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Margaret Kelleher & Philip O’Leary, eds. The Cambridge History of Irish Literature

Alexandra POULAIN
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Margaret KELLEHER & Philip O’LEARY, eds. The Cambridge History of Irish Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2006, 1286 pp., 2 vol., €275, ISBN 0521822246

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1The colossal new opus in the Cambridge Literary History series, The Cambridge History of Irish Literature, edited by Margaret Kelleher and Philip O’Leary, fills an obvious gap in the field of Irish literary historiography. The two volumes are remarkable by the sheer scope of the ground they cover (Irish literature from the works of St Patrick and early monastic literature to the present day), and by the consistent quality of the scholarship they offer in each of the twenty-two chapters and two “afterwords” of the work. However, the truly innovative aspect of this history of Irish literature is that it deals with writing both in English and in Irish (although always in separate chapters); it thus provides a very different perspective from earlier, less ambitiously comprehensive accounts of Irish literature, which had tended to focus either on the English-language canon, such as Seamus Deane’s classic Short History of Irish Literature (1986), or on Irish writing in Irish. The call for a change in the practises of Irish studies goes back to the 1970s, when a few radical intellectuals started to question the “partitionist mentality” which prevailed in Irish universities and divided the Anglo-Irish tradition from the Gaelic, thus keeping “writers in quarantine”; however, institutional resistance to change has been such that the actual confrontation of the two traditions is still a fairly recent preoccupation. Deane himself, as chief editor of the first three volumes of the momentous Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991), was no small contributor to the constitution of a canon of Irish writing in English and Irish, and Kelleher and O’Leary envisage their History of Irish Literature as a companion-piece to the Anthology, arguing that “the Field Day Anthology has created the anomalous situation in which Ireland now has a chronologically organised literary canon but no literary history in light of which to think about it.” (1) The present History of Irish Literature really covers less ground than the Field Day Anthology, which includes material other than literary (such as political speeches); on the other hand, it strives to enlarge the literary canon delineated by Field Day, and introduces less-known figures alongside the already canonical, working from an inclusive definition of what constitutes an Irish writer: “Our primary criterion for inclusion has been that Ireland were born on the island of Ireland or spent a significant and formative period of their lives there.” (4)

2Volume I covers the period from early medieval literature to 1890, at the eve of the Irish Renaissance. A constant preoccupation throughout the History is the emergence and evolution of representations of Irish identity, a concern which emerges already in the first three chapters, devoted to medieval literature. In chapter 1, “The literature of medieval Ireland to c. 800”, Tomás Ó’Casasaigh reads the Old Irish linguistic tract Auraicept na n-Éces as a claim that “Irish identity, and the unity of the Irish people, derives from the Irish language.” (21) In the “Poetry” section of chapter 3 (“Later medieval Ireland, 1200-1600), Marc Caball convincingly argues that “a sense of Irish national consciousness is evident in the poetry” of the period, whereby political fragmentation, due to the “mosaic-like network of Gaelic lordships” (85), is transcended by a sense of cultural unity, inclusive of both the Gaelic Irish and gaelicised Old English communities (throughout the two volumes quotations in Irish are followed by their translations into English). In her account of English literature in the post-Reformation period (chapter 4, 1550-1690), Anne Fogarty shows how the Reformation reinforced negative stereotypes about the Irish, and analyses the various discursive strategies displayed by the New English colonists to legitimate conquest and construct the Irish Other. In a companion chapter devoted to literature in Irish over the same period, Mícheál Mac Craith gives a fascinating account of the influence of the printing revolution on literary practises, and of the influence of the exiled Irish Franciscans in Louvain. Chapters 6 to 9 cover the 18th century, dealing respectively with prose and poetry in English, literature in Irish and theatre; the latter chapter, signed by Chris Morash, combines an analysis of the strategies used on stage to subvert stage Irish stereotypes (based on a discussion of Joep Leerssen’s concept of the “counter-stage Irishman’, which Morash traces back to the character of Roebuck in Farquhar’s Love and a Bottle), with a detailed account of the evolution of stagecraft and scenery technology and of its repercussions on dramatic form. Chapters 10 to 13 deal with the 19th century, starting with Claire Connolly’s convincing attempt to define a specifically Irish romanticism, as distinct from British romanticism (a more extant discussion of other European influences might have been a welcome addition). Of particular interest is Matthew Campbell’s section devoted to poetry in English (chapter 12), which offers extensive quotations from well-known as well as less well-known poems, and a succession of illuminating close readings. The last two chapters of volume I enlarge the traditional conception of “literature” as they offer discussions of “historical writings” (Clare O’Halloran) and the interaction between “literature and the oral tradition” (Donna Wong).

3Volume II opens with Declan Kiberd’s bravura overview of “literature and politics” in which he revisits his familiar themes, showing that the history of Irish literature subverts such antitheses as tradition vs. modernity, bourgeois vs. bohemia, post-imperial vs. post-colonial. The chapter also scrutinizes the evolving relationship between Irish artists and the power-structure, from the time of the Gaelic filí to the creation of Aosdán. The periodisation of the rest of the volume distinguishes between only two historical moments: the Irish Renaissance (1890-1940) and the “contemporary” era (from 1940 onwards). As a result, chapters 2 to 5, concerned with the former period, do not insulate the “Revival” of the 1890’s and early 1900’s, but offer dialectic accounts of the revival and counter-revival movements in poetry, prose and drama in English, and in literature in Irish. The next cluster of chapters about “contemporary” literature opens with Máirín nic Eoin’s fascinating section on “contemporary prose and drama in Irish’, emphasizing generic and stylistic innovation and attempts at breaking away from tradition in Irish-language novels, such as Mairtin O’Cadhain’s serialised Cré na Cille (1949). All the chapters devoted to the “contemporary” period are faced with the challenge of dealing with sixty years of intense and diversified literary output within some forty to fifty pages at the most, which makes for some rather frustratingly short discussions of such giants as Beckett or McGahern, though the choice of inclusiveness rather than exhaustiveness was no doubt judicious in the context of the present work. Kevin Rockett bravely attempts to construct a narrative of “Cinema and Irish Literature” (chapter 11), but his given field of study (cinematographic adaptations of Irish literary works) may be at once too specific and too disparate to make for a convincingly homogeneous object (or perhaps it needs to be theorized into one, which the format of the present History of literature does not allow). Colin Graham’s closing discussion of “Literary historiography, 1890-2000” (chapter 12) offers a thrilling survey of Ireland’s attempts at constructing and interpreting its own literary canon since the Revival, thereby inscribing the present work within a larger historical continuum. Bríona Nic Dhiarmada’s afterword on “Irish-language literature in the new millenium” rebounds on Éilís Ní Duiibhne’s question, “Why would anyone write in Irish?’, and provides a nuanced and optimistic discussion of the present state and perspectives of Irish-language literary creation, while Fintan O’Toole parallel paper on “English language literature in the new millenium” asks whether the partial normalisation of the conflict in Northern Ireland will eventually enable Ireland to come to terms with its ghosts and “create a sense that the past is no longer contained in a continuous present” (635).

4Both volumes contain an extensive index of authors and topics, several maps and a helpful chronology of historical events. This is a major, ground-breaking work of excellent academic standard, and will no doubt become indispensable to anyone interested in Irish studies.

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Alexandra POULAIN, « Margaret Kelleher & Philip O’Leary, eds. The Cambridge History of Irish Literature »E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 4, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 01 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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