Grasping at identity
Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin, writes about 1970s Ireland in his latest book. It was a decade in which the relationship between writers and society underwent "striking alteration".When he published his seminal Ireland: A Social and Cultural History in 1981, literary historian and critic Terence Brown, based in Trinity College Dublin, ended his narrative in 1979, in a chapter covering the 1960s and 1970s, under the headings "Economic revival", "Decades of debate" and "Culture and a Changing Society". He observed that it was widely sensed in these decades that the country was altering in radical ways. Seminars, articles, conferences, journals, magazines and newspapers debated by how much and in what ways, and "the question as to how much Ireland's traditional identity could be retained in the new circumstances was a major preoccupation of social commentators". Those "new circumstances" included the impact of the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, the passing of the revolutionary generation of the early 20th century, membership of the EEC, economic fluctuations, increased urbanisation, 50% of the population under the age of 26, and more robust challenges to powerful institutions, including the Church. The frequency with which the term "crisis of identity" was employed was symptomatic of a Republic in flux, and underlined a degree of ambiguity and disagreement about what constituted progress and modernisation, as well as how change and continuity could be evaluated.
As a result, writers and artists' relationship with Irish society underwent "striking alteration", as rather than focusing on the notion of "indigenous" Irish life, they grappled with a new Irish reality that was "ambiguous, transitional, increasingly urban or suburban, disturbingly at variance with the cultural aspirations of the revolutionaries who had given birth to the state". Undoubtedly, some Irish artists sought to look outward in the 1970s. As recalled by poet Derek Mahon, one of a long line of poets whose career involved literary journalism, one of the aims was "to see Ireland in an international perspective, to lift its drowsy eyelid and disturb it into a sense of relationship and awareness". For him, and other writers, including the five below whose work in many respects defined the decade; the question of "Irishness" did not necessarily require an answer. Mahon suggested in 1974 that "the time is coming fast, if it isn't already here, when the question 'Is so and so really an Irish writer?' will clear a room in seconds. The question is semantic and not important except in so far as the writer himself makes it so." But it was a question that remained, because of the Troubles; poet Seamus Heaney noted, for example, that when he returned from a sabbatical in Berkeley, California, to Northern Ireland, internment had just begun, there was an influx of journalists, "and we were all being interviewed about identity… poetry had then moved from being a sensuous transport to being an intellectual crisis, it involved some sort of stress about politics and content and so on".
Heaney devoted much attention to inheritance, tradition and "memory incubating the spilled blood". Other writers who focused on marginalisation shared this impetus. Playwright Brian Friel was preoccupied with "defining" rather than "pursuing" Irishness and in the Mundy Scheme (1969) and The Gentle Island (1971) questioned the rural idyll and other myths on which independence had been built. He depicted a depopulated island seething with anger and violence and a strident sexuality, while lambasting the materialism of Irish political culture and its Americanisation. When Friel was working on his play Translations in June 1979, dealing with the loss of the Irish language in an increasingly anglicised Ireland in the 19th century and which, it seemed, reverberated with Ireland in the 1970s, he recorded in his diary: "The cultural climate is a dying climate - no longer quickened by its past, about to be plunged overnight into an alien future. The victims in this situation are the transitional generation. The old can retreat into and find immunity in the past. The young require some facility with the new cultural implements. The in-between ages become lost, wandering around in a strange land. Strays."
Novelist John McGahern focused on religion, family, death and sex; it was this mastery of his home hinterland that propelled him to literary greatness. He produced Nightlines in 1970, the Leavetaking in 1975 and The Pornographer in 1979. As well as Leitrim, Dublin and London also featured in his writing, hinterlands that Denis Donoghue suggests were "less suited to his gifts". But there was a sense that his writing, along with that of others like Benedict Kiely and Edna O'Brien, was also speaking to a younger audience about domestic matters like masturbation and exams, the death of parents and young girls determined to discover themselves and their sexuality. McGahern also seemed to be adamant that his work be true to the pressures of life as they were experienced; Derek Hand highlights his use of the line "It happened this way and no other way" in The Leavetaking. McGahern had no interest in dealing with the Troubles in his fiction - "seems strange and foreign to me; it doesn't engage me personally".
John Banville's work was rooted in both Irish and international traditions, but he would not describe himself as an Irish writer ("to think of yourself as part of a movement would be fatal"). Instead, he liked to think of himself as a kind of "internal exile", but Birchwood (1973) was, in his words, "my book about Ireland". At the age of only 27, he already had three impressive novels to his name. Birchwood, beginning with the line "I am therefore I think", delves deep into family secrets, isolation and memory, as the character Gabriel Godkin returns to the family's dilapidated estate. Control and authority, both communal and individual, are central to this novel; "that they are absent says much about the sense of catastrophe in the Ireland of the 1970s". Banville's Doctor Copernicus (1976) was regarded as a robust critique of academic claims to truth. In an interview after the book was published, he insisted, "The past doesn't exist in terms of fact; it only exists in terms of the way we look at it." There was no point, he maintained, in searching for the truth; Copernicus was seen by critics as a template for Ireland's uncomfortable position between tradition and modernity, with the book demonstrating Banville's method of "masking disorder in his aesthetic pursuit of the well made sentence", which "becomes the keynote gesture of his art".
Poet Thomas Kinsella was brooding in the 1970s, but also "loaded with wit"; a touching chronicler of domestic life and love, though, according to critic Catriona Clutterback, "the ferocity of his invective, outrage, even hate, can be startling also" (Butcher's Dozen in 1972, written in response to Bloody Sunday, begins "I went with anger at my heel"). A genuine dissident and stubbornly independent, as the 1970s progressed he grew more preoccupied with "origin and myth". As a teenager, Colm Tóibín, later a renowned novelist, struggled with Kinsella's poems in Notes from the Land of the Dead (1972): "They were filled with mystery, magic, strangeness and obscurity. There was in them a sour music that pushed through the apparent towards some shimmering and unearthly clarity." As Kinsella had seen it in the late 1960s, there was no virtue in the "simple continuity" of a tradition; he felt compelled to "grasp at identity for himself". Such grasping was intrinsic to Irish literary output in the 1970s.
Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s by Diarmaid Ferriter will be published by Profile Books on 1 November. Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin. He has published extensively on 20th century Irish history. His books include The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 ( Profile, 2004), Judging Dev: A Reassessment of the Life and Legacy of Eamon de Valera (Royal Irish Academy, 2007), and Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland ( Profile, 2009)