The Magazine

Emerald Idyll

Irish eyes aren't always smiling.

Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
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Finding Ireland

A Poet's Exploration of Irish Literature and Culture

by Richard Tillinghast

Notre Dame, 272 pp., $25

To be Irish is to be in a kind of perpetual exile. Few people realize that Irish is a distinctive language and tradition. One grows weary of having to explain. My parents are native Irish speakers, the first in our family to have been taught English--or as the great chieftain Shane O'Neill (1530-1567) deridingly put it, "twist the mouth with English." Our grandparents spoke Gaelic/Irish and had not a word of the English tongue. The Irish language, once outlawed by the British, is now a compulsory part of Irish education--but revered as much as Spanish in an American high school.

Ireland all too often is seen with sentimental foggy eyes. Among American Irish, the cult of alleged Irishness has become an ersatz religion whose St. Patrick's Day rites have nothing to do with the reality of Ireland. Irish literature has also been subject to nationalist manipulation.

This collection of essays on Ireland by the American poet and critic Richard Tillinghast offers some antidote to many Irish illusions. Finding Ireland contains Tillinghast's personal exploration of Irish literature, and many astute essays of literary criticism. Overall, it's an excellent and refreshing work from the eyes of an outsider looking in. Too many books about Ireland are sectarian and the more scholarly hail from an Anglo-Irish academic elite whose perspective tends towards secular materialism.

In seeking to understand Ireland Tillinghast is unafraid to distinguish the Irish from the Anglo-Irish, while making the crucial point that "the words 'Protestant' and 'Catholic' in Ireland have more to do with cultural differences between segments of the population than they do with religion per se." The Anglo-Irish were the people the British
conquerors settled in Ireland and placed in charge of all civil authority, to the detriment of the native Roman Catholic/Gaelic population, a process that lasted centuries until Ireland gained independence in the early 20th century and became a republic.

Tillinghast indicates the "insecurity" of the Anglo-Irish position in Ireland, summed up by an early settler, Baron Maurice Fitzgerald, in 1170: "Such in truth is our lot that while we are English to the Irish, we are Irish to the English." The precariousness of these people produced a compelling literature, and the best essays here are about some lesser-known Anglo-Irish figures: Somerville and Ross, Elizabeth Bowen and William Trevor. Unlike Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge, or the early Yeats, all darlings of Anglo-Irish studies courses, these writers learned to write out of their unique experiences as outsiders in Ireland.

The great poet Patrick Kavanagh, scarcely mentioned here, recognized that the Celtic Twilight formulated by Lady Gregory, Yeats, and Synge was a "thorough going English-bred lie" that provided the Anglo-Irish "who are worried about being Irish with an artificial country." And yet Kavanagh singled out Somerville and Ross for high praise because they "evoked something valid in Irish life." Mention Somerville and Ross to most readers, and

what will come to mind is a romanticized view of Anglo-Irish life in the days before the Republic, replete with sentimentalized stage Irish characters. How far this notion is from the actuality of these authors' vision! They understood human nature and their world too thoroughly for such prettification.

Indeed, Somerville and Ross's The Real Charlotte (1884) is probably the finest novel ever to come out of Ireland, an extraordinarily honest and tragic summation of the Anglo-Irish experience. Francie encounters an Irish funeral procession. "Heedless of the etiquette that required that she and Hawkins should stop their horses till the funeral passed," Francie rides her horse through the mourners, and the horse, spooked by the "Irish Cry of ritual mourning," throws her and she breaks her neck. Looking up from the ground, she sees "The faces in the carts were all turned upon her, and she felt as if she were enduring, in a dream, the eyes of an implacable tribunal."

In exploring Irish culture Finding Ireland dispels many falsities, but swallows others whole. Far too much pontification has come from the secular left in Ireland about the alleged puritanical repressions of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. I knew an Irish priest who used to say that those writers fostering this myth were "crying all the way to the bank" and in the 1960s the poet John Montague, parodying Yeats's September 1913, ridiculed the notion: Puritan Ireland's dead and gone, / A myth of O'Connor and O'Faolain.