The suffering Irish

What will Erin's literary artists write about now that their motherland has found its pot of gold?


Daniel Reitz
August 31, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless, loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years." Thus wrote Frank McCourt in his bestselling memoir "Angela's Ashes." Well before that book went on to sell millions of copies and win the Pulitzer Prize, it was a foregone conclusion that, as McCourt asserted, "nothing can compare," either qualitatively or quantitatively, to the unique brand of woe known as Irish suffering. It has long been accepted that the Irish have cornered the market on misery.

Having read McCourt's book and steeped myself in the rich tradition of 20th century Irish literature from John Millington Synge to James Joyce to Edna O'Brien and beyond, I was taken aback by the high life I saw in Dublin when I visited there last winter. The city seemed so sharply opposed to its representation in literature, even to the way it's portrayed in much of recent Irish fiction. The joint was positively jumping -- you could almost mistake it for certain sections of New York or London. (To me, nothing signifies yuppiedom more than fussy cappuccino bars, and I was surprised at how many of those I saw.) What I witnessed is the Ireland of today: confident, with a flush economy and newfound wealth. The Young Turks cruising the Temple Bar district on their cell phones, driving Jags and pumping the city's co-op markets into the stratosphere are light-years away from the traditional image of Irish men and women as the downtrodden victims of British imperialism. Granted, this was Dublin, not Limerick. But the same held true for the less "sophisticated" cities I visited, like Cork and Galway. Modernity had come home to roost all over Ireland, bringing a new can-do image to brush up against the old, put-upon one. Ireland is now a land of players.

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Nevertheless, the classic image of Irish suffering persists, supported by a solid basis in history. The Irish have suffered, as few other peoples have, from famine, civil war and occupation. You could even say that pain is the Irish way of life. They don't really need a reason to suffer, but they do have an explanation for why so many of them endure it: God. For Irish Catholics -- the fold that brought forth James Joyce, Edna O'Brien and Frank McCourt -- suffering has always been presented as something offered up to God, a sort of insurance policy to increase your likelihood of getting into heaven. Naturally, Irish Catholic writers, no matter how lapsed, have worked this notion into their art, and for good reason: It's great material, even when an artist chooses to reject it. Joyce bridled at the way his countrymen made a religious fetish out of pain; for him, the ultimate act of betrayal and self-preservation, both artistic and psychological, was to leave.

Add being female to the mix, and you have Edna O'Brien. As McCourt wrote, traditionally the Irish woman has been seen as both pious and defeated; very little challenged that image until O'Brien began (scandalously) producing her novels in the early 1960s. The women in her "The Country Girls Trilogy" heard the siren call of the city, shook off the fetters of their Catholic girlhoods and went wandering. O'Brien saw her first nine works banned in her homeland -- the price she, as the dominant Irish female novelist of her time, paid for bucking accepted notions of Irish womanhood. No longer was the typical Irish literary heroine a woman like Pegeen, keening over the loss of her Playboy of the Western World by "pulling her shawl over her head and breaking out into wild lamentations," as Synge described her. But the lives of O'Brien's women characters were filled with a new kind of suffering, the loneliness and isolation that came with defying their Catholic roots. Kate and Baba, the central figures in O'Brien's trilogy, were creatures with an overtly sexual makeup, prepping for the pains of freedom.

The Kates and Babas in O'Brien's fiction have given birth to the likes of Nuala O'Faolain, author of the 1998 memoir "Are You Somebody: An Accidental Memoir of A Dublin Woman" and representative of the new Ireland -- a high-profile, well-educated, widely-traveled career women with assorted lovers, no children and a life in the city (usually London, certainly nothing less than Dublin). A journalist and TV producer, O'Faolain frames her book as the portrait of a young feminist, and she give us a sign of what the literature of a sleek, successful Ireland might be like. The vision is strangely dispiriting.

O'Faolain's story carries the reader through the last three decades of painful growth, from her early traumas trying to avoid pregnancy and getting sidetracked by a series of emotionally (and sometimes physically) violent affairs with men (with time out for a lesbian interlude)until the '90s, when O'Faolain discovers the joy and freedom of living alone, in her own house of splendid isolation (to borrow from a title of one of O'Brien's works). Yet after O'Brien's naked, wounded explorations of the female psyche, O'Faolain's personal story of New Age transcendence, while perhaps just the thing for today's Oprah Book Club audience, seems flat. Perhaps self-empowerment just doesn't have the resonance of artfully drawn pain.

Not that the new Irish writing is entirely free from pain. Now, however it's a thoroughly modern form of suffering -- the kind of contemporary distress that can afflict anyone, anywhere. Flip through some recent Irish novels and you'll find the trials that afflict all humanity: domestic violence ("The Woman Who Walked Into Doors" by Roddy Doyle); fraternal loss ("Waiting for the Healer" by Eamonn Sweeney); sexual trauma ("Breakfast on Pluto" by Patrick McCabe); existential angst ("Crowe's Requiem" by Mike McCormack). These books present wrenching dilemmas but not ones that are particularly Irish. You're much more likely to read about chemical depression and alcoholism than abortion or living through a civil war. This isn't to say that these writers have neglected the tensions that arise when the new pushes up against the old. In "The Dead School," a recent novel by McCabe, a teacher who once considered joining the priesthood is riled by the new attitudes overtaking the forbidding provincial Catholic culture he has always cherished and considered the bedrock of his life. He sees himself, and the old Ireland that was his solace, being dragged into a future he's terrified by -- the future that I saw for myself when I was in Ireland.

The well-dressed Dublin yuppies hanging out at the trendy film centers and restaurants make it clear that they have no time for the old troubles. The Catholic church, the British occupation, the IRA, poverty -- all the old sources of suffering have begun to fade, and national misery is becoming increasingly outmoded. The next generation of Irish writers will have to turn their attention to the problems that arise from inside the minds and hearts of a people who are now among the winners on this planet. Connoisseurs of the old style of misery must turn to the Albanians or the Serbs, depending on the events of any recent week. There seems to be no more Ireland for the Irish to escape from.

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Daniel Reitz

Daniel Reitz, a frequent contributor to Salon, is a writer living in New York. His film "Urbania," based on his play, "Urban Folk Tales," will be released in August.

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