in 1903, toyed with the
idea of publicly declaring himself a Protestant as a way of demonstrating against the
anti-nationalism of the Roman Church (Moore 1985, 436, 458, 669-670). The Boer War is for
once the catalytic moment, the excuse for Moore to leave England - imperialist England with its
culture marked by sheer brutality and crude materialism - for Ireland, only
to realize that Irish
culture has been utterly ruined by Catholicism and is now beyond repair. This insight is
foreshadowed by an imitation of Wagnerian leitmotifs so typical of Moore's style when early
on in Ave a variation is played upon Moore's original formula and an aggressive substitution
of paradigms takes place. In conversation with Yeats, Moore proclaims, "I looked forward to
finding Ireland a land of endless enchantment, but so far as I can see at present Ireland isn't
bigger than a priest's back" (Moore 1985, 116).
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Moore's initial reservations, his hesitating before going over to Ireland and before leaving it,
go hand in hand with the strategies of self-mockery and irony, which exploit these dialectical
structures to the full. That Moore leaves everything in abeyance and circumspectly avoids any
synthesis or solution endows Hail and Farewell with a unique sense of dynamism. His
technique of digression and free association does not leave any position as unassailable or
definitive. Before Moore's final farewell, when he leaves Ireland from Kingstown Harbour, one
is never sure what a new biographical twist of fate might bring.
It is highly significant that Moore's final valediction takes up the words from Catullus with one
significant change - the substitution of 'mother' for 'brother': "ATQUE IN PERPETUUM,
MATER, AVE ATQUE VALE" (Moore 1985, 644). Thus, his farewell from 'Mother Ireland'
shows how strongly Moore relies on the matter of Ireland as well as the allegorical and
structural associations of its island character for the reconstruction of his personal history and
'Farewell to Ireland' is also an important autobiographical motive for Stephen Dedalus alias
James Joyce. It takes a central position in Stephens's triad of "silence, exile, and cunning"
(Joyce 1968, 247). Stephen makes it very clear what his negative credo or "nego" implies. In
an emotional outburst he delivers his verdict on his motherland using the negative image
inscribed by tradition in the double view of Ireland: "'Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow'"
(Joyce 1968, 203). Trying to flee from his "Mother," "Mother Church," and "Mother Ireland"
seems to be the only option left to him at first. His evocation of symbolic polarities, Dublin vs.
the West of Ireland (home of the old Gaelic speaker whose "redrimmed horny eyes" he fears)
and Europe vs. Ireland ("an afterthought of Europe"), points in the same direction. As is
already evident in Stephen Hero, Europe and exile from Ireland signify first and foremost an
avenue to personal and artistic liberation. Having flown by the nets of "nationality, language,
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religion" (Joyce 1968, 203) Stephen expects to finds his identity there. Nevertheless, it is
largely through his artistic career that Stephen Dedalus/James Joyce will eventually prove
that his spiritual and emotional ties with his island home are never completely severed, that he
will always return, if only in the spirit, creatively and nostalgically, to "forge in the smithy of his
soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race" (Joyce 1968, 253).
The ambivalence of exile and return, which is structurally derived from the island topos, is
nowhere better expressed than in the cryptic sentence with which Stephen tries to explain to
his friend Davin the motive for his self-imposed exile: "Told him the shortest way to Tara was
via Holyhead" (Joyce 1968, 250). George Moore incidentally seems to have supplied a
pre-text for Joyce's often-quoted formula: Musing about one of his acquaintances Moore says,
"he is pure Turgenev, and perhaps Ireland is a little Russia in which the longest way round is
always the shortest way home, and the means more important than the end" (Moore 1985,
124-125). It is perhaps no coincidence either that Moore literally undertook the trip to Tara, the
seat of the High Kings and the centre of power in ancient Ireland. As Moore represents it in
Salve, Chapters II-IV, he went there on a bicycle and in the company of AE
Russell), but he also went there at least a second time together with W.B. Yeats and Douglas
Hyde in the summer of 1902, when unauthorized excavations taking place at the ancient site
received much publicity and caused a public uproar.
Liam O'Flaherty was born on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands in the same year (1896)
that W.B. Yeats first visited this group of Islands 'behind' the island of Ireland. (The Aran
Islands eventually made their mark when Yeats advised the young writer John Millington
Synge to go there and cast around for subjects adequate for a nascent Irish literature in
English.) As a point of departure and as a point of return the Aran Islands occupy a central role
in the structural pattern of 'exodus and return' that characterizes O'Flaherty's autobiographical
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trilogy of Two Years (1930), I Went to Russia (1931), and Shame the Devil (1934). While the
former two, which are also travelogues of sorts, record O'Flaherty's spiritual unrest and years
of wandering as an angry young man, the latter fully concentrates on the personal and artistic
crisis that he experienced in 1933.
The central autobiographical conflict in Shame the Devil is, as also suggested by Two
Years, the conflict within oppositional structures and between antagonistic forces such as self
(ego) vs. anti-self (superego), self vs. mask, individual vs. society, the artist's loneliness vs. the
desire to 'belong,' to be part of the 'tribe,' the mob. The solution which O'Flaherty presents is
rather predictable, but quite rich in geo-psychological associations. It comes to him on an
island off the Breton coast: "An islander to his island" (O'Flaherty 1981, 197). O'Flaherty's
anti-self personified as a voice and acting as a kind of mediator makes an important proposal
for the future of O'Flaherty's career and art: it is imperative that he return to a 'natural,'
unalienated life. However, such a return does not necessarily lead into idyllic pastoralism, but
to the acceptance of a nature concept that embraces the pitiless fight for survival in all its
cruelty and beauty.
[...] I was born on a storm-swept rock and hate the soft growth of sunbaked lands
where there is no frost in men's bones. Swift thoughts, and the swift flight of
ravenous birds, and the squeal of terror of hunted animals are to me reality.
The suggestion proposed by his doppelgänger self, i.e. to turn his back on civilization, "the
artificial sewers of the cities" (O'Flaherty 1981, 21), also implies the geographical direction in
which O'Flaherty must seek his personal and artistic identity. As in the perhaps more famous
case of Yeats, who pitted his native Sligo against the metropolis of London, O'Flaherty's roots
in the West of Ireland constitute a vanishing point in more than one sense. The Aran Islands
(O'Flaherty 1973, 11)
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provide O'Flaherty not only with authentic subject-matter, but also with the kind of image
O'Flaherty can most readily accept for himself, i.e. that of the islandman who is able to stand
up to nature:
When a man is born on naked rocks like the Aran Islands, where the struggle for
life against savage nature is very intense, the instinct for self-preservation is strong
in him. His character tends towards morbidness and reckless adventure while he
is in strong health, but the first sign of sickness makes him cling like a threatened
limpet with a fast hold to the rock of life.
The early admonitions of his superego to return to the Aran Islands do not differ at all from the
final one, which is to lead him out of the artistic crisis. Thus, Shame
the Devil shows little
biographical movement overall, despite the construction of highly dramatic contrasts in a kind
of psychomachy between various manifestations of O'Flaherty's self. In psychological terms,
the solution of O'Flaherty's biographical crisis, his going back to the island behind the island,
as it were, is hardly astonishing and as such highly symptomatic of the autobiographer's
neurotic state. In a way, the return to his origins is a retreat from a hostile world in which he
finds it very hard to adapt, in which he cannot take root, as the abrupt changes in his
allegiance to various ideological systems show. The circular movement-from the Aran
Islands as a source of inspiration at the beginning of O'Flaherty's career to his return to Aran
and a natural life - underlines how central the self-image of the "Islandman" is, not only to
O'Flaherty's (auto-)biography but also to the whole of his oeuvre, its subjects and motifs (viz.
his nature and animal stories).
(O'Flaherty 1981, 10)
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What has been demonstrated here in three exemplary cases might be pursued
in a number of other Irish autobiographies, i.e. the question of how the structural complexities of a 'water-land'
like Ireland are reflected in the interplay of exile and return, of rejection and acceptance.
Structurally and thematically speaking, the motifs of 'leaving the island' and/or 'returning to the
island' seem to make for key scenes in a wide range of Irish autobiographies. There are the
emotionally charged, i.e. melancholy, scenes when the island fades from the view of the
'exiled' autobiographer, as for instance, in John Mitchel's Jail Journal (1854) or at the end of
Sean O'Casey's Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (1949), that part of his autobiography which brings
to a close his 'Irish years.' Compare this with the enchantment and the thematic significance of
the first glimpse of the island in, for example, Katherine Tynan's memoirs The Middle Years
(1916) or Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy (1958), when the narrator, at the end of his prison term
in England and at the end of the most formative phase in his biography, returns to Ireland a
It has often been noted that, following the example set by Stephen Dedalus/James Joyce,
'exile' is a necessary pre-condition for Irish artists, and it may now almost sound like a truism to
say, as George Moore did," [...] that an Irishman must fly from Ireland if he would be himself"
(Moore 1985, 56) or, in the words of Frank O'Connor, that "every Irishman's private life begins in
Holyhead" (O'Connor 1962, 86). In this vein it is rather difficult to underestimate or ignore the
island topos as an essential element contributing to the identity of Irishmen and Irishwomen in
bios and graphe, in life and life-writing.
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