Tag Archives: Declan Kiberd

Declan Kiberd at the Theatre of Memory Symposium

Declan Kiberd giving a rather brilliant talk on the state of Ireland, memory and its relationship to culture. Great readings of Yeats, Joyce and the revolutionary generation abound, albeit greenwashed slightly. Also has a dig at the revisionist historians, which I would make more of if it wasn’t for his great idea for a new, radical arts policy.


Political Context to the Queen’s Theatre Visualisation Project

Here’s another blog post I did in which I try to sum up some one hundred years of Irish history in 500 words. I mostly fail, I think the most telling part is when I stop to admit what I’ve been saying has little pertinence to the overall project, which can be found here. I also have a few inaccuracies and incorrectly used words, but I do slam de Valera, which is fun.

This blog post provides a historical context for the Queen’s Theatre by outlining Ireland’s political and economic situation in the first half of the twentieth century.Events such as the 1916 Rising and the ensuing Civil War cast a long shadow over Irish political discourse even today, as can be seen by the ongoing controversy as to how best to celebrate the 1916 Rising, or whether such an event should even be celebrated.

In 1914, the failures of constitutional parliamentarians such as John Redmond to both secure a definite deal on Home Rule with the British government and assuage the anxieties of Unionists in the North of Ireland led to a situation that more fringe minorities could take advantage of, as is demonstrated by the formation of both the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteer Force. In this environment, the Irish Republican Brotherhood became increasingly radicalised, as exemplified by Patrick Pearse’s inflammatory rhetoric at Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral in 1915: “Life springs from death, and from the graves of patriotic men and women spring living nations.” A minority were determined to take advantage of the timing of the Great War. Others within the IRB, such as IRB’s chief-of-staff Eoin MacNeill, were reluctant to adopt violence as a means to independence : “To my mind, those who feel impelled towards military action on any of the grounds that I have stated are really impelled by a sense of feebleness or dependency or fatalism, or byan instinct of satisfying their own emotions or escaping from a difficult…situation.”

Reactions to the Rising were multiple and varied. Many urban dwellers seized the opportunity in the immediate aftermath to loot a number of shops in the surrounding area. For some members of a younger generation, such as then-medical student and later IRA officer Ernie O’Malley, the occasion was stirring and brought about an increase in Volunteers. It was not until subsequent events relating to the Rising that public opinion began to soften with regards to the actions of the Volunteers. Among these events were J.C. Power-Colthurst’s shooting of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington  during the events of the Rising, the excessive measures of the British government against those responsible (fifteen executions) and Dublin Castle’s attempts to pin responsibility for the outbreak of violence on moderate parliamentarians.

In the Irish Free State created in the aftermath of the civil war, the maintenance of income from agriculture was regarded as crucial to further prosperity. An economic policy of protectionism was adopted, albeit an incoherent one. Tariffs on imported goods were established but with no attempt made to create a domestic industry of production. This policy, combined with a lack of funding for the development of  employment schemes, led to widespread emigration. De Valera’s vision for rural Ireland as being made up of self-sustaining, frugal and anti-materialist family units ignored the metropolitan and anglicised lifestyle in urban centres such as Dublin, where 21.1% were employed in finance, 12% in administration, 13.7% personal services and 32.2% in agricultural production. Economic growth remained sluggish throughout ‘the Emergency,’ for the obvious reasons.

How the Queen’s theatre fits into a survey of Irish history of this kind can be difficult to quantify. Pearse’s uncompromising vision of an independent Ireland and ideologically driven economic mismanagement can seem to have little bearing on the function of the Queen’s Theatre as a venue for light entertainment. However, what is important to recall is that the Queen’s remained a site of cultural practice throughout many generations, and during one of the most tumultuous periods in Irish history until it closed in 1966. It furthermore remained a Dublin landmark until 1969. When The Plough and the Stars (1926)  was staged in the Queen’s, its political contentiousness perhaps did not match that of the earlier productions in the Abbey when widows of victims of the Rising, including Hannah Sheehy Skeffington,  disrupted the performance, but it was in a city that within living memory had been the site of a divisive conflict. When the Abbey Theatre Company took up residence in the Queen’s, the Irish Free State was only twenty-nine years old. For projects like this Queen’s Theatre Visualisation Project, it is important that the space inhabited by the theatre-whether that space is physical or social-be reconstructed also.

Information on the history of the Abbey Theatre Company at the Queen’s can be found here.

Further Reading

Brown, Terence. Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2002. London: Harper Perennial, 2004. Print.

Foster, R.F. Modern Ireland 1600-1970.London: Penguin Books, 1989. Print.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. England: Vintage, 1994. Print.

Morash, Christopher. A History of Irish Theatre 1601-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

Literary Context to the Queen’s Theatre Visualisation Project

The following is a blog post intended to establish the literary context to the Queen’s Theatre visualisation project, which I undertook as part of my MPhil in Digital Humanities and Culture. The project itself can be found here. I make an argument about a strong literary tradition being in some way a bad thing. I’m not sure what I was thinking. Very little.

The intention of this blog post is to provide a literary context for the Queen’s Theatre Project. This post deals with the Irish literary and cultural scene in the early twentieth century which can seem to have a somewhat tangential relationship to the Queen’s Theatre itself. Nevertheless, it is hoped that this brief survey will prove illuminating to those who are unfamiliar with the development of Irish cultural nationalism. Furthermore, the range of this cultural watershed is not limited to the years in which they could be said to have taken place. Critics such as Anthony Cronin have argued that the movement set in motion by Lady Gregory, William Butler Yeats and others had a stultifying influence on the literary generations that followed. From the biographies and works produced by authors such as Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh, one can see the negative effects of a powerful literary tradition resonate into the 1950’s.

In September 1897, Yeats, folklorist Lady Gregory and writer Edward Martyn began to plan the creation of an Irish National Theatre.  It should be remembered that discussions of a cultural renaissance involving organisations such as this literary theatre or the Gaelic League, reflect a political agenda shaped by a minority grouping of urban intelligentsia, while, as R.F. Foster writes, “life went on in eighteenth-century tenements [in Dublin city] bereft of water or sanitation.” Furthermore, the activities of the Irish National Theatre Society similarly reflect the niche interests of a small segment of society. Yeats’ intended audience was “that limited public which gives understanding,” and he records that he would “not mind greatly if others are bored.” Attendance of productions such as The Playboy of the Western World (1907) and Cathleen Ní Houlihon (1902) was far outstripped by the public’s interest in light-opera and music hall performances. As Christopher Morash writes in his A History of Irish Theatre 1601-2000 (2002), “on that same December night, as Maire Ní Shiubhlaigh was playing Cathleen Ní Houlihan…across the Liffey almost two thousand people were howling for the informer’s blood in Whitbread’s Sarsfield at the Queen’s.” This is, at least partially, the rationale for projects of this kind. By drawing attention to the more popular forms of Irish cultural life, it is possible that the oversights of Irish historiography can be corrected and the milieu of mid-twentieth century Dublin life can be reflected more accurately.

The events surrounding the reception of J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World further points to Yeats’ talents as regards the art of self-promotion. Yeats took a dim view of those who disrupted the second performance of the play, dismissing them as “commonplace and ignorant people,” who “had no books in their houses.” He also brought a sectarian dimension to the affair, drawing a line between the behaviour of the owners of the Irish Literary Theatre, mostly Protestants, and those disruptive members of the audience – and the public in general – objecting to the content of the play. For Yeats, their behaviour was indicative of characteristics inherent to members of the Catholic religion: “We have not such pliant bones, and did not learn in the houses that bred us a so suppliant knee.”

Much of the information we have about the Dublin literary scene at the time of the Celtic Revival and beyond has been obtained from the unpublished manuscript written by the architect and theatre fanatic Joseph Holloway. Holloway’s Impressions of a Dublin Playgoer (1895-1944) is a massive and rich resource containing a number of manuscript volumes in which he wrote extensive reviews and information about various performances he attended in almost all of Dublin’s theatres, such as the Abbey, the Queen’s and the Antient Concert Rooms. Holloway also designed the Abbey for the purposes of the Irish Literary Theatre and was commissioned to do so by Annie Horniman, a theatre manager and patron. For further information on Irish theatre, it is recommended to consult Holloway’s diaries and the texts provided in the Further Reading section below.

Further Reading

Brown, Terence. Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2002.London, Harper Perennial, 2004. Print.

Foster, R.F. Modern Ireland 1600-1970.London, Penguin Books, 1989. Print.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. England, Vintage, 1994. Print.

Morash, Christopher. A History of Irish Theatre 1601-2000. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

Augustus Young’s ‘The Nicotine Cat’ and How To Live

There is a school of thought that argues that we read literature in order to better understand the world, ourselves and how to live. On the one hand I am sympathetic to this point of view. Literature can bolster our emotional intelligence, imaginative faculties and our empathy, as anyone who has cried after having one of their favourite characters meet their demise in some way can attest to.

However, there’s a problem here. Not only is it probably simplistic to say that our empathetic faculties are enhanced by having them used, as if they were a bicep, but it is also a bit beside the point to treat literary history as a massive instruction manual, when in fact, what most novels can tell us about life and how to live it is fairly minimal. It is also indicative of attitudes to literature that develop in a neoliberal era as if reading a novel is only worthwhile if one is up-skilling one’s life management techniques.

This is probably why we see the rise of literary critics interpreting novels as just that, such as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. According to de Botton, Marcel Proust’s six volume work In Search of Lost Time which details the life of a precocious and rich young man as he makes his way as a literary dilettante in late-nineteenth century Parisian salons has enough to tell us about ourselves that Proust can be read as a moustachioed Stephen R. Covey. Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us, is another case, intent on reclaiming a self-consciously difficult and defiantly non-inclusive elite novelist for today’s working man.

Oh, according to de Botton, Proust also anticipated the breakthroughs of neuroscience and we all know how marketable science is, right? Great branding, that science.

At the same time, one wouldn’t want to throw one’s lot in entirely with Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater and the other assorted aesthetes that proclaimed art’s uselessness. According to this group, all art has to do is to look pretty, like a bouquet of flowers or a tastefully folded handkerchief in one’s shirt pocket. I find this perspective to be ahistorical, paradoxical for the sake of being so and fundamentally, boring.

Both schools are guilty of believing that living, reading and thinking are somehow easily separable activities, rather than existing as a palimpsest, with overlaps and conflict and dialogue between each layer. This is the perspective that we get on life, literature and the consequent relationship between the two in Augustus Young’s The Nicotine Cat.

The Nicotine Cat is part of a largely continental genre that goes by the name of autofiction, that attempts to coalesce memoir, art criticism and the essay into one form, all while calling into question the extent to which any objective account of reality, such as one might find in a memoir, could ever be achieved. Autofiction is a fluid category but a niche one, surprisingly, considering how embroiled an author’s work often is in their lives. One could say that more what we read is autofiction than not.

Young is an erudite narrator and his text begins with a sequence of thoughts written on Patrick S. Dinneen, an Irish historian and lexicographer responsible for the 1904 Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla. It is fertile territory for Young, who allows his many encounters with the often idiosyncratic Foclóir to set the tone for a sequence of meditations on exile, language and identity, all important for the remainder of the novel-essay-memoir.

We see Young dispense brief anecdote-inflected histories of figures such as the 19th century Dutch philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett and novelist Henry James. These mini-disquisitions are often prompted by events in Young’s ‘real’ life in the town of Bras-de-Vendres and inflect even the most apparently minor social encounters with a greater depth; the everyday and the erudite mutually enhance each other. As in Storytime, Young’s concealed vulnerability is an important facet of the text; as we see his world from his point of view we see the ideality that can be afforded one within the world of thought is more often than not discommoded by contingency. Ideas that are renounced earlier in the text are dusted off and deployed in earnest in conversation with whetstone-in-residence Welsh, self-consciously from a defensive position.

It is in The Nicotine Cat that we see how literature and learning reach beyond ‘How To Live’ to something more complex and interesting. To demand instruction from it is counter to the nature of autofiction itself and, I would add, contrary to what literature should aspire to be. I want to read books, not WikiHow articles.