EESE Strategy Statement No. 5

Irish Studies

Werner Huber (Paderborn)

If I were to live up to the stereotypes associated with the topic in hand, I would have to direct you to the virtual Irish Pub, which, unfortunately, has closed down, which happens more frequently in the virtual world than in real reality, order umpteen rounds of virtual pints and nip out to my local for a few real pints of the dark brew. This would clearly be the most economical strategy for me to take, not, however, the most effective one, as regards publishing strategies in the field of Irish Studies.

In what follows I will take my cues from three key terms: "Irish Studies," "Postcolonialism," and "Irish Identity". A few explanatory remarks will, I hope, lead automatically into the declaration of a discernible position of publishing strategies.

(1) Irish Studies

Why "Irish Studies" rather than simply "Irish Literature" or "Irish Literary Studies"? In the context of various discourses about Irish mentalities, Irish folklore, Irish political iconography etc. it has been a long-established practice to make reference to the "burden of Irish history". Thus, the historian Oliver MacDonagh, for example, characterizes the Irish view of history as "cyclical" and takes as his prime example the national myth of "heroic failure," as it manifests itself in the proclamation read out during the Easter Rising of 1916, where mention is made of no less than six unsuccessful attempts at a rebellion during the three preceding centuries. "They always went out to battle but they always fell" is a famous line from a popular ballad also suggesting such an archetypal view of history. Likewise, one could think of the numerous "Bloody Sundays" in recent Irish history.

Such basic historical structures, themes, and antagonisms go a long way towards explaining Irish "mental habits" of a notably repetitive order: For more than seven centuries Ireland remains an English colony; Gaelic Ireland with its autochthonous language and civilization becomes a "Hidden Ireland"; the imposition of a foreign language and culture results in two radically different traditions (Irish vs. Anglo-Irish, Catholic vs. Protestant, Republican vs. Unionist) that clash again and again over the centuries. The ideal of a nation-state comprising the island of Ireland--to this day--remains an unfulfilled dream.

It was James Joyce who provided a stringent formula for the "mental habit" arising from this situation, a formula which could pass for a dominant motif in the national psyche: Joyce's alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, we remember, had set out "to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race," before he declared (in Ulysses): "History [...] is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

With regard to politics as an extension of history into the present, a second truism in discourses about Ireland and Irish historiography suggests itself. In very much the same way that Irish history has influenced Irish mentalité, Irish writing has always been strongly determined by historical factors and, by implication, by the political conditions obtaining. In his history of Irish Literature published in 1967, the short-story writer and novelist Frank O'Connor went so far as to state categorically, "I know no other literature so closely linked to the immediate reality of politics." It has since become de rigueur to point out the astonishing degree to which Irish Literature is conditioned by its context, to outline the nexus between the fate/career/biography of any Irish individual and that of his/her community/nation/race.

(2) Postcolonialism

It is only a short step from the recognition of the highly context-bound character of Irish Literature to the reconsideration of Irish Literature as "postcolonial literature". And it has been emphasized often enough that Ireland and Irish Literature assume a paradigmatic function for the study of the so-called "New Literatures in English" from the perspective of "postcolonial discourse". However, actions have not always followed words--and there are research opportunities galore for a methodical application of parameters easily to be derived from the study of other postcolonial literatures. An important step in this direction would be to apply hermeneutic models and structures such as centre/margin, identity/alterity, Self/ Other and explore within an Irish context themes and motifs expressing national identity.

Again, even a cursory and schematic view of Irish history will reveal the colonial/postcolonial quest for identity as a basic motif in all Irish Literature written in English. In the political history of the country over the last 100 years or so the essential structures of postcolonialism become manifest. Ireland's development from being a part of the UK to becoming an independent republic, of course, first caused and implied cultural/ideological self-definition during the Gaelic Revival and the Irish Literary Renaissance respectively. Thus, we have, at least two dimensions--the opposition of two political entities and, much more comprehensively, the antagonism of two different cultural systems. Due to its peculiar history of conquest and settlement one could quite legitimately speak, as we have seen, of a continuous "battle of two civilizations" (F.S.L. Lyons).

The formula of the "battle of two civilizations" thus also implies the contrast between self-definiton and definition from the outside, between auto-stereotype and hetero-stereotype. From the antagonistic structures underlying Irish civilization, culture, history, literature etc., we thus arrive at the problems of perspective and identity, of Self and other.

(3) Irish Identity

The binary structures informing the postcolonial model as a model of inter-national/inter-cultural antagonisms are further complicated and partially eclipsed when we consider Irish identity after complete political independence (1949). Nevertheless, the problem of Irish identity remains--in the postcolonial period (and I mean post-)--although now it appears to be challenged from different quarters. For example, after political independence had been achieved, Irish identity was seriously questioned from within. Romantic nationalism inherited from the 19th century was still very much alive. One of its most powerful manifestations, De Valerals ideal of a "Rural Catholic Gaelic Ireland" was formulated in the 1930s and for a long time arrested Ireland's development as a modern European nation. Such backwardness has since been slowly undermined by such developments as increasing industrialization, urbanization, and the secularization of Irish society towards a more open pluralistic society. One might also mention the challenges presented by Ireland's continuing integration into the European community during the past 20 years and, very much in the present day, the challenges presented by globalization in the information/media age.

In the 1990s the modernization of Irish identity is a recurring theme in political rhetoric on the highest level. Ever since her inaugural address in December 1990 the President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, has argued for a quasi-symbolic reading of Irish identity as a means of deconstructing traditional concepts of Irishness and overcoming century-old divisions of prejudice and hate. Seen in this new light, Irish identity is now no longer a strictly geographical category relating to, in Joyce's words, "an isle twice removed from the mainland."

Irish identity now comprises the Irish Diaspora in Europe, America, Australia and elsewhere. With some 70 million Irishmen and Irishwomen living in exile, as it were, emigration and exile are increasingly considered as endemic motifs in any contemporary definition of Irishness. Such a diffusion of the concept naturally takes away some of its sectarian implications when it is re-imported and applied to the situation in the North of Ireland. There is a highly political agenda underlying all this, and one can see the earnest desire to create a pluralist Ireland, in which Irishness and Britishness may even achieve a state of flux.

(4) Irish Studies in EESE

Following from these observations the main points can be spelt out again as the sum of this strategy paper:

(5) The Practical Side of "Irish Studies" in EESE

In the early stages of EESE's career two basically different categories suggest themselves as regards "Irish studies" contributions:

  1. Contributions to the current scholarly debate in "Irish Studies", i.e. papers and essays (in the traditional publishing format) along the lines of particular theoretical orientations outlined above.

  2. Resources for "Irish Studies":

    1. annual bibliography ("the year's work")
    2. add-on bibliographies
    3. cataloguing data opening up important corpora of neglected texts
      (Examples have deliberately suppressed as negotiations are still under way; what is important here is to discuss categories before we can discuss contents.).

(6) Addresses - URLs - click here!

The Irish Times

Kennys Books Online:

American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS)
- Irish Studies bulletin board:
subscribe irish-studies NN >

International Association for the Study of Anglo-Irish Literature (IASAIL):
Annual Bibliography (The Year's Work in Irish Literary Studies) - up to now published in Irish University Review