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Category: Conference Report

Irish Modernisms: Gaps, Conjectures, Possibilities (The Return)

Writing a conference report is always tricky, usually enjoyable, and never successful. Like a good poem, you might say, it isn’t possible to capture a conference in paraphrase. But it might just be possible to extend it, explore it, and, with sufficient luck and judgement, even add to it. And Irish Modernisms is the kind of conference that deserves to be extended, explored, and added to. It will live on, influencing the approaches and interests of all who attended it and helping shape the next steps in the now settled—perhaps too settled—field of Irish modernism. As co-organiser Paul Fagan suggested in his opening remarks ‘The time has come to cease announcing the rising of a new field […]. It’s time to test a field that is now firmly established. To look for blind spots, gaps, and new openings. To question its canon-formations and its borders’.

Where once Irish modernism could safely be defined entirely through Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett (it was either limited to them or by them), decades of important critical spadework has made it impossible to conceive of Irish modernism as a remnant canon, made up of those left behind (literally and metaphorically) by those who went into European exile. The ‘problem’ of Joyce and Beckett (and in a slightly different way, Yeats) raised its head at various points in the conference. Both were well-represented in the form of papers (Yeats, strangely, not at all) but the question of whether these three are beasts to be slain or boons to be celebrated came up time and again. If we can’t simply section some Irish modernists off from others as we did in the past (we can’t and we shouldn’t try to) then there is a danger in reintroducing these writers too simplistically into a broader narrative of Irish modernism. Not because they don’t belong there, but because this reintroduction risks distorting and overshadowing the work done by those writers who remained—whether proudly, ambivalently, or antagonistically—within the Irish context. They become, all too easily, ‘accompanying artists’, drawn into the teleological aggrandisement of Ireland’s authors of global standing.

This double-bind was by no means the central concern of the conference, but it was a point that begged constantly to be addressed. As Patricia Coughlan put it in the first of two excellent and inspiring keynotes: ‘Ireland has three of the greatest world figures of English-language literature; we need to get over that’. These figures will always, and simply have to, overshadow their contemporaries. Rather than fight against this, we must accept this as a fact and move on to more interesting discussions. For Coughlan, we might begin with someone like Elizabeth Bowen who ‘always seems to be caught in the process of acceptance into the canon of Irish modernism’. The point, she suggested, is to study these writers in the knowledge that ‘even without Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, there would still have been an extraordinary flourishing of Irish modernism’.

Lucy Collins rather proved Coughlan’s point in the second keynote of the conference. There is, Williams showed convincingly, an entire generation or more of women poets who have been largely left out of the history of Irish literature. The point is not simply to place them, unresisting, into the chronology of Irish modernism—indeed, Collins’s cogent criticisms of chronological renderings of this history generated the most unexpected and perhaps most persistent of the conference hashtags, #thwartchron—but to understand the processes by which these poets were sidelined, exempted, and overlooked in the extended moment of Irish canon-formation. Key poets such as Eavan Boland, Collins suggested in response to a question from Michael McAteer, can be forgiven for aligning themselves with a soon to be critically re-discovered Irish Revival, rather than a more recent, but already dismissed body of women poets. Why battle to resurrect failed poets, when you could ride on the wave of resurrection that was already underway? But, now that the canon has been formed, it’s time to reform it, to do what these poets were unable to do in their own lifetimes and fight back against the gendered historical and canonical perspectives that have limited their appreciation. One of the most effective arguments Collins made was simply to display and read extracts from the work of Blanaid Salkeld, Rhoda Coghill, and Sheila Wingfield. The power and quality of the poems on display were a delight and a surprise to me, who, to my shame, had never come across this work before.

Irish Modernisms was packed full of probing, intelligent, and creative panels on, for example, Joyce, Beckett, ‘sensory modernism’, the Irish stage, and the ‘Geography of Modernism’. There were too many standout papers to list them all, but Michael MacAteer’s account of Standish James O’Grady’s marvellously bonkers tale of an Irishman transported through time to 22nd Century Argentina and back should get a mention. As should Daniel Curran’s reading of Thomas MacGreevy’s war poetry as imagistic, even as MacGreevy showed a cultivated disdain towards Pound’s poetics (MacGreevy responded to Pound’s How to Read with the words ‘God help the poor idiot’). Joe Brooker offered a virtuoso reading of Hugh Kenner’s masterful own reading of James Joyce, in which he showed that, time and again, Joyce’s writing obliges critics to write as Joyce. Lloyd Houston didn’t so much present as perform his extremely engaging paper on Synge and Irish discourses of degeneration. Ronan Crowley’s insistence on developing our understanding of the Roman a clef (including Ulysses) as perhaps the defining Irish form of the first half of the twentieth-century was convincing and eye-opening. And Paul Fagan’s analysis of Ireland’s proud history of ‘hoax’ publications—which he traced all the way through to circular and undermining uncertainties of Beckett’s prose—opened a new avenue for Irish modernist studies particularly, as well as, I think, modernist studies generally. All the organisers’ papers were fittingly excellent. I was lucky enough to share a panel with co-organiser John Greaney, who presented a fluent and engaging reading of Elizabeth Bowen’s attempt to negotiate a prose style that could capture the experience of living with Ireland’s traumatic history. I could only admire from an audience berth third co-organiser Tamara Radak’s excellent account of the flamboyant refusal of closure that occurs in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

Indeed, the organisers deserve immense credit for all aspects of the conference planning, presentation, and execution, from the meticulous detail of their pre-conference, emails through to the timetabling of two-hour, schnitzel-filled lunch breaks. Not every conference can or should offer access to schnitzel, but anyone planning to organise a conference in the next five years should take note that I and every other attendee of Irish Modernisms will no longer suffer one-hour lunches in silence.

One last point: if you want to get a fuller, richer, better account of this conference than I have been able to offer here, simply load up Twitter and search ‘#irishmods2016’. While the most recent Joyce Symposium pushed it close, I can’t imagine that any humanities conference has ever been so well tweeted as this. As well as usually cogent summaries and analyses of the papers presented, it is here and only here that you will get anything like a true sense of how intellectually stimulating, amusing, and downright enjoyable Irish Modernisms: Gaps, Conjectures, Possibilities was to attend.


About the author

James Fraser has lectured at Cambridge and the University of East Anglia, and is currently a lecturer in the department of English at the University of Exeter. His first monograph, Joyce and Betrayal, will be published by Palgrave MacMillan this year.

Irish Modernisms: Gaps, Conjectures, Possibilities (University of Vienna, 29th September – 1st October)

Irish writers made diversely vital contributions to literary modernism, to an extent arguably disproportionate to the country’s size and population. A few – Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, especially – have been central to the modern literary canon. The new modernist studies since the 1990s has tended to provide more historically detailed and archivally evidenced readings of these central figures, while space has also been found for hitherto less regarded artists. Networks of publishing and activity have also been under consideration, and the relation between the overlapping concepts ‘Irish Modernism’ and ‘The Irish Revival’ has been rethought, mainly resulting in greater overlap.


The conference on Irish Modernisms held at the University of Vienna this Autumn set out to increase the attention on the previously overlooked and to bring marginal figures and issues to the centre, filling some of the ‘gaps’ in its title. The call for papers cited the Cambridge Companion to Irish Modernism (2014) as a starting point while encouraging work on ‘marginal modernisms and previously neglected genres, forms, and sites of publication or expression’; the conference would be ‘dedicated to testing the borders of Irish Modernism’. This project might be called revisionist, if that term were not already so overloaded with freight in Irish Studies. In the event, numerous papers dealt with well-established names – though in one decentring development, none directly addressed the figure seemingly most central to the whole epoch, W.B. Yeats. This brief report will not seek to cover every paper (strong material on the more canonical writers will go undiscussed below), but rather will note a few elements of the conference in relation to its specific aims of exploring the field’s margins and borders.


In any consideration of canonical ‘gaps’ and absences of attention, questions of gender must figure prominently. The Irish canon of the modernist period is plainly dominated by male writers, raising the question whether this primarily demonstrates a dearth of opportunities for women writers at the time or a failure of critical attention over subsequent decades. No doubt both factors are involved. Some discussion at the conference suggested that women had found access to networks of publishing and publicity easier during the Irish Revival (here meaning, say, the pre-Rising years), and harder subsequently (during the notoriously censorious and restrictive Free State). The middle-class women activists and thespians detailed in Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces (2014) might provide evidence for that view. But much work can still be done to bring into focus the writing of Irish women in the period. One simple way this conference did that was to feature two women as keynote speakers, both of whom focused on women writers. Professor Patricia Coughlan of Cork University spoke on Elizabeth Bowen, perhaps the most canonically settled of all Irish women writers of the period. (Two other papers also addressed Bowen’s fiction.) Professor Coughlan also remained a constant source of knowledge and authoritative perspectives on a range of issues throughout the rest of the conference. In a second keynote address, Lucy Collins of UCD introduced the work of a number of Irish women poets, including Blanaid Salkeld and Sheila Wingfield. Discussion of the poetry was prefaced by an extensive consideration of the nature of canons and periods, and how these more mid-century poets had fallen between the visibility of the Revival at one end of the century and of Eavan Boland at the other.


Lucy Collins’ paper did the most to introduce truly little-known writers. Other papers tended rather to turn a spotlight on writers with some reputation: thus Daniel Curran and Karl O’Hanlon on the poetry of Thomas MacGreevy and Denis Devlin respectively. Fionna Barber, a scholar of art history, brought visual arts more to the fore; the fine Dublin painter Mainie Jellett was an intermittently recurring reference point. The conference seemed to have an appetite for such material, suggesting that comparisons and connections between literature and painting might be a border to test in future. A different tendency was the revelation of obscure works from well-known names. Two examples stood out: Michael McAteer reported on The Queen of the World, a science-fictional time-travelling pot-boiler from the renowned mythographer Standish James O’Grady, and Michael Connerty disclosed the existence of scores of turn-of-the-century comic strips by Jack B. Yeats. A slide show offered examples of the strips, which were an extraordinary spectacle: animal characters including a clever circus horse (a possible connection with Yeats’ better-known paintings of circuses), a venerable flying proto-superhero named Dickie Bird, and the consulting detective Chubb Lock Holmes (which might call to mind Hugh Kenner’s whimsical comparison, in the 1950s, of Sherlock Holmes to W.B. Yeats). Questions remain about the material: did Jack Yeats write the scripts as well as draw the pictures? But Connerty’s material posed the relationship between modernism and mass culture in a spectacularly entertaining new way.


One other theme was an emphasis on networks and institutions rather than individuals. Tobias Harris talked of Dublin magazines of the 1920s, raising questions about the role of printers as well as writers. With characteristic originality and flair, Ronan Crowley introduced the roman a clef as a genre of the Irish Revival, with a long list of novels cutting across seemingly disparate spheres from naturalism to Ulysses and Murphy. And Des Lally, a scholar based in the West of Ireland, reminded us of the importance of Dublin’s Gate Theatre in the 1930s, as a cosmopolitan home for the arts which also sheltered marginal and prohibited sexual identities. It seemed to me that such a paper could point the way to further accounts of places and social spaces that enabled the production and circulation of the modern Irish arts.


Some overarching questions were aired in a closing panel. Should the corpus of ‘Irish modernism’ be extended in time, even all the way forward to Eimear McBride? My own sense is that what academics call ‘modernism’ as a whole has expanded enough by now, and if anything we need ways to keep the category in check. Still, if the corpus of relevant works enlarges to take in lesser-known authors of the era, then in what way are the new works to be read? Would Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ or data mining be a more suitable way to handle such large hoards of textual material? Or do those hitherto neglected authors, like those cited by Lucy Collins, deserve more sustained individual attention? Should we, Paul Fagan wondered aloud, revisit such critical classics as Vivian Mercier’s The Irish Comic Tradition (1962)? And when will George Moore come back into fashion?


From a distance, one might wonder at the conference’s location. Irish Studies may naturally thrive in Ireland, but it has also found homes around the rest of Europe like that of Vienna’s Centre for Irish Studies – fostered notably by the late Professor Werner Huber, who died just months before this conference and was remembered fondly here. It might be true that fully to understand Irish writing, you need to spend time in Ireland. But it could also be that the discussion of such writing is sometimes enhanced by taking it elsewhere, to a kind of neutral territory. Co-organizers Tamara Radak, Paul Fagan and John Greaney can be commended for making Vienna such a place at this conference.


About the Author

Joseph Brooker is Reader in Modern Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. His books include Joyce’s Critics (2004) and Flann O’Brien (2005).



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