Tag Archives: Roy Foster

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.

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Colm Tóibín, Fintan O’Toole & Colm Tóibín in conversation

I am an unabashed fan of learned old men having conversations about stuffy subjects, though microphone hogging makes me deeply uncomfortable. This one might be the gold-standard, with Roy Foster speaking on his book Vivid Faces indebtedness to the novel form, Colm Tóibín’s indebtedness to the craft of the historian, with Fintan O’Toole directing it all.

John Banville’s ‘The Book of Evidence’ and Anglo-Irish Nostalgia

Every time I read a John Banville novel, I wish that it were the first time that I was reading a John Banville novel because, taken in a vacuum, each one is a work of great invention. Banville has a capacity to infuse into his high narratives of failed epistemology features of non-high literature (an impulse that Banville now channels into his Benjamin Black persona), and his post-Nabokovian reveries are surely among the most compelling of their kind but, having read about four them, a pattern begins to stand out and here we come to the less appealing aspects of his writing.

  • The perpetually waning, ethereal, always-described-relative-to-their-physical-features female ‘characters.’
  • The aging, reprehensibly lecherous but aesthetically-atuned middle-aged or old men at each of the novel’s centres.
  • The deconstruction of the novel’s artifice every page or so.
  • Four or five points at which it is suggested that the plot in its entirety is contrived.
  • The quiet twist in the text’s last four or five pages.

I could go on, and say a lot of other things that annoy me but the London Review of Books pretty well covered it in its review of his most recent novel The Blue Guitar. So I’ll just say that The Infinities featuring an omniscient God-narrator rather rather than a mortal one, allowed the usual course of his writings to be unsettled and re-vitalised in a way. Still a shame about Helen Godley, as sketchily characterised as she is attractive. Similarly, Banville remains a good sentencer, with a firm grasp on underplayed humour and The Book of Evidence had more than the average amount of good phrases and the momentary diversions of his baroque prose style is generally enough to get me through one of his books.

However, there was more than just this to keep my interest throughout The Book of Evidence, and that was the main character’s apparent nostalgia for the departed world of Georgian Dublin, through the prism of the Anglo-Irish ruling class. Freddie Montgomery is of upper-middle class Catholic stock, though his household, when he returns to Ireland, seems to have Gone Down, as big houses in Irish books will do. Montgomery remembers his father’s attitude to modern Irish history in the following terms: ‘the world, the only worthwhile world, had ended with the last viceroy’s departure from these shores. After that it was all just a wrangle among peasants.’ He even calls Dún Laoghaire Kingstown. This nostalgic treatment of seventeenth-century Ireland is familiar within Irish literature, as one can see from the works of W.B. Yeats and Elizabeth Bowen. One can perhaps just about glimpse the emergent rhythms of Banville’s prose style in the following quote from Bowen’s Court:

‘The great bold rooms, the high doors imposed an order on life. Sun blazed in at the windows, fires roared in the grates. There was a sweet, fresh-paned smell from the floors. Life still kept a touch of colonial vigour; at the same time, because of the glory of everything, it was bound up in the quality of a dream.’

Some of Banville’s thematic preoccupations seem to be gestured towards here also, the faint oscillation of unreality beneath appearance, the intensity of things just in their raw being-ness and the wealth on the backs of colonial subjects without the compromising fact of their existence relates to Banville’s capacity to keep his distance from the interiority of others, and perhaps from the interiority of protagonists themselves. We see also an attraction to surface and a repudiation of tacky actualness.

Roy Foster sees the eighteenth-century pursuit of a high-style in all things from buildings, public works and overwrought, intricate furbelows in their neo-classical architecture as a try-hard pathology in response to their self-perception, a recognition of their colonial status with the attempt to construct a better capital with better public buildings than the English. Foster writes that many contemporary visitors to Dublin expected a provincial town and were confronted with a totally inappropriate level of architectural and civic grandeur. One, in a mode that is not entirely un-Banvillean mode writes that visiting Dublin was like being ‘at table with a man who serves me Burgundy, but whose attendant is a bailiff disguised in livery.’ This pretentiousness emerges from Georgian Dublin’s precarious sense of itself and relates meaningfully to Banville’s high style, as a compensation for the insufficiency of one’s identity. Montgomery’s dreams, his notions, his self are even more dream like, than they at first seem, as they are constructed on a misinterpretation of history.

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.

The Use of the Irish Language in the 1641 Depositions

The Use of The Irish Language in the 1641 depositions

Easter 1916, Sean O’Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and re-invention

Historian Roy Foster recently gave a lecture in Trinity College entitled: “”An Inheritance From Our Forefathers”? Historians and the Memory of the Irish Revolution.” In his speech, Foster proposed a radically different reading on the events surrounding 1916. For most people, 1916 marks the ostensible beginning of the modern Irish independence movement moving beyond the cultural sphere, events which follow neatly through to the War of Independence, the civil war, the declaration of the Republic and the establishment of partition as a political framework. In this decade of commemoration, already a cliché, a more unified, or retrospectively conscious perspective may be welcome in buckling existing narratives. They’ll help to assuage to tedium of an apparently endless sequence of vapid panel discussions on radio that rarely seem to move beyond a Leaving Certificate level of historical analysis, window-dressing Republicanism to keep Sinn Féin out of government, or worst of all, newspaper supplements.

Rather than seeing the Rising as the beginning, Foster proposes viewing it as an end-point or termination of pre-revolutionary trends, a marker of a generational crisis. For Foster, the real revolution was the series of land acts of the late-nineteenth century which incentivised English landlords to sell their land to Irish farmers, who in many cases, turned out to be more draconian in extracting rents from  their tenants than their English counterparts. This massive transfer of capital and establishment of a native land-owning class could explain why Ireland was capable of ‘settling’ so (relatively) quickly after its revolution and consequent political convulsions, why its quite radical rising became conservatised with such rapidity. Those who were most involved the rising and inculcated its participants were members of a radical, educated middle class and Foster frames them as somewhat immature angsty young people, rebelling against their parents and fashioning their own values in opposition to forces that they regarded as oppressive.

This notion of Easter 1916 as an exercise in re-invention or the formulation of a novel identity interests me as I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on a trilogy of novels, in which identity and the re-invention thereof forms a substantial part of its subject matter, namely Roddy Doyle’s The Last Round-up Trilogy, in the three novels,  A Star Called Henry, Oh, Play That Thing and The Dead Republic, we see the protagonist, Henry Smart conceptualise himself as a mythic figure from out the Celtic mists, a working class hero, linchpin of the IRA, self-conscious exile, self-made man, immigrant hero, inveterate capitalist and finally, a family man, of a sort. I should add, that while he’s doing all this gallivanting, he’s abandoned his wife, daughter and son.

One also thinks of Johnny’s line in Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, probably the only point in the play when he isn’t complaining about noise, (a potential gesture towards his fairly obvious PTSD, a result of his role in fighting for Ireland during the War of Independence) when it is made known that the Boyle family is to inherit a small fortune. Johnny’s immediate contribution is: “We’ll be able to get out o’ this place now, an’ go somewhere we’re not known,” perhaps indicating how closely related re-invention and revolt was in the mind of the revolutionary generation.

This is all covered more thoroughly in Foster’s recent study, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923. At least, I imagine it is. I haven’t actually read it.