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Introduction: Literature, History, Society and the Arts

Introduction : Littérature, histoire, société et arts
Maryvonne Boisseau et Pauline Collombier-Lakeman

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1In May 2010, at its annual congress held at Charles de Gaulle University, Lille 3, the French Association for English Studies, the SAES (Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur), explored the broad notion of the horizon, using it to re-approach some of the traditional research issues that mark Anglophone studies in France. One of the many ways of exploring this theme, as outlined in the conference framework document, was to see the horizon as precisely representing the anticipation of the future together with an exhortation to answer a call to follow a certain direction that naturally heads forward. The paradox of a never-ending progression towards an unreachable line of horizon with the acute perception of its limits were inevitably underlined in the framework as constituting common experience. The papers in this collection entitled Beyond the Horizon? Re-imagining Ireland, elaborate on the facets of this experience in all its paradoxical dimensions pertaining to the fields of arts, history, literature and social sciences.

2Hence nothing is more familiar than the horizon. Used as a concept in art and geography, it is primarily a metaphor for spatial limits. The horizon line is a fiction, an invention and mental construction dependent on the viewer’s perception and the manner in which (s)he creates a specific perspective, which may vary according to his or her position. It stands as a circular limit to the gaze, and yet is unstable, constantly shifting. It can never be reached or passed. As a result, it is prone to be redefined at any moment. Both ahead and behind, the horizon line bounds an uncertain space while it may also figure a line separating before and after. Thus perceived from the viewer’s pivotal standpoint, the horizon line may represent the past and indelible memories or it may symbolise expectations, dreams and hopes for change – even ideals that cannot be reached. In other words, the horizon line blurs the viewer’s perception of space and time and casts doubt on both point of view and vision of past as well as future events.

3It is not unreasonable to suggest that the issues mentioned above intersect with the traditional topoi of Irish literary and cultural criticism, historiography and sociological research. Literary discourse has always been concerned with creation and re-interpretation, weaving together stage representation with the telling of stories, and poetry with the imaginative and narrative recreation of myths and history. The writing of Irish history in its divergent versions – nationalist, revisionist, neo-nationalist and neo-revisionist – has been constantly called into question by new readings of archives, discoveries of new material, the challenge of recent political events and the transformation of Irish society as a whole. The intricate links between literature and history, so specific to Ireland, contribute to the shifting of familiar horizons and to the destruction and reconstruction of time-worn myths.

4These preoccupations are reflected in the diversity of the papers presented in this volume including practical debates such as those concerning education and economic schemes. Two main themes run through all the articles – the omnipresent question of the transmission of a literary and cultural heritage and the weight of history and claim for freedom in the political choices to be made in order to anticipate, provoke but also accompany the evolution of society.

5It could be argued that these issues have long been discussed in the scholarly discourse and research on Ireland. As early as the nineteenth century, concerns about the necessity of keeping alive the Irish past and heritage were expressed by Irish nationalists and revivalists in an attempt to lead the Irish people to define their own distinct political and cultural identity. Young Irelander Thomas Davis for instance voiced such concern with regard to a number of domains like visual arts, literature, music, the Irish tongue, and even monuments and records which, he feared, could be lost:

  • 1 Arthur Griffith (ed.), Thomas Davis: The Thinker and Teacher, The Essence of his Writin (...)

Yet mechanical civilisation, more cruel than time, is trying to exterminate them, and, therefore, it becomes us all who do not wish to lose the heritage of centuries, nor to feel ourselves living among nameless ruins, when we might have an ancestral home – it becomes us all who love learning, poetry, or music, or are curious of human progress, to aid in or originate a series of efforts to save all that remains of the past.1

6More recently, in the collection of essays edited under the title History and Memory in Modern Ireland (2001), historian Ian McBride underlined how heritage, memory and commemorations have been instrumental in the construction of Ireland as a modern nation and are still pervasive issues today:

  • 2 Ian McBride (ed.), History and Memory in Modern Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Pres (...)

In Ireland, perhaps more than in other cultures, collective groups have […] expressed their values and assumptions through their representations of the past. There is no evidence, moreover, that this preoccupation is abating; if anything, questions of collective memory and commemoration have assumed a new prominence in recent years. One novel source of disquiet is the exponential growth of the heritage industry, which threatens to reduce the historical landscape to a series of free-floating tourist attractions.2

  • 3 In the humanities, for example, David C. Harvey, “National identities and the politics of anc (...)

7Publications in the past few years testify to this on-going interest in the question of the transmission of heritage and conflict between history, memory and freedom3. This is where the diverse papers collected in this volume come in for they extend the scope of research on the subject by shedding new light on already well-researched topics (Seamus Heaney, Irish nationalism, 20th century Irish economic and educational policies) and exploring less extensively studied matters (playwrights Denis Johnston and Michael Foley, Circa art magazine).

8In Irish literature, narratives, characters, poems and even critical views deeply rooted in history have been part and parcel of a tradition attempting to renew set forms, genres and discourse in order to shape or rather re-shape the literary canons and the expectations of readers and audiences. The playwrights and poets examined in this collection (Denis Johnston, Michael West and Seamus Heaney) are good examples of how Irish writers have played with multiple sources of inspiration, experimenting with boundaries so as to avoid being trapped by both codified ways and traditions. For instance, with his play A Bride for the Unicorn (1933) Denis Johnston tried to upset the audience’s expectations at a time when Irish drama was overwhelmed by nationalist ideology and realism. Drawing his inspiration from Eastern authors and artists like August Strindberg, Bertold Brecht and Fritz Lang, Johnston wrote the play not only to describe the quest for identity of the main character – Jay – but also to introduce a new aesthetic discourse onto the Irish stage and familiarise Irish theatre-goers with new horizons in drama. Foley by Michael West is a far more recent play as it dates back only to 2000, but it deals with the same broad topic – the search for identity. Intertextuality and metatextuality are at the core of the play since it echoes works by Irish and British authors such as John Millington Synge, Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel, Dermot Bolger, Frank McGuiness, Harold Pinter, Steven Berkoff and Jim Cartwright. While the text may be read as a palimpsest, the play acts as a sort of communication channel between past and present, present and future, thus contributing to shaping and renewing literary horizons by interpreting and questioning the idea of heritage. The many intertextual references challenge the linear interpretation of literature. And indeed, in literature and specifically in drama, there is no horizon line per se, but the symbolic boundaries of a theatre stage or of a page. Looking beyond in order to grasp an elusive meaning is the ultimate goal of the writer and the hope of the reader or spectator. As a converted Catholic but also the last child and heir of an Anglo-Irish Protestant family, Foley is caught between two identities that he struggles to reconcile, and as a result, the play can be read and viewed to a large extent as a “metaphysical quest”, a questioning of Anglo-Irish myths as well as “a mental journey into the past and an exploration of memories.” The stage on which Foley evolves as well as the text of the play itself can be seen as the bounded spaces in which the story of Foley unfolds; “Foley tramps the Irish landscape” just as the words of the play find their way into the maze of his past, present and possible future. As a result, the stage and the text combined come to represent his mindscape, while symbolising his dramatic identity as a character who cannot escape his fate.

9Identity, heritage and the possibility of invention are three topics the medieval tale Buile Suibhne and its contemporary version Sweeney Astray called into question. Buile Suibhne was first transmitted orally, then in writing with its multiple transcriptions, versions and translations ranging from the monks of the Middle Ages to contemporary Irish writers. In most of them, the tale tells the story of King Suibhne (or Sweeney in anglicised versions), a pagan king from Ulster who opposed the rise of Catholic power and was cursed by Saint Ronan Finn to wander aimlessly in the shape of an owl from tree to tree. The life of Sweeney is imagined and re-imagined and Sweeney himself, as a character, is built and re-built. Irish poet Seamus Heaney expressed a particular interest in the story and its character and produced three different translations of Buile Suibhne in 1972, 1983 and 1992, the last two of which were published under the respective titles Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish (Field Day Publications, Derry) and Sweeney’s Flight (Faber and Faber, London). Comparing one of the original versions of Buile Suibhne to the three translations reveals how Heaney, both as poet and translator, has been caught between the careful rendering of a founding text in order to preserve a “community’s heritage” and the inevitable creative urge which, as an artist, the poet-translator was faced with.

10Seamus Heaney’s critical essays also highlight his constant desire to look beyond the borders of his native land for inspiration. Eastern European poets such as Czeslaw Milosz, Miroslav Holub and Joseph Brodsky have clearly had a significant influence on Heaney’s critical views regarding literature and poetry. Their circumstances together with their works probably triggered a new vision of the political role of the poet (not entirely foreign to the role of the fili in ancient Ireland), and his or her central position in society. The unfamiliar sounds of their language also modified Heaney’s poetic rhythms and critical imagination. In other words, encounters with these foreign poets led Heaney to “broaden his critical horizon” upsetting the literary and cultural expectations of his readers in Ireland and abroad.

11Alongside literature, scholarly perspectives on art, history, social sciences and, more broadly speaking, Irish studies, have been constantly shifting and their horizons broadened thanks to new lines of questioning and challenging research. What came to be called “revisionism” from the 1950s onwards, and more recently, since the 1990s, the new approaches adopted by both neo-nationalist and neo-revisionist historians have greatly contributed to broadening the scope of our understanding and of our perception of Ireland’s past. Individual initiatives have also played an important part in the process. The art magazine Circa, for instance, created in 1981, was rather successful at implementing a policy seeking to look beyond the borders of Ireland so as to establish various dialogues between the arts and cultures of Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and Great Britain, and also of Ireland and other countries in the world. Without dismissing national concerns and preoccupations, Circa attempted to introduce its readers to new and even avant-garde theories, helped promote new art forms such as photography or comics and contributed to the circulation of new developments in the arts elsewhere in the world. More than ever before, Irish readers could be informed about what has become a global art scene with its influence on the critical discourse on art in Ireland. Thus by integrating new art forms and discourses into the magazine, the editors of Circa widely disseminated new ideas and initiated connections with other countries, expressing their belief in a fresh and renewed vision of Irish identity: “the evolution of this magazine testifies to Ireland’s growing openness to foreign influences and its desire to be on a par with other European countries in terms of artistic endeavours.”

  • 4 Arthur Griffith (ed.), Thomas Davis: The Thinker and Teacher, op. cit., 136.

12This is not to overlook the importance of those earlier art works, which, although hardly avant-garde in outlook, nonetheless had already dealt with the issues of Irish identity and history and showed how artists could manipulate visual symbols in order to represent the nation’s fate and dreams. It is the case of some of the cartoons published by John Fergus O’Hea, John Dooley Reigh and Thomas Fitzpatrick in the Irish nationalist press (Weekly Freeman and United Ireland) in support of Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party’s campaign for Home Rule between the early 1880s and the early 1890s. Although well-known characters and symbols related to this crucial period of Irish history tend to appear in the foreground of the cartoons, backgrounds and horizon lines cannot be overlooked for they include rather well-defined details which serve a double purpose: they illustrate the ups and of Ireland’s political life at the time and they represent the political hopes and expectations of the Irish people. One ideal pursued at the time by Parnell and his followers was of course Home Rule for Ireland and it is clear that Irish cartoonists and the Irish nationalist press were instrumental in keeping the aspirations of the Irish population high, suggesting that Home Rule for Ireland was not a mere flickering hope but a pending reality and a dream within reach. In other words, O’Hea, Reigh and Fitzpatrick played the part imagined for them by Young Irelander Thomas Davis: “The service which art could give us by representing Ireland’s history would be enormous. It would put before us the thorny hand and cruel acts of the oppressor […] hurry the doubting to the battlefield it pictured, and inflame the heart of the fearless patriot with a gladdening prophecy.”4

13Ireland has since then experienced other defining moments, notably, the 1960s, when under the leadership of Seán Lemass, it witnessed a period of accrued economic growth and great social change. This contrasted sharply with the economic depression, unemployment and emigration that had blighted the 1950s, and enabled the country to catch up with Western Europe. In the 1960s Ireland was faced with various political choices during the debates prior to and surrounding the general elections of 1965: a social-democratic project supported by Fine Gael and Labour in favour of more state intervention to guarantee a better redistribution of wealth and growth in society or a more corporatist approach, promoted by Fianna Fail and focused on the development of the economy and of productivity. Ireland chose the latter, giving up social democratic ideals. More recently in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ireland experienced an unprecedented economic boom that turned it into a “Celtic Tiger” and transformed it from a nation of emigrants into a land faced with the responsibility of welcoming thousands of new immigrants.

  • 5 Intercultural Guidelines for Schools, Dublin: INTO, 2002.
  • 6 Neil Haran and Roland Tormey, Celebrating Difference, Promoting Equality: Towards a Framework (...)
  • 7 Guidelines on Traveller Education in Primary Schools (2002) or Intercultural Education in th (...)

14As a consequence of immigration, new educational choices have also had to be made in order to accommodate the new situation in primary schools particularly as they had to deal with children coming from non-Irish backgrounds. As a response to pressure exerted by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation5 and suggestions made by scholars from Mary Immaculate College, Limerick6, official instructions7 have encouraged these schools to treat ethnic, religious, cultural minorities with more respect and to promote values such as tolerance and multiculturalism. However field surveys reveal that primary schools and their teachers often lack clear instructions on how to take better account of ethnic and cultural diversity and promote interculturalism. The lack of guidelines actually allows some forms of racism to emerge overshadowing the horizon line of multi-ethnic education.

15The metaphor of the horizon may seem mundane enough, but the avenues opened by the various papers collected in this volume testify to the sustained interest in traditional and new Irish issues. It is remarkable that drama, poetry, new critical discourse and historiography should dominate the contemporary scene, questioning thereby the psychological consequences – individually and collectively – of the changes occurring in Ireland. The past still weighs heavily on the new fabric of Irish society and the challenges of the modern era – democratisation, decolonisation, and lately globalisation – still have to be met. This will happen in due course if enough attention is given to the new unsettling voices of literature and history and if politicians, in the broad sense of the word, try and define new horizons.

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1 Arthur Griffith (ed.), Thomas Davis: The Thinker and Teacher, The Essence of his Writings in Prose and Poetry, Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son, 1918, 34.

2 Ian McBride (ed.), History and Memory in Modern Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 3-4.

3 In the humanities, for example, David C. Harvey, “National identities and the politics of ancient heritage: continuity and change at ancient monuments in Britain and Ireland c. 1675-1850,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 28:4 (2003): 471-87; Elene Negussie, “What is worth conserving in the urban environment? Temporal shifts in cultural attitudes towards the built heritage in Ireland,” Irish Geography, 37 (2004): 202-222; Mark McCarthy (ed.), Ireland’s Heritages: Critical Perspectives on Memory and Identity, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005; Patrick J. Duffy, Exploring the History and Heritage of Irish Landscape, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007. In culture and literature, for example, Michael Parker, Northern Irish Literature 1956-1975: the Imprint of History, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; Sean J. Connolly, “Old English, New English and Ancient Irish: Swift and the Irish Past,” in Claude Julien Rawson (ed.), Politics and Literature in the Age of Swift: English and Irish Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; Emilie Pine, The Politics of Irish Memory: Performing Remembrance in Contemporary Irish Culture, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

4 Arthur Griffith (ed.), Thomas Davis: The Thinker and Teacher, op. cit., 136.

5 Intercultural Guidelines for Schools, Dublin: INTO, 2002.

6 Neil Haran and Roland Tormey, Celebrating Difference, Promoting Equality: Towards a Framework for Intercultural Education in Irish Classrooms, Limerick: Celebrating Difference Project, 2002; Dana Doherty et al., Celebrating Difference, Promoting Equality: Intercultural Education in the Irish Primary Classroom, Limerick: Celebrating Difference Project, 2002.

7 Guidelines on Traveller Education in Primary Schools (2002) or Intercultural Education in the Primary School: Guidelines for Schools (2005).

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Maryvonne Boisseau et Pauline Collombier-Lakeman, « Introduction: Literature, History, Society and the Arts »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XII-n° 4 | 2014, mis en ligne le 13 juin 2014, consulté le 05 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Maryvonne Boisseau

Université de Strasbourg, France. Maryvonne Boisseau, professeur, responsable de l’équipe de recherche « Fonctionnements discursifs et traduction », au sein de l’EA 1339, Linguistique, langues, parole, enseigne la linguistique et la traduction à l’Université de Strasbourg. Depuis de nombreuses années, elle s’intéresse à l’Irlande, tout particulièrement à la poésie et à la problématique de la traduction en Irlande, s’attachant à l’œuvre de poètes-traducteurs. Elle a notamment publié nombre d’articles sur Derek Mahon, poète et traducteur.

Pauline Collombier-Lakeman

Maître de Conférences au département d’études anglaises et nord-américaines de l’université de Strasbourg et membre du groupe de recherches SEARCH (EA 2325), Pauline Collombier-Lakeman a soutenu en décembre 2007 une thèse intitulée « Le discours des leaders du nationalisme constitutionnel irlandais sur l’autonomie de l’Irlande : utopies politiques et mythes identitaires » à l’université de Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3. Son travail de recherche porte sur le nationalisme irlandais modéré au XIXe siècle et au début du XXe siècle et, plus particulièrement, sur la relation entre Irlande et Empire.

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