The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Lit Crit Well Writ

The Cambridge History of Irish Literature. Volume I: To 1890. Volume II: 1890-2000. Margaret Kelleher & Philip O'Leary, eds. (Cambridge University Press, 2006. £160.00, €235, $275)

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 20 July 2006

This evidently, CUP tells us, is available only as a two-volume set. It's improbable that a purchaser would be satisfied with only one half of this massive study anyway. Handsomely bound, in a dignified blue that reminded me that this hue was anciently Ireland's traditional national color, and diligently researched and edited (I only caught two typographical errors while exploring some of these 1400 pages), this may be an investment rather than an impulse buy, but one that should reward the owner richly.

I provide at the end from the CUP site a list of contributors and their chapters as a glimpse of their vast range. The 20th century (and a bit of the 21st ) gets its own volume, inevitably as the editors note but justifiably. The scope is appropriately ambitious. O'Leary and Kelleher note in their introduction that while the Field Day Anthologies' five volumes now give us a short shelf of the texts, a correspondingly concise (yet extensive as much as can be contained between two sturdy covers) survey of the literary history and an overview of criticism has been long lacking.

My own interests meant that I wandered through these books searching for my own points of interest. Your grand tour may point you in different directions. The close attention given Irish-language literature is rare and I hazard unprecedented in an English-language publication, and for this the enterprise deserves acclaim. The Field Day's first three volumes were less often perhaps bemoaned for their lack of Irish-language coverage than for their neglect of women contributors and content. But this fault is rectified by the efforts of the creators of CHIL.

I found Gearóid Denvir's entry particularly informative, as he labors to defeat the prejudice against prose in favor of poetry in so much 20th c. criticism. Declan Kiberd, Fintan O'Toole, Máirín Níc Eoin, George O'Brien, Anthony Roche, Andrew Carpenter all may be familiar to students of Irish literature. Their entries keep up an agile expression of original thinking alongside their carefully plotted surveys. Thirty-one essayists offer views that, if at times contentious or cautious, will last for decades as guidance for the next generation of scholars.

The willingness to confront tired tradition propels Donna Wong's iconoclastic entry on the written and the oral tradition. Fittingly serving as the transition ending volume one, it kicks aside facile chronology. Wong presents her arguments with a verve and wit that stands out from many of her more circumspect colleagues in these pages. For all that, given her topic stresses the fluent teller and not merely the fixed tale, her energy meets its perfect match in the diverse old and new narratives that she summons for inspection.

Resistance to easy classification also distinguishes, among others, Bríona Nic Dhiarmada's chapter that responds to that of Máirín Níc Eoin earlier in the second volume. The former questions the notion even of an identifiably consistent and homogenous 'Irish-language culture', and both authors present their opinions interspersed with running commentary on an extensive number of texts that probably only a handful of people in the world might know in such depth and breadth. Adding to the effectiveness of many entries is the fact that the authors were able to consult each other's drafts or proofs- so I deduce, although this cross-border cooperation is not directly acknowledged by the editors. Thus a conversation among, along with a compilation by, scholars is documented for us to 'listen' to as we read. This is what you pay for, I suppose, when obtaining these books, and at a cost considerably less than any enrollment in a university class or summer seminar taught by one of the prominent contributors.

The Field Day tendency, given its tumultuous dual engendering into three and two, to separate the male from female, the Irish from the English, or the oral from the written tradition is here, also, challenged effectively by Wong and Níc Dhiarmada. Culturally, as Ireland rattles old verities; this freshness enters into these collected ruminations. Many contributors resist a tendency to slip back, in their investigations, into ruts left by past (and some present...a few of whom are named, as Kim McCone is by Wong!) travellers through Irish literary landscapes.

Philip O'Leary and Louis de Paor also characterize the care that the many authors of these volumes bring to their task. I kept thinking, as I read such essays, of texts that the entry-maker seemed to have overlooked in making his or her own case. Invariably, I would read a page or two on to find that very text cited appropriately.

A couple of small criticisms: first, the front TOC contains only a brief list of chapters and authors, similar to that I append below. The more extensive 'guide to major subject areas' with expanded topical chapter sub-headings appears at the back of each volume preceding its index. I realise the logic in giving a small index before a fuller one, but for readers searching for areas more specifically categorized, the TOC would seem a more logical location; a topical list could have immediately followed the compressed and too terse couple of summary TOC pages.

Next, speaking of indices, they are incomplete. Spot-checking authors mentioned in the chapters, I found some included most but not all of the time. At least author remarked upon in a chapter was not indexed at all. By the way, no index for the term 'republicanism'; two entries for 'novels, in Northern Ireland'. Minor complaints mar little the craft that CUP has sponsored. Solid and handsome, these two volumes represent the foremost scholars in their fields condensing decades of their own research and thoughts on dauntingly extensive topics with efficiency and expertise.

These two volumes are compact enough to hold and carry, but hefty in content and generous in value, for what they offer both in price and print. This CHIL is worth saving up for. At the cost of what a couple of stuffed bagfuls of paperbacks from the airport vendor would provide in mysteries or celebrity bios or diet manuals, the CHIL gives nourishing sustenance amidst a junk-food menu of bestsellers. Its audience may be less than the latest thriller, but the CHIL should outlast thousands of titles from ephemeral backlists.

Table of Contents

Volume I: Chronology; Introduction; 1. The literature of medieval Ireland to c. 800: St Patrick to the Vikings, Tomás Ó Cathasaigh; 2. The literature of medieval Ireland, 800-1200: from the Vikings to the Normans, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh; 3. The literature of later medieval Ireland, 1200- 1600: from the Normans to the Tudors, A: Poetry, Marc Caball; B: Prose literature, Kaarina Hollo; 4. Literature in English, 1550-1690: from the Elizabethan settlement to the Battle of the Boyne, Anne Fogarty; 5. Literature in Irish, c.1550-1690: from the Elizabethan settlement to the Battle of the Boyne, Mícheál Mac Craith; 6. Prose in English, 1690-1800: from the Williamite wars to the Act of Union, Ian Campbell Ross; 7. Poetry in English, 1690-1800: from the Williamite wars to the Act of Union, Andrew Carpenter; 8. Literature in Irish, 1690-1800: from the Williamite wars to the Act of Union, Neil Buttimer; 9. Theatre in Ireland, 1690-1800: from the Williamite wars to the Act of Union, Christopher Morash; 10. Irish Romanticism: 1800-1830, Claire Connolly; 11. Prose writing and drama in English, 1830-1890: from Catholic emancipation to the fall of Parnell, Margaret Kelleher; 12. Poetry in English, 1830-1890: from Catholic emancipation to the fall of Parnell, Matthew Campbell; 13. Literature in Irish, 1800- 1890: from the Act of Union to the Gaelic League, Gearóid Denvir; 14. Historical writings, 1690-1890 Clare O'Halloran; 15. Literature and the oral tradition, Donna Wong.

Volume II: Introduction, Margaret Kelleher and Philip O'Leary; 1. Literature and politics, Declan Kiberd; 2. The Irish Renaissance, 1890-1940: poetry in English, Patrick Crotty; 3. The Irish Renaissance, 1890-1940: prose in English John Wilson Foster; 4. The Irish Renaissance, 1890- 1940: drama in English, Adrian Frazier; 5. The Irish Renaissance, 1890-1940: literature in Irish, Philip O'Leary; 6. Contemporary prose and drama in Irish: 1940-2000, Máirín Nic Eoin; 7. Contemporary poetry in Irish: 1940-2000, Louis de Paor; 8. Contemporary poetry in English: 1940-2000, Dillon Johnston and Guinn Batten; 9. Contemporary prose in English: 1940-2000, George O'Brien; 10. Contemporary drama in English: 1940-2000, Anthony Roche; 11. Cinema and Irish literature, Kevin Rockett; 12. Literary historiography, 1890-2000, Colin Graham; 13. Afterwords: A: Irish-language literature in the new millennium, Bríona Nic Dhiarmada; B: Irish literature in English in the new millennium, Fintan O'Toole.


Tomás Ó Cathasaigh, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Marc Caball, Kaarina Hollo, Anne Fogarty, Mícheál Mac Craith, Ian Campbell Ross, Andrew Carpenter, Neil Buttimer, Christopher Morash, Claire Connolly, Margaret Kelleher, Matthew Campbell, Gearóid Denvir, Clare O'Halloran, Donna Wong, Declan Kiberd, Patrick Crotty, John Wilson Foster, Adrian Frazier, Philip O'Leary, Máirín Nic Eoin, Louis de Paor, Dillon Johnston, Guinn Batten, George O'Brien, Anthony Roche, Kevin Rockett, Colin Graham, Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, Fintan O'Toole.













Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
- Frank Zappa

Index: Current Articles

25 July 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Religious Rednecks of Doom
Dr John Coulter

Cut-Throat Politics
John Kennedy

A Poem About Our Children
Mary La Rosa

Israeli Blitzkrieg
Anthony McIntyre

When Leaders Serve Foreign Interests, Everyone Loses
Mazin Qumsiyeh

By Their Friends You Shall Know Them
Mick Hall

Mission Impossible
Anthony McIntyre

Lit Crit Well Writ
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Revisiting A Literary Genius
David Adams

'The Film That Shakes A Lot More Than the Barley'
Eamon Sweeney

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Conclusion
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Additional Information
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Letter of Thanks
Michael McKevitt

Pull the Other One
John Kennedy

Ex-Noraid Boss Still Gloomy on Peace Process
Jim Dee

An Honour to Have Been Part of the Blanket Protest
Anthony McIntyre

The Letters page has been updated.

19 July 2006

Dupe Process
Anthony McIntyre

Heatwave Won't Affect Cold Storage
Dr John Coulter

Hanson's Handouts
John Kennedy

Israeli State Terror
Anthony McIntyre

Judgement Day
John Kennedy

Israel, US and the New Orientalism
M. Shahid Alam

The Right, the Need to Resist
Mick Hall

An Invitation to My Neighborhood
Fred A Wilcox

Prison Fast

Death Brings Fr Faul
Anthony McIntyre

Risking the Death of Volunteers is Not the IRA Way
Brendan Hughes

Principles and Tactics
Liam O Ruairc

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Preliminary Hearings Cont'd.
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Rupert's Reward
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Rupert's Inconsistencies
Marcella Sands

Blast from the Past
John Kennedy

An Elegant End
Seaghán Ó Murchú

West Belfast - The Past, the Present and the Future
Davy Carlin



The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices