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).