‘Where is our gallant man’: The films of Pat Collins

   
Seven tourists are standing in an upper floor of a derelict tenement building, now preserved as a museum or installation space. A woman, acting as a pregnant mother in period dress, speaks in a Dublin accent about how she lives like the gentry here, not that the gentry are known for buying second-hand bonnets in Capel Street. As she speaks, coughing can be heard from a neighbouring room, and she wishes her children dead, so as to spare them their long, drawn-out illness. One or two of the tourists incline their heads sympathetically. She turns away from them as the wheezing becomes more pronounced.

 

One could say that Pat Collins is a filmmaker concerned with Irish identity, but this would not be quite right, as he is just as interested in Irish difference. His body of work to date, in its movement between essay, documentary, and biopic manifests the restlessness in idea in motion and thus appear to us remote from convention. His most recent film, Song of Granite represents something of a culmination of his work to date, and, with the recognition that it his is a career still underway, provides us with an opportunity to consider his major works in sequence.

 

John McGahern: A Private World is the first of Collins’ portraits of artists living in remote parts of the country. Collins’ interest in the landscape is already manifest, with long, reflective shots of ferns, large bodies of water and McGahern walking through narrow laneways with his dog. These shots are imbued with the spaciousness and composition of footage one would expect to find in an installation, over which McGahern recalls his childhood, or reads selections from his prose. Despite the scenery, it is a film more concerned with the world within than the world without. When McGahern does speak of society at large, it is a distant and risible thing; he describes the banning of his novel The Dark as ‘foolish’ and says he did not appeal the decision because he thought the novel was not worth the effort. McGahern’s deliberate manner of speaking, only raising his voice in relaying the words of an embittered Irish emigrant in London, work in tandem with Collins’ tendency to ruminate upon landscape and allows the film to attain the stately atmosphere of McGahern’s fiction, serving just as well as an adaptation of McGahern’s works as it as does as a documentary on the man who wrote them.

Despite the film’s focus on isolated settings, politics begin to seep in, as McGahern mentions Free State failing to live up to the promise of the 1916 proclamation. In McGahern’s description of his adolescence in Leitrim, where guards patrolled ‘roads in which nothing happened…beside a phone that never rang’, we can discern a subterranean Irish history, one in which the functioning of the state was remote from people’s everyday lives. McGahern sees Ireland, not as the arms of government, but composed more of people and families, ‘thousands of little republics’. McGahern theorises that this has determined the shape of our literature, that at times when national identity is strong, the novel predominates, whereas when the individual identity is stronger, poems or short stories are the result. Given what he has said about families composing states in their own right, it is clear that McGahern’s sense of national identity, has little to do with Irishness.

At one point,McGahern reflects that while the Catholic church has faded as a fulcrum of Irish life, he’s too old to predict what might take its place. This is a question which Collins’ next film, What We Leave in our Wake takes as its starting point. The film opens on Croagh Patrick at dawn, to the sound of a crowd of people hiking up the rocks along the mountainside. The film begins to deteriorate, as scratches and other cinematographic artefacts appear at the edges of the frame. The nature of the pilgrimage itself is ambiguous, many of the pilgrims wear hiking gear and almost none of them are barefoot, suggesting the pilgrimage may not be strictly religious as a ritual. The crowd negotiating fragments of rock typifies What We Leave in our Wake, an inquiry into Ireland’s transitional state, awaiting the arrival of a new, potentially post-Catholic dispensation. Unlike A Private World, the discussion is dispersed and wide-ranging, taking in a series of historians, writers, authors and scholars who each discuss Irish life and Irish values, over long, lingering shots of rural landscapes. Collins also begins to make use of the archive. From a snippet of a documentary on punitive rehabilitation, we move to a close-up of Father Peter McVerry who speaks about the failure of the state to provide healthcare or economic security to emigrants, heroin addicts and the poor. McVerry then fades away, leaving only his voice, speaking over footage of distressed people on a dock waving goodbye to their relatives. One might think here, of the approach of British documentarian Adam Curtis who also makes use of suggestive footage in addition to his own, specially shot film. Unlike Curtis, however, Collins’ argument is often implicit and functions by subtle juxtaposition, the movement from one topic to another without the subsumption of everything to a polemic of epochal decline.

What We Leave in Our Wakeis far more attentive to the cultural than the economic,and promotes a modern revivalism whereby Ireland’s rich cultural history might remedy its political problems. Declan Kiberd, one of What We Leave in Our Wake’s foremost voices, cites William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney and James Joyce as examples of writers whose works have dug into Irish place and history, shaping the future by re-engaging the past. The crowds climbing Croagh Patrick return, with some people moving up and others moving down, the crowd seeming to form a coherent thread in their collective dialectical movement. Desultory speeches from former Taoiseach Brian Cowen about securing the future through austerity budgeting serve as reminders of the post-2008 regime, a time in which public life conceived the future, in variations on ‘there is no alternative’. What We Leave in Our Wake equivocates here, between these impersonal forces of managerialism and the growth of ‘permissiveness’, or individualism, which culminates in some uncharacteristically easy visuals from Collins, with the Celtic Tiger-era spire looming high over the statue of Jim Larkin, or a group of people waiting at traffic lights to cross onto O’Connell bridge (read: ‘the masses’), while a voiceover informs us how bovine and depoliticised they have become.

 

There is something quite simplistic, too, in What We Leave in our Wake’s cleaving to the ancient past, or the 1916 Proclamation as sources of transformative change, without acknowledging the contradictions of authentic nationality in an Irish context. Indeed, Kiberd’s assertion that Ireland should embody a ‘mixture of forwardness and backwardness’ by providing the unborn and dead with votes, seems to partake far more of the latter than the former. Fortunately, these notions of Irishness come under pressure in Tim Robinson: Connemara. Tim Robinson, the subject of the film, is a cartographer and visual artist who lived for many years in the west of Ireland, writing psychogeographic accounts of the region and tracing local geographies and histories. Robinson begins the film by critiquing Celtic revivalists such as Yeats or John Millington Synge who came to the west of Ireland in order to mediate it for their Dublin audience. Rather than treating the landscape as an abstract Jungian archetype, to be excavated by poets or politicians, Robinson’s Connemara is abject; the story of a man losing his way on the way home from the workhouse and dying from exposure in a storm is emblematic. Collins’ camera is focused on the uneven and rocky terrain, in which Robinson seems diminished, relative to the scale of the landscape, which ‘no single science, not even all the sciences put together, can read’. Despite Robinson’s decades-long attempt to map the area, he believes the wholeness to be artificial: ‘Sometimes, rarely, a scrap of a voice can be caught from the universal damage, but it may be an artefact of the imagination, a confection of rumours’. Collins’ editing begins to ape Robinson’s theoretical mysticism by rapidly interleaving scenes of rural life; a conversation between two men sitting at a Marian grotto, families watching the television, church-going, rowing contests, youth club discos, graveyards, over an ambient soundbed interspersed with inaudible voices, shouting and calling, until all ascends into a voiceless confusion.

Collins’ first feature, Silence opens with a recording artist named Eoghan, travelling from Berlin to his childhood home, in the Irish north-west. In the first hotel he stays in, a bartender tells him about an island off the coast of Scotland, which has been uninhabited for fifty years. However, the starlings on the island have passed the man-made sounds of the island’s former inhabitants from generation to generation. Eoghan is uninterested, explaining that he is trying to record places as far removed from man-made noise as possible. However, the bartender’s anecdote remains troubling. Eoghan is enacting the inverse of folklore collectors travelling west in the early twentieth century, in trying to get away from people and their stories. But if man-made sounds embed and reproduce themselves in the natural world, is it possible to escape them? The Beckettian monologue which is delivered by Patrick O’Connor about the loudness of ancient places and the palimpsestic nature of the Irish landscape, suggests not.

Eoghan is a reticent figure. His conversation with his partner in Berlin is drowned out by a passing train and he often seems uncomfortable in the frame, wandering out of it, leaving the camera to linger on his ambient microphone. Though he rebuffs the bartender talking about starlings, as he moves closer to Tory Island, where he grew up, he begins to engage more with the people he encounters. A local in Ballycroy provides us with the most dialogue-heavy portion of the film, and most of the film’s thematising happens here. Eoghan avoids questions about his family, suggesting of a past he has yet to deal with. After dinner, the man encourages Eoghan to sing ‘The Rocks of Bawn’, but he does not know it. He can recite the verse of another Gaelic song, telling the story of a man who leaves island life for the mainland, only to return years later, to find his lover dead, and the community he once knew changed. It is in this potential loss of tradition in Silence that Collins’ revivalist melancholia re-asserts itself. However, it is asserted with a crucial difference. One section of the film is given over solely to archival footage, in which eight islanders, seven men, one woman and a dog, travel out on a boat. The boat travels out from shore for a while, while one of the men seems to be doing something with a stone and a rope. The dog is then thrown overboard. We see it struggling in place for a while, before the camera cuts back to the boat, and then back to where the dog was, reduced now, to a patch of disturbed grey water, beginning to smooth itself over. It’s a stark and upsetting sequence of images, but also an injunction against the kind of nostalgia that might otherwise hang over archival recordings, a depoliticised hauntology as in Reeling in the Years when film grain seems already to summon up a soundbed of yesteryear’s pop music. Collins’ refusal to present islander life, or the past, as better, or more pious for its remoteness enacts a break with the straightforward revivalism of What We Leave in Our Wake.

After visiting the Inishbofin heritage museum, and speaking to the woman who works there, about the trauma of moving to the mainland, Eoghan travels out into the woods and builds a fire, recording it and himself singing the fragments of the Irish song he remembers. Eoghan seems to have reconciled himself to a fusion between the natural world and human-led encounters, perceiving that one has the capacity to enhance the other. When Eoghan does return to his home on Tory Island, its status as a community is emphasised. People stepping off the boat are embraced by their families, and he has a warm conversation with an older man who remembers from yers ago. His childhood home resounds with man-made sounds, in the form of childhood remembrances and ghosts of the past, the rattle of cutlery, footsteps from upstairs, his mother calling. One thinks here Virginia Woolf’s ‘broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on pavement’. In Silence, the past is an agonistic multiplicity, and not something straightforward enough to just mourn or to be nostalgic for.

Living in a Coded Land is Collins’ second essay film, and considers, the post-colonial nature of lived experience in Ireland. This theme is introduced by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who addresses the camera directly, on the need to formulate a progressive Irish nationalism which breaks from the tradition of violence. Pádraig Lenihan then describes the sheer scale of the carnage at the Battle of the Aughrim in an idyllic farmland where the battle took place over three hundred years ago, interspersed also with footage of Orangemen marches, long funeral escorts and police trucks circling barricades. Collins’ archival quotes are becoming less allegorical and more recognisably argumentative, Living in a Coded Land also has clearer targets, with a digression on the architecture of the Protestant big house, followed by a shot of former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey exiting his own. After this, we see a well dressed assistant county engineer, Keating, descended from the great Irish historian Geoffrey Keating, former owner of the nearby Moorstown Castle, driving down a road in county Tipperary. Keating inspects the work of a local man named Michael Cleary, dressed in work clothes, while a voice chirpily informs us that ‘Michael’s ancestors might easily have worked for him’. One could go on, there are plenty of vignettes through which Collins sketches the vector of modern Irish history through the history of land ownership and capital accumulation. Thomas McCarthy’s contribution provides the film with its title, explaining how the Irish establishment takes shape: ‘those who wish to be part of the establishment soon learn how to live in a kind of coded life, they know what to criticise, they know what to praise…they know when to remain silent’. From these broad heights of four hundred years of modern history, to the most local perspectives possible, with Paddy Heaney talking about depopulation and successive governments failing to install requisite infrastructure in Ballymacadam, Living in a Coded Land is focused on Ireland’s haves and have-nots and how each sustain themselves.

The film’s political analysis is most indebted to historian Conor McCabe, who with help from Seán Ó Faoláin and Heather Laird, describes the growth of the class which has historically directed state policy in Ireland. McCabe refers to them as the ‘comprador class’, arguing that they are present in every colonial regime as the intermediary between foreign capital and state resources. While initially they were large farmers in the midlands who exported capital, in the seventies, they became an urban class of stockbrokers, accountants and lawyers, replicating the pattern of most advanced capitalist states. Fortunately, Collins does pass over Ireland’s comparatively uneven relationship with other non-white settler states such as India, as can be the norm in discussions of Ireland and post-colonialism. This emphasis on exports and dependence on foreign investment rendered Dublin effectively a warehouse port; with no skilled workers or native industry, unskilled labourers were highly expendable to the production process. This outline of our unique precarity, which endures to this day, is outlined while Tony MacMahon plays traditional reels on the accordion for UCD students in the early seventies. Towards the film’s end, we hear the voice of folklorist Henry Glassie, who, in an interview with Vincent Woods, talks about the contextual and historical nature of art. Glassie speaks on the impossibility of bringing a universal vision of judgement and that everything requires interpretation in its own context.

It is a sentiment that exists in a certain degree of tension with Collins’ Song of Granite, a biopic of the folk singer Joe Heaney, though not a biopic in any straightforward sense. There is no attempt to reflect or to create the drama of Heaney’s life, rather it is a film more invested in feeling than biographical details. In addition to using archival footage of Joe Heaney he is played by three separate actors, one for each particular stage of his life. We begin with Joe’s childhood, which subverts in all respects what we might expect from a representation of Irish childhood, particularly one of such acute material deprivation, in Connemara in the twenties. However, the island community seems particularly close-knit, with houses full of people listening to folk tales, his teacher noticing his singing talent, or being taught to catch lobsters with his father. One finds waiting for the moment in which a drunken relative or abusive teacher might hit Joe, but it never comes.

 

Rather than, as one might expect from conventional biopics, showing Joe getting his first big break, or having addiction problems, the film takes all of Heaney’s life at once as its subject. At one point, Heaney monologues about his place in a sweep of history, from the pre-Christian Partholón, to Newgrange’s construction, to the Mongol hordes to the USSR. This becomes most visible at a fifteen-minute or so section of the film given over to a session in a pub. At this point, Heaney is living in Glasgow with his family as a labourer point in Heaney’s life in which he worked in Glasgow as a labourer in the fifties. Heaney sings ‘The Rocks of Bawn’ alone and then a number of contemporary Irish musicians such as Radie Peat, Damien Dempsey and Lisa O’Neill, perform. After the session is concluded, and after being interviewed by a journalist on the nature of sean-nós singing, Heaney returns to his home in Glasgow. All the singers appear to be playing themselves, which presents the question, is this session happening in Glasgow, or in Dublin where it was shot? Is this whole scene a metaphor for the kind of timeless milieu that folk culture can engender, in which boundaries such as time and space are suspended? As with all art worth considering in detail, the answers to questions such as these are largely immaterial.

In addition to positing his place within a history that is not just Irish, but also universal, the film points to Heaney’s inscrutability as a subject. As the film continues, we witness not Heaney’s spiritual education or musical apprenticeship but his disintegration. We see him working as a doorman, standing attention outside an apartment building in New York, interspersed with archival footage of him performing at the Newport Folk Festival, or walking along a Connemara beach with the Clancy Brothers. When we return to New York, it is the Connemara waves, rather than the sounds of the urban environment which predominates. Joe does seem to return home to Connemara at the end of the film, specifically to a field in which we witnessed him tie a piece of string around a tuft of grass next to a bird’s nest the film’s first scene. Fifty years later the string has remained, and the eggs have hatched, leaving only their fragments. This is obviously unlikely, so the eggs more likely to serve as symbols of maturity and renewal. Heaney then encounters his younger self and the milieu is transformed once more, as his younger self becomes Finn MacCool, meeting his older self, and re-enacting the salmon of knowledge myth. At Song of Granite’s conclusion, folklore and reality have become wholly intertwined.

Song of Graniteconcludes with a hand, writing in Irish, in reference to a man mentioned earlier in the film who confesses his sins on his deathbed through a poem on his bedroom wall. The words, translated, appear as follows:

Birds don’t sing songs of glory,

wings of ice,

that’s my story.

While recognising that Song of Granite is not be Collins’ last film, there is a certain appositeness to regarding these lines as a summation of his work to date. Collins’ is a filmmaker attentive to loss; failed states, fading traditions, faltering lives, but does not give in, either to despair or pretension. His concerned with lived experiences, even as they pose probing and resonant queries about ourselves and the future of our country. There’s no one else making films like his; they are worth your time.

The Political Economy of the New Modernists

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A few weeks ago I saw the inaugural event of the Dublin Book Festival, which was a panel discussion between the novelists Anne Enright, Lisa McInerney and the poet Pat Boran. They were speaking on the publication of a book entitled Beyond the Centre, a collection of 26 essays reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the Irish Writer’s Centre, from the perspective of various figures from within Dublin’s literary scene. It was a great panel, and Seán Rocks did one of the best jobs as a moderator that I can recall seeing. Enright was caustic and witty, going off on how The Irish Times will commission hundreds of articles by female writers about being a woman watching the US election, but none about policy, how she doesn’t think men have a gender, and her recollections of the younger writers of her generation being shunted into the backs of vans at the start of their careers while the Johns Banville and McGahern were driven around in limos.

As someone writing a doctorate which involves an analysis of Enright’s fiction, I was hoping that the things she said would stray into areas pertinent to my work. I knew she was unlikely to talk about quantitative analysis, and the sorts of things that my dissertation will actually be pivoting around, but if at all possible I hope to cram some stuff about the socio-economic milieu that the new modernists come out of, into my dissertation, as a refutation to the infuriating yet pervasive canard of industrialisation + world war = first-wave modernism.

Enright obliged, and I got a substantial amount of notes on how the currently established generation of authors got a leg up early in their careers from a cultural exchange in the nineties arranged by the then Irish and French presidents, Mary Robinson and François Mitterand. Enright has written in the past on what it was like to live in the Ireland of the 80’s, with the intensifying contradictions between the Republic of McQuaid, with its laws against suicide, contraception, homosexuality, and the newly globalised, open to foreign investment Ireland, beginning to become apparent in our public discourse.

As Diarmaid Ferriter writes in his book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970’s, these signs of ‘increased modernisation, secularisation, Europeanisation and consumerism have to be placed in the context of a republic that…had ultimately created a conservative, authoritarian governing culture, that…created a very wide definition of dissent’. There is in this quotation, a nuanced and useful reading of these two different Irelands in tandem with one another, rather than as divergent. Too often in cultural studies of Ireland, I’m made aware of the phenomenon of the ‘time warp,’ and the ways in which parts of the Irish political landscape seem to be rooted in truisms not from the last century, but the one before that. Ferriter’s take is more subtle than this, thankfully.

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The time warp is a conceptual tool that tries to account for the ways in which Ireland as a state can simultaneously manage to be the beneficiary of an economic boom powered by the development of information technologies on the West coast of the United States while being complicit in the captivity and enslavement of women, to give just one example. As we well know, the capitalist nation state, both historically and in our present moment, is not a static enough concept to abhor contradictions of this kind. It might even be said to thrive on them. It is for this reason that the concept of the time warp is a bit useless, in that it instantiates a notion that we are always moving forward in some way; despite the appearance that some of these ‘kinks’ might give off, they’ll be ironed out in good time. (There’s a well-meaning senator with a report on the matter brewing in some back office on Kildare Street for nigh on half the term of the currently sitting government, and a seventieth of the Dáil might even show up on the day it’s to be discussed, just sit tight.) In order for particular ideologies to function, pockets of our society in which the most vulnerable reside must have their existences subject to relegation or dismissal as time warps, as if artefacts of the nineteenth century have the habit of peskily colonising the twenty-first. This gesture allows us to dispense with aspects of our national identities which might otherwise bring us to a point of contradiction. To take one example, Ireland can simultaneously believe itself to be a nation that is charitable, and LGBT-friendly, while placing many of those fleeing persecution (sometimes for their sexual orientation) in detention centres for an indefinite span of time.

Enright, among other things I’m sure, considers herself a product of this particularly Irish cultural discord, writing rather brilliantly in her work, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, about a particularly divisive time in Irish public life, the eighties, and its role in her attempted suicide, which I will now quote from at length:

I fell out of the world, temporarily, on Easter Monday 1986…Maybe I had Seasonal Affective Disorder, maybe it is genetic, maybe it was me being in my twenties, maybe it was Ireland being in the 1980s.

The older I get the more political I am about depression, or less essentialist — it is not because of who you are, but where you are placed. Ireland broke apart in the eighties, and I sometimes think that the crack happened in my own head. The constitutional row about abortion was a moral civil war that was fought out in people’s homes — including my own — with unfathomable bitterness. The country was screaming at itself about contraception, abortion, and divorce. It was a hideously misogynistic time. Not the best environment for a young woman establishing a sexual identity, you might say, especially one with adolescent morbidity and tendencies towards ecstatic suffusions of light, one who was over-achieving, but somehow in all the wrong ways, one who was both maverick and clever. I mean, what do we need here, a diagram?

…I…wrote some books. They were fragmented books, because this is what I knew best, but also, I fancied, because I lived in an incoherent country. They were slightly surreal, because Ireland was unreal. They dealt with ideas of purity, because the chastity of Irish women was one of the founding myths of the Nation State (well that was my excuse). But they were also full of corpses. Beautiful ones, speaking ones, sexual ones, bitter ones; corpses who did not forgive, or rot. Who was the corpse? It was myself, of course, but also Christ, the dead body on a stick. And it is the past that lies down but will not shut up, the elephant in the national living-room.

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To read these paragraphs, and the other paragraphs in the same chapter (do pick it up, it is so, so good) is to become aware of how irrelevant women’s health and their autonomy was to the Irish establishment of the time. It’s no surprise then, that the Irish literary establishment was mostly suspicious regarding the raft of new wordists who came to a kind of prominence in the late eighties and early nineties, the vanguard of whom was probably Roddy Doyle, though Enright also named Patrick McCabe as a trailblazer. This generation’s early novels weren’t reviewed, and when they were, they were eviscerated. This apparent lack of a domestic audience, or the unwillingness of the tastemakers to cultivate one, required that Irish authors sell themselves abroad, and only then, by commodius vicus of recirculation, return to the domestic market. This route generally led to euphemistic conversations about formal qualities such as ‘lyricism’ and other such words acting as stand-ins for question marks over one’s authenticity.

This is why the cultural exchange’s timing was so opportune, and made, by necessity, Irish authors far more permeable to international influences. They all gained hugely from it, ‘they’ meaning, I assume Enright, Joseph O’Connor and Deirdre Madden.

Donal Donovan and Antoin C. Murphy’s study, The Fall of the Celtic Tiger: Ireland and the Euro Debt Crisis requires us to take a leap forward about by just under two decades and outline the ways in which Ireland’s position changed from a peripheral, insufficiently industrialised state, ‘the poorest of the rich,’ to a contemporary globalised market economy within the framework of the European Union. No Irish citizen who remembers the eighties will be unaware of the effect that this union has had on our general standards of living. I think. I wasn’t alive at the time. But I am interested in what this change from peripheral backwater to post-modern globalised economy has on our self-perception. It is perhaps inevitable that we encounter the time warp once again, albeit in the context of Ireland’s leap into means:

while the ‘catch-up’ paradigm explains part of the story, the speed and extent of Ireland’s transformation was primarily driven by high-tech multinationals, the vanguard of a major worldwide revolution in information technology…in the post-industrial high-tech world, these concepts had started to become anachronistic.

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So too do many governing metaphors of the literary landscape become de-legitimised. The matter of literary influence in particular, becomes increasingly knotty in a global marketplace. Brian Dillon writes in the London Review of Books that if there is a modernist resurgence in Irish literature today, it is less a return, than a demonstration of the extent to which authors today can draw from any number of traditions, even experimental ones. As such, it is less important to talk about the new modernists because they’re Irish, but what this literary self-identification signifies. Not all of this is voluntary, of course; just being a female novelist in Ireland has a profound political resonance, as anyone familiar with the career of Edna O’Brien will know.

The Irish free State made clear its suspicion regarding modernism and modern art in general, by introducing film censorship in 1923. The first Irish review of Ulysses was also blocked by the printer of The Dublin Magazine, forcing its author, Con Levanthal, to set up a one-off journal, Klaxon. The Catholic Truth Society took an active role in Ireland’s cultural life over the next few decades by stymieing the dissemination of anything perceived as indecent, modern, or Protestant. Those of the literary world reacted to this with outrage, as these bans generally effected avant-garde works rather than pornographic ones, but their objections never translated into popular political support. David Dickson, in Dublin: The Making of a Capital City,points out that this emphasis on censorship can ignore the extent to which musical and theatrical forms often thrived, but for the most part, Dublin was a place to leave in favour of other urban capitals, where one was more likely to obtain a patron, public or private.

This policy didn’t make for good neighbours, of course. As Eavan Boland wrote, ‘No two establishments in this community regard one another with more suspicion than those of the Arts and the State.’ This was due to the fact that the Free State’s scepticism regarding modernism extended, to the arts in general. The Arts Council existed, in name only, up until its role was formalised in the late seventies. Up until then, it provided cheques to artists on a hand to mouth basis, had no women on its board and had no particular remit or code of behaviour. Public funding for the arts was also about 30% less than in the United Kingdom.

Related to this, (I know I’m moving around a lot, but it’ll come good in the end), Garret FitzGerald’s analysis of Ireland joining the EU was as follows:

Our independence was won for us just in time to enable most of Ireland to enter to European Community as one of Europe’s ancient nations, rejoining once again the Europe from which for so many centuries she was cut off by the imposition of British rule. We shall negotiate our entry as a sovereign state…the voice of Ireland will be heard in Europe in the decades ahead. But for the sacrifices of those who won our freedom, none of this could have been. We have the right to believe that they will feel as they view this prospect that their sacrifices were not all in vain.

Despite the gloss that FitzGerald puts on Ireland’s joining the union as in a continuity of Irish independence movements, Ferriter argues that Ireland joined primarily because England was joining. The dominant understanding of Ireland’s membership is one of economic, social and cultural gain; lucrative agricultural grants, social justice legislation, worker protections, consumer and environmental regulation, all have their origins in EU initiatives. In a cultural sense however, it can be seen an inducing another form of peripherality, relative to the wider continent, rather than to England. Ireland is, after all, a relatively small state in a union driven by larger nations. Joe Lee has argued that joining the union has had the effect of encouraging our leaders to continue to apportion blame for their failures to external factors, rather than scrutinising and reforming our own industries and regulatory frameworks. The playwright Brian Friel viewed the Irish state around this time as a ‘tenth-rate image of America’ and indeed, there seemed to be little to distinguish the Ireland open to multi-national capital and foreign direct investment, a consumer-driven economy in the post-modern sense, from any other Western city.

Works from Enright’s oeuvre such as The Portable Virgin, The Wig my Father Wore and The Forgotten Waltz, all fit rather nicely within this interpretation, and inventively engage with the conversation between traditional mainstays of Irish identity and the post-modern market economy which had grown up around them, which made the old certainties complicit, as much as it ‘unsettled’ them.

I’ll talk about the ending of the short short story ‘The Portable Virgin’ because it seems to encapsulate a lot of what I’m talking about:

I am sitting on Dollymount Strand going through Mary’s handbag, using her little mirror, applying her ‘Wine Rose and Gentlelight Colourize Powder Shadow Trio’, her Plumsilk lipstick, her Venetian Brocade blusher and her Tearproof (thank God) mascara.

My revenge looks back at me, out of the mirror. The new fake me looks twice as real as the old. Underneath my clothes my breasts have become blind, my iliac crests mottle and bruise. Strung out between my legs is a triangle of air that pulls away from sex, while my hands clutch. It used to be the other way around.

I root through the bag, looking for a past. At the bottom, discoloured by Wine Rose and Gentlelight, I find a small, portable Virgin. She is made of transparent plastic, except for her cloak, which is coloured blue. ‘A present from Lourdes’ is written on the globe at her feet, underneath her heel and the serpent. Mary is full of surprises. Her little blue crown is a screw-off top, and her body is filled with holy water, which I drink.

The narrator is having an affair, the ins and outs of which we can never be totally certain -each player’s identities remain fluid throughout the story. Dollymount Strand is a significant enough place to consider sumjex and objex, but when one’s extra-marital activities have been ironically genuflecting before a Judi Dench costume drama, also about infidelity and inappropriately stately furniture, the stakes feel as though they have been heightened. The various accoutrements of contemporary female identity ‘Gentlelight Colourize (note the American zee) Powder Shadow’ are to the fore, and while the tacky symbolic representation of old Ireland has been discoloured by the errant make-up, it’s still there. At least until it’s sent surging out to sea at the end. Enright, being a sophisticated as well as an intellectual novelist, doesn’t foreground this sort of thing, that is to say, it doesn’t place demands on the reader as such, it never gets in the way of the fun.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, with its profound sense of formal dislocation, and an origin point within the economically depressed, culturally stifled Ireland of the 1980’s, is another important node of discussion here; McBride has encouraged such analyses by making reference to it as a sort of a refracted autobiography. But while tracing over the wrecked and bloodied sockets of a fragmented subjectivity, it also aims to revivify the cornerstones of the institutionalised modernisms as practiced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. No part of the novel makes this point clearer than the novel’s beginning, because it is its beginning, and uncompromising off the bat:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

Not as much to ‘play’ with as Enright might give us, shorter sentences, shorter words, less things, but more baggage, meaning this, of course, in the best possible way. What we have is a swift and deep immersion into the materiality of language, all the rhymes, assonances, repetition and rhythm of which it’s capable, which, in an increasingly bland literary marketplace, is revolutionary. After having read The Lesser Bohemians, and Claire Lowdon’s review of the two of them, I’m slightly loathe to praise it without clarifiers, but I do think there is a lot that it is good in its incorporation of the elements familiar to the Irish misery memoir within a high modernist register. Because misery is for life, not just for the realists.

I hope it will be clear from all this that contemporary modernists draw on a history of formal experimentation, regarded with suspicion by the Irish state with a view to challenging the received wisdom of its theocratic tendencies, marginalisation and violent oppression of women.

John McGahern’s ‘Creatures of the Earth’

10.4.03. Foxfield, Mohill, County Leitrim, Ireland. JOHN McGAHERN writer at his home. ©Photo by Derek Speirs
10.4.03. Foxfield, Mohill, County Leitrim, Ireland. JOHN McGAHERN writer at his home. ©Photo by Derek Speirs

John McGahern’s ‘Creatures of the Earth’ is in many ways a typical McGahern short story. It represents a family, touched by tragedy in rural Ireland (albeit off the mainland in Achill), it touches on the darker aspects of human behaviour and the prose remains quiet and unfancy throughout. It even contains a quotation from Jane Austen that might serve as a thesis statement for McGahern’s oeuvre in general. So what is it that distinguishes it from the other short stories in the collection, also entitled Creatures of the Earth? Not a whole lot, either thematically or technically, apart from the title, and it is this, and how it relates to the larger work, that I will now explore in depth.

The text introduces the Waldron family in the aftermath of Mr Waldron’s death. Mr Waldron worked in a hospital, and finds that once he falls ill, his colleagues about town begin to shun him: “They work with sick people and they are not ill. They are outside and above all that. They loom like gods in the eyes of these poor creatures. Now that I am sick I am simply no longer a part of the necessary lie that works. I have to be shut out.”

Here we have the first instance in which the word ‘creature’ is used in the narrative, in the almost endearing sense of ‘poor creature,’ in such a way that acknowledges their fallibility, for the amalgamation of social snobbery and anxiety about their own deaths that motivates them. Of course, these ‘creatures,’ are not the only ones that appear in the short story, we also have the far more abiding creature, the cat Fats, who waits out Mr Waldron’s illness at the foot of his bed. The other creature, in the conventional sense of the term, is Tommy McHugh’s border collie. Both animals are black and white. This seems important. Eileen Waldron, making use of the now empty house for her work, begins to avoid local character Tommy McHugh, as seeing the dog under his neglectful and cruel ownership distresses her, in much the same way that the hospital staff avoided Mr Waldron once he fell ill. Albeit of course, for completely different reasons.

At one point, Eileen recalls a local doctor named Doorley, who, believing in the healing powers of tar, tarred his children once a year. All of them grew up to be ‘disturbed,’ the narration (the word ‘narrator’ seems to imply a greater degree of agency than one can detect in one of McGahern’s texts) informs us. Two have committed suicide.

McGahern’s attention to detail regarding the foibles of human behaviour and to implicitly link these two manifestations of it, almost as if there was a case to be made for their similarity, is what allows him to credibly advance larger, almost cosmic truths in conjunction with the ‘mere’ pastoral realism. The spoonful of pessimism helps the medicine go down too, of course.

The cruelty of people remains a strong fixture in ‘Creatures of the Earth,’ two drifters abduct Fats on a whim and drown her. Tommy McHugh later casually mentions the fact that he threw the border collie off a cliff.

It’s a testament to McGahern’s vitality and consistency of tone as a writer that interpreting him can sometimes feel like over-reading, but there must be something to the persistence of the black and white. One could think of it as McGahern’s version of Ted Hughes’ view of the natural world, which reveres animals for their animalit-ness; their apparent simplicity. The cat’s instincts, which incline her to trust people, doesn’t lead her to suspect danger until its too late.

The final paragraph, in which Tommy ominously declares that Eileen is ‘on her effing way out,’ to the ‘absent collie’ offers us this interpretation, it is a peculiar being indeed that can conjure up a prosthesis for an animal they themselves killed in order that they may serve as a sympathetic auditor to justify their own mad theories about another person. It also returns us to the petty behaviour of the medical staff: (“he declared to the absent collie in a voice that sang out that they alone among the creatures of the earth would never have to go that way,”) each and all engaged in a perpetual denial of their own deaths.

The title, at first glance, is a very forensic, apparently objective one, but there is an implication of community in it too, the community of the earth’s inhabitants, at least together and of a part, even if so much of their actions towards the earth, and its other creatures, are destructive. Like the good doctor Waldron of course, there is a sympathy present there too.