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Book Review : In the Thick of an Irish Brouhaha

September 24, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

We Irish, Essays on Irish Literature and Society by Denis Donoghue (Knopf: $18.95)

When I was a college student trying to earn money on the side, I was once sent to do some housework for my history professor, a man noted for the spaciousness and idealism of his lectures. While washing the windows, I became aware that, even as I was letting in more light, the professor and his wife were engaged in a murky argument.

Wandering through Denis Donoghue's endearingly disheveled collection of pieces about what might be called his home life--the condition of being Irish--you find yourself in the thick of a family quarrel. Donoghue, pleasantly flushed, is flinging the dishes with the best of them.

Mostly, it is Yeats he is flinging them at. "Great hatred, little room"--the man so pre-empted Irish literature that he even gave a name to the trouble he was to cause his successors. Not, in this case, the "great hatred." Donoghue is that unusual scholar/critic whose brilliance altogether fails to hide his sunniness; and a sympathetic lucidity plagues not only his wit but his anger. Certainly, though, the "little room."

"We Irish" collects a number of Donoghue's essays and reviews dealing with Irish writers, written over the past 20 years or so and mostly published in American, British or Irish periodicals. He has excluded some purely political pieces, but--as he writes at one point--"The themes of Irish literature are few; if we list childhood, isolation, religion and politics we come nearly to the end of them."

'An Appropriate Voice'

So politics runs through the book despite his admission that "I find it hard to maintain an appropriate voice when political issues are in question." Precisely; and it is the occasionally wavering tone in this assured, almost Apollonian writer, that gives the collection a considerable part of its charm.

Yeats' decree that to be Irish is to share a special mentality, and his attempt to define this mentality as a rejection of the chain of materialist English philosophy running from Bacon through Newton and down to Russell, is the centerpiece of the title essay and of its companion, "Romantic Ireland."

Here, as elsewhere, Donoghue can be scathing about Yeats' high-flown assertiveness. ("High-horse" the author calls it; Yeats certainly uses the word "high" past the point of affectation.) "Rage kept him going where reasonableness would have brought him down."

How, he asks, are the contemporary Irish supposed to observe the poet's adjuration to "climb to that proper dark"? Of course, in the North, they may be doing it anyway. What relevance does the cult of Oisin, or the Idealist philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Benedetto Croce have to the warring communities of Ulster?

Hint of Betrayal

The question of Irish "essence" has brought out a lot of inflated foolishness, Donoghue believes. But he is not entirely with those modern Irish writers, from Joyce through Thomas Kinsella, Seamus Deane and, in some ways, Seamus Heaney, who deny the question or may seem to evade or temper it. An extreme of skepticism or pragmatism in the peculiar context of Irish history--a history that, unfortunately, is still alive--distorts reality almost as much as Yeats' windiness does. Also, it has a hint of betrayal to it, Donoghue holds.

"Romantic Ireland," the author concludes his essay of that title, "is a set of values espoused, promoted, bought and sold in the marketplace, subjected to an adversary rhetoric from Joyce to Austin Clarke, endlessly deconstructed, and yet, even now, not entirely annulled. Sequestered, rather. In law, the state may order a property to be sequestered, removed for a time from the dispute of the parties concerned, so that it may be preserved for a quieter time, a future more hospitable to justice."

Does that seem like too tidy a balance? Like circus parades, Donoghue's literary-political sorties tend to be followed by a man with a brush, cleaning up. After a witty review of a smug history of Dublin's Trinity College, the author will append: "Still, it is a splendid book."

On the other hand, if the parade has been too upbeat, the man may up-end his dustpan. After a sympathetic appraisal of Heaney's lyrical writings about nature, the past, the archeology of custom and the seasons, Donoghue notes that these poems allow a respite from history's vicious cycle. "But they do not guarantee that we will get our politics right, when it comes to the time in which we have to get them right or wrong."

Picks Itself Apart

The burden of Irishness diminishes, reasonably enough, when Donoghue turns to the exiles Joyce and Beckett. He submits some detailed criticism of the new, cleaned-up text of "Ulysses." It is not all that clean, he suggests. Scholarship, like Penelope's web, will never run out of material, since it picks itself apart each night to provide itself new work in the morning.

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